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What Is a Fretless Banjo?

By Lori Kilchermann
Updated May 23, 2024
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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.

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Discussion Comments
By backdraft — On Aug 24, 2011

You know, I've got a fretless banjo and I have never been able to play it as well as I can a banjo with frets.

The banjo is not an easy instrument. You pretty much have to use all of your fingers at once and each of them is doing something different.

In the midst of all that activity the frets help you to keep track of your hand as it moves around the neck, or at least it helps me. I think there would just be too much going on without the frets. Your mind would have to concentrate on more than the music.

I know that some people love playing this way but not me. Give me frets any day.

By tigers88 — On Aug 23, 2011

My grandfather always played a fretless Gibson banjo. He swore that the lack of frets gave him a better feel for the music, that he could pick out the notes with his ear rather than using his fingers.

I grew up to be a pretty avid guitar player and once I started playing a fretless guitar I understood what he meant. You feel like you have freedom over the entire neck. You can pick out the spaces between notes and your playing is not bound to any preset structure. I know just what my grandfather was talking about.

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