One of the ancestors of the modern bass guitar is the traditional upright double bass. Classical music has been taking advantage of its rich sounds for generations, and the unique qualities of the acoustic bass are finding their way into rock, pop and plenty of other genres on the modern stage. By taking out the metal frets, a fretless electric bass allows you to play the classic instrument's smooth, sliding notes with the look and feel of a present-day bass guitar.
A great example of this ability is "Boy in the Bubble," where Paul Simon shows off the effect of gliding from one note to another, creating a dynamic and melodious effect that wouldn't be possible with metal frets in the way. It's also a great way for a bassist to challenge him or herself, since the lack of frets makes finger positioning more important to getting the right sound—a sound that, with the strings contacting wood instead of metal, has a warmer, richer character than a fretted bass.
Naturally, many of the choices you'll make in choosing a fretless electric bass are the same ones you would with a fretted instrument. Body material is the standout example, with options including the outstanding harmonies of ash, technical talents of basswood or the warmth and smoothness of mahogany, among others. Also important are the bass' pickups, using either a passive design for classic vintage sound or active pickups for clarity and brightness.
If you're an ambitious player, you'll be glad to know that the fretless bass also comes in five-string varieties. This style was popularized by Fender in the 60s and uses an extra string to expand the range of the bass. With a fretless 5-string bass, you can take advantage of that added voice together with the potential of the smooth fingerboard to develop your own amazing techniques to play your best solos yet.
Whatever the combination of tonewood, pickups and design, the fretless electric bass is a powerful addition to any band's sound. By taking the smooth fingerboard of its orchestral ancestor and combining it with the easy-to-handle layout of today's bass guitar, this instrument opens up new possibilities for novice and experienced bassists alike.