5 things frets add to your playing

Who at one time or another hasn’t wished their fingerboard had frets?  No more getting lost in high positions, no more playing out of tune. Frets make a lot of sense.

NS Design, Jordan Electric Violins, Wood Violins, and others manufacture fretted violins, violas, cellos, and double basses that really can help with the intonational inconveniences many string players assume just come with the job description. Not only can frets facilitate better intonation and security up in those nosebleed registers, there are some very musical and creative reasons for investing in a fretted instrument. “If you know your way around a traditional violin, the fretted violin would not be too hard to get used to,” says crossover star Charles Yang, no stranger to both traditional and fretted violins, having performed everywhere from Carnegie Hall to Madison Square Garden.

“The abstract feel of the frets quickly goes away after some messing around and you don’t really think about it.” Some fretted players say the left-hand fingers have to land right on the frets. Others swear it works best if the fingers are placed right on the inside of the fret. It only makes a difference when the strings are pressed down hard, which also affects the vibrato and portamento. If your basic intonation is reasonably close, there’s actually no need to worry about aiming your fingers at all.

1. Power Chords

Whether you just love the crunch of a quadruple stop under your fingers or double-stops stop you in your tracks, there’s no doubt the visual and tactile presence of fret strips makes it easier to align those errant fingertips. Some chordal intervals like fifths, which rock guitarists rely on for their distinctive “power chords,” are so hard to tune that many string players don’t even attempt them. With frets, they’re the easiest double stops in the world. All available chords become more dependable even when comping in noisy acoustic environments where you can’t hear your intonation clearly. You can also surprise yourself with cool new chord shapes, sometimes dissonant, but now perfectly in tune.

2. Free Mandolin

“For me, one of the greatest advantages [of frets] is the possibility of sustained pizzicato,” Yang says. “The frets help the plucked notes resonate much more even for higher notes up the fingerboard. “Last time I got to hook up an octave pedal [two octaves above], the violin sounded like bells or chimes.” Tuned just like a mandolin, any fretted violin is capable of even more sensitive plucked comping in a band environment, especially with the three- and four-note chords.

3. Paganini’s Dream

While subtle vibrato and sliding portamento sound is possible on most fretted instruments, a little more finger pressure begins to quantize the sound of a finger gliding the length of the neck like a delicate digital autotune. “The almost guitar-like shifting sound you can achieve because of the frets,” Yang explains.

“It’s a cool effect that Paganini probably dreamed of having when he wrote chromatic tenths!” In lower positions, the resultant chromatic scales are most audible and the effortless speed of those discrete pitches adds a certain excitement, like a sweeping piano gliss does. You can even rock a fingertip back and forth on top of a fret for a vibrato trill.

4. Heavy Metal Magic

One of the rock guitar’s best-kept secrets is how many fast notes are not really picked, but slurred with the same finger action bowed string players use for ascending runs, as well as left-hand pizzicato-like plucked actions guitarists call “pull-offs” for the descent.

This takes some callouses on an acoustic violin, but it’s much easier with the natural sonic compression of an electric instrument with frets. Not only that, just tapping the strings onto the fingerboard with both the left- and the right-hand fingers, as popularized by guitarist Eddie Van Halen, can produce spectacular arpeggiated results with electric distortion for both rock and free jazz.

5. Sheets of Sound

It was jazz saxophonist John Coltrane who set the bar for improvisational virtuosity with his dissonant, cascading passages. If you like the sound of more angular “outside” passagework, with frets, it’s possible to improvise approximate fingerings in higher positions that, when played rapidly, result in really advanced scalar effects. Anchor improvised fingerings around where the first and fourth fingers are fretted and then slide those fingers both up and down by half-steps as the second and third fingers smear over the frets between.

The frets insure whatever pitches come out are crystal clear and in tune, but neither the audiences’ ears (nor your own) will be able to keep up with the harmonic surprises. In general, the most fun way to take advantage of any new instrument is going to involve opening one’s ears and following where it wants to take you. Frets make playing in tune easier and this can also open new doors of creativity. “Just like any electric violin, put the fretted violin through the right effects and the possibilities are endless,” Yang says. The unique advantages of a fretted instrument can give you what you need to explore possibilities that mean the most to you.

View Gregory Walker in Cowboy with The Walkers


Gregory Walker is a professor at the University of Colorado, Denver, and the artistic director of the Colorado NeXt Music Fest.