You’ve probably seen a violin at one point and begin to wonder: Why doesn’t the violin’s fingerboard have frets? Isn’t that supposed to guide the violinists on how to play?
Turns out, there’s a good reason why violins don’t have frets, unlike guitars and other string instruments. In this article, you’ll find out why violins have no frets for guidance. You will also find out how violinists play without frets and how you can do it too as a beginner.
Why does a violin not have frets? Violins don’t have frets because it allows for better intonation or tuning. Unlike guitars designed to play chords, violins are meant to be played at different places other than where a fret is. Fretless fingerboards also allow more flexibility, where violinists can play smooth glissandos and legatos.
What is a fret?
Frets are metal strips (usually made of nickel alloy or stainless steel) embedded along the fretboard. They are located at exact points that divide the scale length by a specific mathematical formula.
Essentially, these narrow metal strips that run across the fingerboard guide players where to put their fingers. Since violins are non-fretted, players must learn where to precisely place their fingers to produce the correct pitch.
Why Violins Don’t Have Frets
Violins have always been made to be fretless.
Violins don’t have frets because they are designed that way right from the start. The violin we know today has an extensive history and came from different instruments across Asia, Europe, and the Middle East.
From different inspirations, it became this instrument that is bowed, which allows the violinist to sustain the note for as long as they want.
Let’s compare guitars and violins, for example. Guitars and violins are both string instruments, giving them slightly similar looks. They are also played in both folk and classical music.
Despite their similarities, violins and guitars come from different backgrounds, making them completely different instruments.
Guitars are plucked instruments that evolved from lute and oud.* Guitars are also intended to be chordal and rhythmic. They’re meant to play chords or more than one note at once.
On the other hand, violins are bowed instruments. They are created to be monophonic and melodic, which means they can play one note at a time.
With violins, chords are far rarer and don’t involve as many contortions, so they can be accurately played when needed. Without frets, you’re able to place pitches at different places other than where a fret is.
Fretless violins produce better tuning.
The strings of a violin are sensitive. They are fragile and can be influenced by things like moisture and temperature. This makes the intonation (tuning) of the string constantly change.
If intonation continuously varies, having frets would not give you an accurate sound. It might sound in tune for a short while, but it will still change in the future.
For instance, beginner violinists use tapes on the fingerboards. As they progress, these tapes acting as guides are removed.
Relying on those tapes doesn’t guarantee that you will always play in tune. It can help you with your hand position, but accurate playing will still require hitting the right notes without the guides like tapes or frets.
Because the violin doesn’t have frets to stop the strings, the violinist must know precisely where to place the fingers on the strings to play with good intonation.
Fretless violins allow flexibility.
Violins do not have frets because it allows more flexibility. A fretless fingerboard accommodates smooth glissandos (slide) and legatos.
In music, a glissando is a glide from one pitch to another. Meanwhile, legato signifies smooth and connected bow strokes, meaning the player transitions from note to note with no intervening silence.
You can produce more vibrato by rolling your fingers up and down as well. The beautiful vibrato sound on violins cannot be replicated on string instruments with frets. It can produce the same effect on other instruments like guitars, but it won’t be at par with the sound of a violin.
Other String Instruments That Don’t Have Frets
Aside from violins, other string instruments that do not have frets include:
- Viola – A string instrument that can be bowed, plucked, or played with many different techniques. It is slightly larger than a violin and produces a lower and deeper sound.
- Cello – Another bowed string instrument that belongs to the violin family. It is larger than a violin and has thicker strings.
- Bass or Double Bass – It is the largest and lowest-pitched bowed string instrument in a modern symphony orchestra.
- Fretless Guitars – A standard guitar that has had the frets removed, typically custom-built. They were first pioneered by Turkish musician Erkan Oğur in 1976.
How do violinists play without frets?
If violins don’t have frets, how do violinists know where to put their fingers? The short answer is through practice, muscle memory, and ear training.
Since violins are non-fretted, the right note is produced if the instrument is tuned correctly and the string is pressed in the right position.
Playing the violin without frets, such as pressing the string down in the correct position all the time, requires practice. When you become used to playing, your fingers instinctively know where to land on the strings to get the right notes.
How can I learn to play the violin without frets as a beginner?
Playing the violin without the frets can be tricky for beginners since you can’t view the fingerboard when in a playing position. Violins also don’t have frets for guidance like guitars do.
You can tape strips across the fingerboard for reference as a beginner violinist. Doing this can help you learn muscle memory and listen to the pitch.
As you advance, you can take it off and pretty much listen to exactly where the notes are. It’s all about practice and close listening to the pitch.
The things beginners tape to violins are not the same as frets. They’re just markers for approximately where your fingers should be. Frets are actually raised, so if your finger is slightly out of position, most of the string’s vibration still stops right at the fret.
As you now know, violins don’t have frets as guitars do. They are designed to be fretless because it allows them to produce good tuning. Players also have more flexibility to play correct notes when no frets stop the strings.
Without frets as a reference, violinists often rely on muscle memory and ear training when playing scales. If you’re a beginner, you can begin learning the violin by using tapes to mark the fingerboard.
Eduardo Perez is a multi-instrumentalist with over 20 years of experience playing instruments such as piano, guitar, ukulele, and bass. Having arranged songs and produced music in a recording studio, he has a wealth of knowledge to share about analyzing songs, composing, and producing. Currently pursuing a Bachelor of Arts degree in Interdisciplinary Musical Studies at Berklee College School of Music. Featured on Entrepreneur.com. Subscribe to his YouTube channel, or follow him on Instagram.