Why do violins have no frets?

February 3, 2016 at 08:17 PM · I've been asked this question by many people, varying from strangers to my own mother, but while I can think of some answers, I actually don't know if there is a proper reason!

So, does anybody know why violins (and violas and cellos and double basses) have no frets?

Replies (73)

February 3, 2016 at 09:23 PM · The renaissance/baroque Viol and Gamba are fretted.

February 3, 2016 at 09:39 PM · A fretted bowed note would have the raw sound of the open string; and subtle adjustments of intonation and timbre would be difficult.

February 3, 2016 at 09:52 PM · Physical frets make a stringed instrument behave like a piano in terms of intonation...where the half-steps are forced into a single size. Depending on what music you play, that may or may not be beneficial.

February 3, 2016 at 10:11 PM · On the renaissance/baroque viol, gamba and lute, and some other more exotic instruments, the frets are tied on (they're plain gut), so their position may be adjusted to the player's requirements. The pitch of a fretted note may be sharpened by moving the playing finger sideways, or by pressing down hard very close up behind the fret (much the lesser option in my opinion), so a subtle upwards-only adjustment of intonation is easily achievable. Timbre can be controlled by choosing where the string is plucked, just like the position of the bow on the string when playing the violin.

February 4, 2016 at 12:07 AM · Right, the frets were of the same material as the strings, and the player mounted and adjusted them. Still the lutes and viols were tending towards equal temperament, since the frets went straight across the neck. So for example G to G# and D to Eb were the same interval, as the same fret produced the change. I recall one of the 17th century violin instruction books suggests players put frets on their violins-- I think the author was a gamba player.

Incidentally, a guitarist using gut or nylon strings can both sharpen and flatten notes, by squeezing the string toward or away from the bridge-- that is, the length isn't changed but the tension is. That's how classical guitarists do vibrato.

February 4, 2016 at 01:33 AM · When Antonio Stradavarius was building his early violins, he was very stressed about being able to make his monthly quota. His wife consoled him and said "Don't fret, dear....."

He thought she was giving him design feedback.

The rest is history...

February 4, 2016 at 02:42 AM · haha Seraphim! That's so bad it's good!

February 4, 2016 at 03:08 AM · I find it quite interesting. I saw this stick on frets thing:

http://www.frettedfiddle.com

I bought some wondering if I could work on playing jazz chords and put them on a junk violin. I had preconceptions about a fretted violin - that each note would be like an open string, that glissandos would not work etc. To my surprise it doesn't change much. I noticed that it's still the finger that is stopping the note rather than the fret - you can still gliss and even play out of tune.

I have had a number of mature students who would benefit from frets. Is it a shortcut? Yes, but is that so bad for hobbyist musicians? Is it worth saving years of practice to get the note in tune? I think for a lot of people yes. The majority of players are amateurs after all. Why not have the option to make the instrument more accessible?

A lot of less talented young players could also benefit from this. The visual chromatic layout of the notes is also a very good teaching aid and a good way to conceptualize the fingerboard.

I would be interested to try a properly fretted instrument rather than just the sticker. There are a number of fretted electric violins and I understand that the frets function differently in some cases - sometimes you play behind the fret or some instruments you play on the fret. Somebody could have good intonation but find frets useful in a loud band situation where monitoring falls short. Playing with equal temperament instruments might be another area of application.

There is also a moulded fingerboard with invisible frets built in that you can have fitted to your violin.

Would I use frets? I think they could be good for exploring chords but aside from that I admit to pride! Pride in my intonation and maybe fear of the misunderstanding that I need frets - people pointing and laughing and all that!! Of course, outside of the classical world most people wouldn't even notice or just assume that violins have them. Also, I find them a bit weird under the fingers - I've come this far without them... But for the beginner - maybe the beginner who is realistic about time constraints and priorities - they are a great idea. I have no idea why the option is not more widely available.

February 4, 2016 at 03:47 AM · Still, on the evolution of the viol into violin and so forth, were and why along the way they decided frets were a no-go?

February 4, 2016 at 03:53 AM · Notice how crappy vibrato is on a guitar?

February 4, 2016 at 03:59 AM · Paul, the pronounced vibrato we use wasn't popular until the Romantic era; violins were already 200+ years old.

February 4, 2016 at 04:11 AM · Actually there is written evidence of vibrato on string instruments from the 1500's. Mozart's father, Leopold wrote a treatise on violin playing in which he complained at one point that many vibrate so much that you'd think they had a palsy.

Also, the violin evolved more directly from the rebec which is fretless, than the viol or gamba which is fretted.

February 4, 2016 at 03:03 PM · Something you might want to study is scale temperament. The frets on a guitar and the tuning of a piano represent a compromise in note spacing.

The beauty of a violin is that the player is free to choose the temperament of the played scale. The violinist can create harmonic progressions and chords that are much more pleasing than anything one can do with a guitar or piano.

There have been multiple discussions on this forum about this, so a forum search on the topic can be quite educational.

February 4, 2016 at 05:07 PM · I am not sure there is a "why", really.

Intonation and temperament is unlikely to be the answer, because early violins played alongside viol-family instruments for centuries (not to mention woodwinds) which had fixed temperament.

Shifting is unlikely to be the answer as it was basically an optional activity in playing the violin until you get quite close to 1700. Vibrato is even less likely to be the issue - not that it didn't exist but broad, frequent vibrato wasn't considered desirable (let alone necessary!)

I would hazard a guess that early violins (at least the treble ones) were physically quite small. As a result there was a relatively high risk of the string hitting unstopped frets, creating unpleasant sound.

February 4, 2016 at 05:10 PM · Mandolin was my first instrument and in my opinion frets would take up a lot of the small surface of the fingerboard of a violin and really just get in the way. The violin is much more expressive.

February 4, 2016 at 05:52 PM · I'd love a fingerboard with a decorative inlay that also serves as a smooth "fret" system. Kind of what I see on some professional double basses.

February 4, 2016 at 08:47 PM · Why bother with an inlaid decorative fret in the first place?

We use our hand and ear to play in tune. Even a purely visual marking would be nothing more than an expensive, time-consuming-to-make crutch that wouldn't guide one in good intonation anyway.

And we couldn't slide.

The better question is, why do guitarists need frets? Can't YOU guys learn to play in tune without them?

February 4, 2016 at 10:14 PM · Why do guitarists need frets? Try playing a Bach fugue on violin pizzicato, and with all the voices fully sustained, and you'll probably see the answer.

What I want to know is, why do pianists need all those keys?

February 4, 2016 at 10:59 PM · You can slide, you can play vibrato. I too had these assumptions and was surprised to find I was wrong.

I'm convinced that if violins had frets all along that the violin repertoire would be much more sophisticated in terms of harmony and chords.

There are fretless guitars Scott but they are not very popular obviously.

Pat Metheny playing fretless:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SDI2p9VOKks

February 4, 2016 at 11:01 PM · Here is a guide to violin frets by the Electric Violin Shop:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DoqKSS1_9Ps

February 4, 2016 at 11:04 PM · You can do slides on a fretted instrument; I do it when playing mandolin. It has a somewhat different sound from a violin, but it's a useful effect nonetheless.

Fretted and fretless instruments each have their advantages and disadvantages; being able to choose one or the other is one of the things that makes music so richly varied.

February 4, 2016 at 11:13 PM · I agree. I never really understand why only in the violin world do players think that only one type of instrument has the right to exist. It's bananas!

February 5, 2016 at 12:25 AM · "There are fretless guitars Scott but they are not very popular obviously."

Yes, guitarists are slackers who lack the discipline and focus of us stood violinists...

February 5, 2016 at 12:56 AM · At this point I'm starting to think Seraphim Protos' account is the best answer, just it would have been Amati not Stradivarius who was told not to fret it. ;)

February 5, 2016 at 04:55 AM · Amati was involved in a different historical event.

He had just finished up his latest model violin, the glue on the neck was just setting up, when fat old uncle Luigi sat on the instrument! The neck angle was now all wrong, very flat.

"Oh, Mama Mia! Whatta we gonna do?"

"Let's just a sella it like it is..." Chimed in his wife.

"But a uncle Luigi, he a baroke it..." Replied Amati in his thick accent.

"OK, then we a simply sell it like a that; a Baroque violin" his very practical wife retorted.

Believe it or not.

February 5, 2016 at 07:47 AM · There still exist bowed string instruments that don't even boast a fingerboard, e.g. the Erhu and Qintong. I suspect that these were in existence long, long ago.

http://www.atlasensemble.nl/assets/files/instruments/Erhu/Erhu%20by%20Samuel%20Wong%20Shengmiao.pdf

Apparently these can produce sounds that are heartrending, wailing, and expressive.

We fiddlers should think ourselves lucky that the inventor of the Rebec, a precursor of the violin, preferred to follow the example of the Arab Rabab, which does seem to have a fingerboard. We might have been lumbered without a fingerboard - and been for ever adrift without a paddle.

Without frets we can still get that wailing sound. Aren't we lucky !!

February 5, 2016 at 12:24 PM · Some years ago a Chinese doctoral student at Bristol Uni joined my chamber orchestra for a couple of years as a violinist (a very good one, too). At one rehearsal he brought along both his erhu and violin, and spent an extended coffee break in playing the erhu to us. We were all mightily impressed and entranced.

February 5, 2016 at 02:57 PM · "Yes, guitarists are slackers who lack the discipline and focus of us stood violinists... "

Scott, I get your joke but I think you raise an interesting question: Is music more beautiful, moving, creative and inspiring if it is harder to execute?

Would the violin benefit from having fretted instruments that amateurs could learn to play quickly. I think so looking at the popularity of the guitar. I think the fretted players would admire the fretless players (which would not become extinct I'm sure). I think that despite our years of practice to play in tune most people have no idea what playing a fretless instrument involves. Playing in tune is a technical/mechanical aspect of playing an instrument and the practice we have to put in does keep us from the creative stuff. You may think (joking I know) guitarists are slackers but they are way ahead of violinists on harmony generally speaking.

So here is a question: If frets do not stop you from glissandos, vibrato and portamento (which is the case in my experience) and in a blind test you could not tell the difference, wouldn't someone somewhere benefit (not every violinist to come) or is this really an all or nothing situation?

February 5, 2016 at 04:29 PM · How are guitarists "way ahead" on harmony? We play every kind of finger-twisting chord.

Inlaid markers would be the same crutch that tapes are, and would present problems for dressing the fingerboard.

Metal raised frets would considerably change the nature of the instrument. A portamento would sound much different,with the discrete steps being heard. Vibrato would have to sound different. The subtle tempering of intervals that we subconsciously do would be impossible.

Any makers reading this? You guys now want to start learning to place frets with the required mathematical precision? String lengths would all have to be the same, and the bridge position couldn't be altered. Only factories would make them and probably not luthiers.

Beginners learning this way would likely be unable to transition and give up in frustration when faced with a fret less fingerboard. And if they did continue on their fretted VSO, they would never be able to produce the uniquely expressive qualities of a fretless instrument, the very sounds that inspired them to want to play the violin in the first place.

Digital auto-everything photography, driverless cars, microwave breakfast sandwiches--where does it end? Motorized scooters for people who didn't have time to train for the marathon?

Even the disk clavier pianos that play themselves utterly mystify me. Whatever is the point?Must we democrititize and eliminate the challenges for everything? In a couple of generations, humans will have no skills whatsoever.

February 5, 2016 at 04:40 PM · I'll have to agree with regarding using fretted violin for beginners.

I played with my friend's guitar for the first time, I was very confused by the fact that my fingers go in between the frets rather than on the fret.

I could never get used to the guitar because of the fret, I'd see the similar problem if I were to switch from fret to no fret

February 5, 2016 at 04:46 PM · I understand there are fretted violins that have frets that you play on and behind. Also some that are low profile just as a guide. If you have played for years without frets then they do feel awkward. I'm sure it would be different for a beginner.

February 5, 2016 at 07:24 PM · My 9-year-old daughter, who has been playing the cello for four years, got an electric bass for Christmas. Actually it's just a loaner from my brother so that we can see how it goes. We made it easy on her: It's fretless and short scale. (It's a Fender Mustang with the frets removed.) We're working on "Killer Joe" (with me on piano). Plucking the strings with her right hand is harder than stopping the notes with her left. She was able to adapt to the stringing in fourths and the positions of the notes pretty easily. Because the fret slots are filled, they're a different color which is kind of like having tapes on your violin.

The modern player piano, Scott, is what one would call a quaint novelty. That description should be sufficient to explain its popularity.

February 5, 2016 at 07:24 PM ·

February 6, 2016 at 03:07 AM · Scott. I think it's obvious that guitarists are ahead on harmony. Yes we play a few chords awkwardly but really, you try playing jazz chords on the violin. That was my reason for experimenting with frets as I'm a jazz player and want to understand harmony on my instruments layout.

I don't really see it as a dumbing down - lets face it only a very few people will actually use them. It's not something I plan to use apart from for my own chord work but I have a couple of mature students with busy lives who would appreciate saving a few years. Don't feel threatened - people may look at you in awe even more for playing fretless!!

I can't speak for every fretted violin but I don't know how many times I have to say that (on at least the fingerboard I've tried) it doesn't really affect anything. You do not hear the discreet steps - you can slide and I would defy you to hear a difference. You can even play quarter tones.

I really think this and every other criticism of deviation is based in fear of losing something traditional and precious. I'm not saying it's better or should replace fretless fingerboards, just that everything has its place.

Should I make a video?

February 6, 2016 at 02:19 PM · Can't guitars play more varied chords because there are more strings and because more can be plucked/strummed simultaneously, including strings that are physically far apart? And it's more difficult for a violin to play a bass line along with a treble melody than it is for a guitar.

I also wonder if the tuning of guitar strings may make some chords easier. My impression is also that guitarists are more willing to tune to non-standard tunings. Although fiddle players do that at times, it doesn't seem nearly as common to me. The non-standard tunings on a violin, though, do make it easier to play certain chords (and probably harder to play others).

But the disadvantage to frets, as I see it, is that fretted instruments always seem to be subtly out of tune. I don't play guitar myself, but my husband does -- and he is a stickler for being in tune. But.... when he plays, some of his notes seem out of tune to me. When I'm off on pitch on the violin, it's not the violin's fault. I could, theoretically, get that note in tune by a slight move. But on the guitar, he's kind of stuck because of the frets. Well, he could bend the note into tune, but that's kind of another step. And I suspect it's not that easy or he'd do it.

I also wonder if the short scale length of the violin fingerboard would make it even harder to get the fret in the right place -- and the frets might have to be a lot thinner to get the pitches exactly right. I know it's accomplished on mandolins, but I wonder if the tolerance for sloppiness of pitch is a lot higher on mandolin because it's a plucked instrument. The note is always going to be out of tune anyway because the string is either bent out of position or trying to find its way back, but the actual length of the note is fairly short so the pitch variance isn't noticeable.

February 6, 2016 at 02:23 PM · Also, I think Jeff (above) was right about the frets taking up a lot of room on a mandolin. I just find it a lot easier to play the notes on a violin than I do on a mandolin, particularly when I move out of first position. The frets seem bulky.

I started on mandolin, btw, so it's not because I was more used to the violin when I tried the mandolin.

February 7, 2016 at 05:36 AM · I started guitar around 10 years old and violin at 22. I play pretty decent lead guitar for certain genres, and I know all the chords, except them crazy jazz chords. but I really don't care about guitar. I've been obsessed with the violin since I started. Frets on a violin...ridiculous is the only word I can think of.

but to me, violin the is pinnacle of all instruments. or can I say the Queen of instruments, as King sounds much to crass to describe something of such breathtaking beauty. just look at it. the curves and symmetry, contrasted by the straight line of the neck. and the sound that emanates from this magnificent little wooden thing... words fail me.

It is a magical, mystical instrument beyond compare, perfect just the way it is. don't put frets on it.

February 7, 2016 at 07:53 AM · I'm quite curious how violinists would adapt to a viper.

February 7, 2016 at 11:37 AM · sure, there's a place for EV's. I've got an old barcus berry, action is a bit lower than average and it plays really fast and easy, even without frets. it's very thin sounding unplugged, but that translates into a very good sound amplified, and I can put it thru any effects system I wanted.

but imho, you can't compare a viper to a fine acoustic instrument. well, you could compare it, but why?

February 7, 2016 at 06:04 PM · > We use our hand and ear to play in tune

No, we use our vision, touch, and hearing to play in tune.

If you wait until you hear something is out of tune to adjust, then your audience will hear that you play out of tune. Using your other two available senses to provide some support to ensure that the next note you play is going to be in tune is just an effective use of information, not an extremist approach where one only uses a single sense to solve a problem.

February 7, 2016 at 07:15 PM · It's because Viper is the only fretted bowed instrument I can think of, which goes up to the higher positions on the fingerboard.

February 7, 2016 at 07:51 PM · well, trying not to be argumentative.... but ask a concert soloist if he/she has any problem going up in the stratosphere. heck, I'm comfortable in the 5/ 6th position, and I'm just a blues hacker.

I don't think frets for the higher positions is a good enough trade off for frets in the lower positions.

btw, do you have a viper?

February 7, 2016 at 08:13 PM · fret spacing on a 4/4 violin would be reasonable enough for one octave starting with an open string. The first fret from the nut would be just under 20mm.

By the time one reaches starts the third octave, the fret spacing would be around 5mm and decrease rapidly from there.

February 7, 2016 at 10:35 PM · Vocal cords don't have frets either, yet some people manage to accomplish some fairly musical and communicative things with them. ;-)

Would they be improved by having frets?

February 8, 2016 at 12:24 AM · I remmember seeing a couple of great videos on YouTube of Jimmy Page playing extended solos with a bow on his electric guitar. I think one might have been Moby Dick but I could be wrong as its been a couple of years since I have watched them. They are surprisingly different and wonder if he was the first musician to bow a guitar.

February 8, 2016 at 10:04 PM · Ok, so in response to this discussion I made a video to show how a fretted violin works for slides etc.

https://youtu.be/OA9c2GTn0h4

February 8, 2016 at 10:53 PM · Ooh frets and a Gusetto violin. How exotic! :)

Thanks for the video, Christopher!

February 8, 2016 at 10:59 PM · My third cornerless instrument!

February 9, 2016 at 02:06 AM · There's nothing wrong with frets-however, it's just not a violin with them (you'd have to call it "fretted violin" at the very least.)

Really, this isn't like fretless electric bass vs "normal" bass-while both are viable, and still essentially both a bass. Frets are not just there to make playing easier. It's ok to prefer one over another, etc. But in the violin's case, it's an older instrument with such a rich performing tradition that "wasn't meant" to be used with frets.

Feel free to use such an instrument, but I know it wouldn't work with most classical works I've studied, past and present. IMHO, it's just not a violin with frets.

(Again, this is not to mean that frets make playing "easy", or that they have no place on guitar/bass/similar instruments; they are great on those. But the violin family is very different than these instruments-even the cello isn't a viola da gamba, and shouldn't be fretted, in my opinion.)

February 9, 2016 at 02:21 AM · You can call it any name you like.

I think something like this should be a personal choice. You, like I, will chose to play without frets (for me it was something of an experiment for chord playing and a bit of curiosity). Somebody else may chose to play with frets for whatever reason and your opinion that a violin should not be fretted is beside the point. :)

February 9, 2016 at 04:48 AM · I'd like to have a viper, but it's way beyond my budget.

February 9, 2016 at 05:15 PM · Christopher, thanks so much for taking the time to post that video!

I have a $30 eBay special I experiment with and was preparing to fret it on a lark. So it is full speed ahead. The question is whether I do it myself like making a guitar or purchase that stick-on fret kit that you used.

I saw the Mark Wood fretted violin videos. He basically dispelled the same concerns that you did in your video and mentioned the similarities to playing a mandolin.

February 9, 2016 at 06:39 PM · If it's a $30 violin I would just go with the stickers for now.

I did find this site:

http://www.frettedviolins.com

That puts proper frets on for about $180 plus a $100 service charge.

There also exists a molded fingerboard with built in frets somewhere.

February 9, 2016 at 07:59 PM · It seems to me that a playing a fretted violin would be like getting off of a racing bike and stepping onto lesser one that has training wheels.

February 9, 2016 at 10:39 PM · I've got the fret wire, the tools, and the time. Now if I can only get the violin to stop shivering in fear. It still has nightmares about the time I whacked off its belly and scraped out a bunch of its innards. >grin<

February 10, 2016 at 04:00 AM · Carmen, make sure to show us pictures when you get it done! :)

February 10, 2016 at 06:52 PM · I also want to hear more sliding and portamento from you non fret advocates! :)

February 11, 2016 at 10:01 AM · I'll guess that one of the reasons is that bowed instruments don't need the "sustain" that plucked instrument do, to keep the sound from fading away between plucks. A hard termination at a fret will damp the string less than a soft finger.

Someone else may have already given the example of the difference between how long a violin string rings, when plucking the open string, versus plucking a fingered note.

February 11, 2016 at 01:42 PM ·

February 11, 2016 at 04:23 PM · "No, we use our vision, touch, and hearing to play in tune."

Gene, seems like you were implying I said the was only one feedback mechanism for playing in tune. I said hand and ear--you just basically said the same thing and added the weakest one of sight. I'll just reiterate that we learn to reach pitch by feel with the hand, and adjust if needed. Learning to judge visually is not so effective.

One of the big problems of frets on a violin is that our sight line is very poor. Just consider the angle. Fretted instruments are different. They're held, like a guitar or mandolin, so that you can look down on the frets and use them as a guide. A guitar neck is very long and has no reference other than frets. It's often cut away for access to high notes. The only area lacking hand reference on a violin is second position. All of the other positions can be felt.

Even inlaid frets are problematic. Anyone who has taught a student with even very thin and perfectly aligned tape has seen this: how EXACTLY is the finger placed? Everyone has varying finger width, and the finger tissue spreads itself out on the fingerboard by on a relatively large area (relative to string length). So even if the finger is perfectly placed visually on an inlaid fret, just the very slightest roll to or fro will change the pitch considerably.

These pitch changes on the violin are, unlike the homogeneous sound of the guitar, change in timbre from note to note. We all know an E-flat sounds utterly different than an E-natural. This phenomenon is only heard on the violin family--the timbres do NOT change like this on the guitar or mandolin or most other instrument.

So the student MUST be taught to listen and adjust to timbre, not looking at the finger. We've all doubtless heard a fifth grade ensemble playing their third fingers a tiny bit low, and grimaced at the choked-off timbre of all those flat notes. Inlaid frets would not help them (just like their tapes can't help them) because only the tiniest misplacement results in a flat timbre.

Even if that pitch were perfectly in tune in a relative sense, it will still sound sour all by itself. That's just the nature of the violin acoustics.

That's why even inlaid frets are a waste of time. And the higher up on the fingerboard, the less room for error, and the more space the entire finger is taking up relative to string length, making the fret placement, even if perfect, a moot point. Timbre is as important, if not more so, than playing by relative pitch. Having inlaid frets would delay that development as surely as a learning to play only by ear will cause an eventual reading disaster.

February 12, 2016 at 12:53 PM · I added kevlar frets to my victim... err... I mean my $30 eBay special violin, so I could adjust the height above the board and the clearance to the strings while still providing a hard stopping surface.

There were a variety of technical issues that needed to be addressed that I will omit from this forum. Most of them deal with proper positioning of the frets to account for changes in string tension when fingered and how that varied from string to string and along the board. I calculated fret positions, made pencil marks along the finger board, then quickly eyeballed the placement of plastic tape at each mark to act as a guide for carving channels to accept the fret string. A little crazy glue in each channel, cut the strings, clamp in place for a few minutes, DONE!

What do auctioneers say when writing a description of violins of questionable craftsmanship? Ah yes... it shows the hand of the maker!

Here is a picture of the fretted violin sitting atop the fireplace mantle in the music room. A Gmaj scale from it plays in the background.

https://youtu.be/H7KInuj2JWg

From a beginner player's perspective, what immediately struck me was something that should have been obvious from Christopher's video and the other videos on youtube: finger position on a fretted violin matters! The only way I could get the fretted violin to give "easy mode" intonation was to have the frets high and then clamp the string tightly anywhere between the two frets. This forced the string to be "hard stopped" by the fret.

This is certainly not the way one would want to play as it makes vibrato impossible and would probably put one an a fast track for carpal tunnel syndrome. High frets felt uncomfortable to me, but it might be from never having played with frets on a violin.

There might be a way to experiment with the fret material and width to get it to hard stop the string with less finger pressure when simply playing between the frets. But my impression is that the effective sound length of a fretted string on a violin is somewhere between the fret and the finger position. And that is why vibrato, slides and quarter tones are possible with frets.

There are certain tonal issues when playing off the frets a bit, especially for the G string. When I went back and listened carefully to the videos, I could pick up the tonal changes, even during slides. As David Burgess suggested, it might be related to changes in the ability for the string to sustain the tone. I don't think that would be a deal breaker for amateur people. It would be something I would try to minimize with any fret system I would design and formally install.

Some interesting things occurred when I shaved the frets down to mere bumps above the board. It was comfortable to play with these frets as it was very similar to playing fretless. Also, I got a very distinct tactile feedback from finger placement near the frets that I could use to gauge "slightly flat" or "slightly sharp" when the tone I heard did not sound quite right.

After practicing some slow scales on the fretted violin, I switched to my regular, fretless violin and found my intonation was improved. So I went back the fretted violin and paid close attention to hand shape and thumb/index finger position as I ran up and down the scales.

I went back to the fretless violin and paid careful attention to replicating the thumb/index finger contact points. The fingers dropped quite naturally to good intonation points. I played slowly with my eyes closed and opened them to peek at a chromatic tuner to verify that my ears were not deceiving me.

In short, frets on a violin did not make intonation automatic for me. Finger position is still critical. So from that perspective, frets did not make the violin any easier to play.

But in at least one setup, frets barely above the board, it gave me feedback that was easier to process than "listening carefully". Remember that we have to learn to recognize the sound of relative intervals. The larger the interval the more challenging this can be, especially for a beginner. Whereas everyone can instantly recognize when they feel a bump near precise spots on their fingertips.

So from that perspective, frets seemed to make it easier to LEARN how to shape the hand and position the fingers.

An issue I had with board tapes to indicate finger positions when I first started was that they required me to look at the board. Which means my eyes were not available for looking at the bow sounding point. For me, almost all of the tone is in my bow hand. I consider the ability for me to generate a consistent, full tone with a slow bow and flat hairs parallel to the bridge, regardless of what my fingering hand is doing, as the single most important technique I need to create good sounding music and advance to other techniques.

Thanks to everyone who participated in an interesting discussion.

We now return you to your normal, fretless violin playing.

February 12, 2016 at 03:33 PM · Well done for discovering through experience and experimentation rather that forming an opinion based on assumptions.

February 13, 2016 at 12:33 AM · Thank you for the in-depth experiment and analysis of the whole thing! It's very informative. :)

February 14, 2016 at 08:18 PM · Oh, are we done?

Okay, to play you all out here is a fretless guitarist!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LBsrPx-sWoU

February 14, 2016 at 08:52 PM · Are we done?

Not quite. The piece Cenk Erdogan played in that video was an improvisation. He follows that with https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lSbD2F-N_yk, in which he plays on a more exotic instrument, only half of which is fretted. Equally enjoyable.

February 15, 2016 at 01:11 AM · He also uses an "E-bow".

Regardless, very impressive.

February 17, 2016 at 01:38 PM · The more I see of Erdogan's playing on a fretless guitar the more I'd be tempted to try one were I ever to return to playing classical guitar or lute (after a lapse of 30+ years!).

A technical point - on a guitar the frets (usually metal) add weight to the neck. Removing the frets would make the neck lighter and alter its vibration characteristics, possibly for the better tonally. Does anyone know?

February 17, 2016 at 03:17 PM · As a general rule, anything that vibrates on an instrument and does not convert that vibration into meaningful air movement will detract from the power and responsiveness of the instrument.

Whether or not it improves the timbre of the sound is impossible to predict and might be more psychological than real.

Basically, the neck vibrations suck up energy that would be better served going into the parts of the instrument that convert the energy into sound.

I have played on violins where the vibration of the fingerboard was pronounced and gave a feedback sensation of power. But when I listened to the playback of a recording, the sound was thin and suffered from badly unfocused tone for notes near the vibrational frequency of the neck.

I am sure some people have experienced the opposite. That makes neck tuning an unpredictable feature to me and one might be better off figuring how to eliminate neck vibration as a factor.

February 17, 2016 at 03:17 PM · double post

February 17, 2016 at 05:58 PM · Carmen, when I played the classical guitar I discovered that gripping the neck would deaden the sound - not a lot, but it was there. Likewise, catching hold of the pegbox when tuning would have the same effect. It may depend on the guitar of course - mine was a Taurus 68 (interestingly the Ramirez signature was hidden deep within, as revealed by my teacher's endoscope) which was particularly resonant and responsive. A tight grip on my cello's neck would also deaden the sound to a certain extent. Part of a violin beginner's problems with sound production may likewise be accounted for by the notorious left hand "death grip".

The fingerboard on a guitar is pretty well coterminous with its neck, so the two would vibrate as one entity. However, only part of the violin's fingerboard is connected to the neck; the remainder is free standing and may have its own mode of vibration. Which leads me to another question - does the shorter length of a baroque fingerboard have of itself an effect on the tone of the instrument?

February 18, 2016 at 12:05 AM · Trevor, what you describe highlights the challenge of eliminating non-sound producing vibrations without negatively impacting the vibrations one wants to keep.

The neck/fingerboard assembly is dynamically coupled to a few prominent body modes of the violin belly. I cannot speak to the guitar. Beside flapping up and down, the neck/fingerboard can also have a twisting/swaying motion coupled to the body modes.

Support the violin with just your chin and shoulder, then lightly touch varies spot on the scroll as you play the open strings.

You might feel that some strings will induce a significant vibration on the front of the scroll and almost none on the eyes(side), and others will reverse that.

Your experience suggests one cannot decouple neck/board vibration from the sound boards by simply restraining the neck.

The answer to your question about the shorter baroque fingerboard is that it would affect the frequency of the body modes to which the board is coupled to. An important question might be , "Could one hear the changes?"

I am tempted to record the sound and frequency spectrum of one of my experimental violins before and after I chop off the fingerboard above the 4th finger from first position.

February 19, 2016 at 07:14 PM · Violins have no frets in order to amaze/impress guitarists.

It's humor, folks!

February 20, 2016 at 03:33 PM · "Violins have no frets in order to amaze/impress guitarists."

Only when the violinist plays in tune, of course ;)

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