De-fretting for dummies like me

De-fretting for dummies like me

Postby rsnell22 » Fri Apr 25, 2008 3:55 pm

I've posted this on several places. This is my experience from defretting two of my basses. The first one was a Peavey Axcellerator 5. After that, I was brave enough to take on my G&L L-2500. Both turned out wonderful...

The first thing to consider is whether you are capable of doing this modification. Read through these instructions first. It’s not basic woodworking, but not exactly brain surgery, either. If you have done precision metal work or woodworking with good results, then I believe you can end up with a very good playing fretless bass. I have de-fretted two of my basses with very good results, and managed to learn a thing or two in the process. This is where you want to be brutally honest withyourself. Don’t start with your pride and joy. Pick up a cheap used one for a guinea pig.

A few specialized tools are required. A pair of flush ground end nipper type pliers for pulling the frets, a Weller type soldering gun with an extra tip specially modified (the end cut off, basically, with the two remaining ends dished a bit to be used to heat the frets before pulling), a radiused sanding block to match the radius of your fret board, and a set of bass nut files for lowering the slots in the nut. You will also need a truss rod wrench for your bass, and a set of automotive feeler gauges to help with the nut filing.

I flush ground a cheapo set of end nippers on a belt sander. Careful of those sparks if you grind on a belt sander previously used for wood. Don’t catch your house, your beard, or worse yet, your bass on fire.

Take the strings off. Remove the neck if it’s a bolt-on. Mask EVERTHING except the fret board. Some people prefer to mask the fretboard in between frets to help with any splintering as you pull the frets. Leave the truss rod alone for now.

Take your soldering gun with the cut off tip installed, and bend the two halves of the cut off tip apart to where they are just a bit less apart than the length of the fret. Touch one to each end of the fret and pull the trigger. If you’ve used one of these kinds of soldering guns, you can tell when the proper contact is made. You want the fret to become part of the heating circuit. When you pull the trigger, it takes just 5-10 seconds to heat the fret. You may see a wisp of smoke or the slight bubbling of any adhesive that was used to install the frets.

Now, working quickly, use the flush ground end nipper pliers to work your way under one end of the heated fret, raising it up slightly. Gently, now, work your way across the length of the fret and out it comes. Heat the next fret and repeat the pulling technique again and again until all the frets are removed.

Now you need to decide what to fill the slots with. On one of my basses I cut thin strips of mahogany on a table saw and used them. On the other, I went to the craft store and purchased a small piece of very thin plywood. Look to see if the bottom of the fret slot is straight or curved to match the radius. Cut with scissors to a rough length and to match the bottom of the slots if needed. Leave them about ¼” longer that the fret slot so you have about 1/8” overhang on each end. You can also stain the wood filler strips before you install them.

I used a thin, high quality CA type glue for gluing in the filler strips. When you have them all glued in, take the end nippers and trim right up to the surface of the fretboard. Fill in any little divots with the CA glue. Release the tension on the truss rod to as straight as you can get the neck before sanding. Use a straightedge. Now sand, using the radius block with some stick on sandpaper to where you have a true surface. Look closely for any more little divots and fill them with the CA glue. Finish sand to a true surface.

I made my own sanding blocks. One of my basses was a 15” radius and the other was 12”. I found a cylindrical tank with a 24” diameter, taped some coarse sandpaper onto it and went to work on a piece of pine board. With a considerable amount of elbow grease, I came up with a nice little radiused sanding block. For the bass with the 15” radius, I was lucky enough to also find a tank that was 30” in diameter. You can even rough in the radius block with a belt sander and then finish with the sandpaper taped on the cylindrical tank, pipe, or other suitable round object.

I used some Min-Wax Wipe On Poly for finishing the fretboard, which now becomes a fingerboard. Several very light coats. Some folks use epoxy or even CA glue for a finish. The Poly will take about a week to harden up enough to play on. Both of my basses have rosewood fingerboards and I used some thinner to de-oil a bit before the Poly went on.

To get a nice action, you will need to take the nut slots down roughly the same distance as the height of the old frets. I used the feeler gauges and the strings in place to measure how far the string is above the fingerboard right at the nut. I started at about .015" and ultimately ended up at .005". Some people like them lower than that, even right down to the surface. Go easy on the filing and remember as you contour the slots that you want the string to vibrate from the edge of the fingerboard side of the nut. I strongly suggest the nut files, but I did both of mine with rolled up sandpaper, needle files, and a 1/8” chain saw file for the B string. Just don’t yell at me if you mess up. You can always get another nut if you have to.

Tune up to pitch and check the neck relief. Hold a string down near the nut and then also at the 15th “fret” area or so. Look under the string at the mid point and measure the relief there. I usually set mine at .005” to .010” clearance. If you like more mmwwahhh sound, go even lower. Too low and you’ll have a buzzing problem midway up the neck.

Set the bridge height where you like it, following the radius of the fingerboard. Intonation or string length is set the same way as on a fretted bass. The harmonic and the fingered note at the twelfth “fret” or octave position should be the same pitch. You are tuning the fingered note by moving the bridge pieces. Remember to re tune to pitch any time anything is changed, before you compare the octave note and harmonic. Intonation should be the last thing set after the neck and action are where you want them.

Well, folks, there you have it. Welcome to the wonderful world of fretless basses.

Now all you have to do is learn how to play in tune. Pay attention closely and you’ll be surprised how fast that comes. Start by getting your octaves and fifths in tune up and down the neck, and go from there. There is a bit of a break in process, so be patient, and keep playing...

A special thank you to Frank Ford at for freely sharing his soldering gun fret heater idea. I’ve always found that the best people in any profession are always the ones who will share their knowledge and experience.

My greatest gratitude to my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, without whom I could do nothing at all.
Location: Western WA, USA

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