Electric Fretless Bass: Hast Thou Forsaken Me?

Once upon a time, it wasn’t that unusual to hear an electric fretless bass on the radio.   But nowadays, you hardly ever hear the instrument outside of jazz.  These are not fretless times, it would seem.

Fretless Bass

Who made the earliest recordings to feature the electric fretless, I wonder.  Wikipedia’s entry for fretless guitar doesn’t get into the chronology of the fretless bass, but it does point out that The Band’s Rick Danko began using a fretless in 1970 and can be heard on two Band albums from 1971 – Cahoots (studio) and Rock of Ages (live).

I fondly recall a few fretless moments over the years:

  • David Gilmour’s fretless lines on “Hey You” from Pink Floyd’s The Wall from 1979.
  • Mick Karn’s otherworldly work with Japan, as on such tracks as 1980’s “Gentlemen Take Polaroids.”
  • J. Clifton Mayhugh’s fretless work on Adrian Belew’s Lone Rhino album from 1981.
  • Colin Moulding’s fretless playing on XTC’s English Settlement from 1982 and its big hit, “Senses Working Overtime
  • Gordon Sumner’s work with the Police, as on “King of Pain” from 1983’s Synchronicity.
  • Talk Talk’s It’s My Life album from 1984, particularly kick-off tune, “Dum Dum Girl
  • Tony Franklin’s fretless playing on 1985’s “Radioactive” – the comeback hit from Jimmy Page and Paul Rodgers when they joined forces as The Firm.
  • Bill Laswell’s fretless work on “Rise” from 1985’s Album by Public Image Ltd.
  • Bakithi Kumalo’s madly inventive bass work on Paul Simon’s Graceland from 1986.
  • Pino Palladino’s glissando lines on “Give Blood” from Pete Townshend’s White City from 1986.
  • Edie Brickell & the New Bohemian’s big hit, “What I Am,” from 1988’s Shooting Rubberbands at the Stars.
  • Jeff Ament’s fretless work with Pearl Jam, as featured on 1991 debut album, Ten, on such songs as “Black” and “Even Flow.”
  • Les Claypool’s 6-string electric fretless playing on Primus’ Sailing the Seas of Cheese album from 1991 and its college radio hit, “Jerry Was a Race Car Driver.”

I also remember hearing the sly and slippery fretless work of Doug Wimbish – former session bassist for Sugar Hill Records – on “Nothingness” from Living Colour’s third album, Stain, on the radio (#17 on the US Modern Rock chart) in 1993:

Nothinginess - Living Colour 45CBS/Sony, interestingly, would release only in Japan a live album – called Dread – that contains live recordings from the Stain tour, an acoustic radio session, plus a couple of B-sides.