A fretless banjo has no frets on its neck. Frets are the small, wire-like dividers that divide the fingerboard of the neck into small rectangles. Chords are made by placing the fingers of the chording hand onto the strings in a particular position according to the frets. The fretless banjo does not use the fret wires; instead a solid wood fret board or fingerboard is used and the player simply moves her fingers to a known position to create chords. Often chosen by an experienced player, the fretless banjo can be challenging for the novice. The fretless version of the banjo is one of the earliest examples of an early American mountain music instruments.
The frets on a stringed instrument are often used as a marker for the player to realize the position of the chording hand on the instrument's neck. An experienced player is often able to feel the frets under the hand and have a conscious understanding of the location of his hand on the instrument. Similar to an upright bass, violin or fiddle, the fretless banjo relies on the player's ability and skill to identify the position of the chording hand and fingers. An experienced player is able to make small adjustments of his hand to allow the desired chord to come through sharply.
When some players are beginning to play a fretless banjo, small indicator dots are placed on the upper edge of the fingerboard to provide a visual reference point of where the fret should be. Other methods of marking the fingerboard are small pieces of tape, monofilament fishing line tied around the neck and glue dots placed on the edge of the neck. All of these indicators can be easily removed once the player has become acclimated to the fretless banjo. Many players enjoy the ability of the fretless banjo to position the strings close to the fingerboard without causing any fret buzzing.
While some fretless designs are modern replications, most are actually early instrument designs. This often means that the neck is free of a steel truss rod. The truss rod is a device that is placed inside of the neck and is used to maintain straightness of the neck. On an original fretless banjo, the neck is often prone to warping if proper string tension and care are not used on the banjo. Using light-gauge strings on the fretless banjo will aid in the longevity of the neck.