The Fender Standard Fretless Jazz Bass Review – Warm Bassy Goodness. Can you say “MWAH?”
Into each bass player’s life a little fretless should come. For many of us, when we lay our hands on it for the first time, we never stop thinking about which tunes would sound great with the ultra-warm mwah of a fretless bass with great googly-moogly flatwound strings (tape, metal, whatever sounds best to you). I went on a journey of discovery in 2006 after playing a fretless Fender Jazz for the first time (I had been tinkering with bass playing on and off since I was a teenager.) I felt strongly enough about the importance of a fretless in my sound library that I went to great lengths to order a special one from Fender. My Fender was special in that it was a 2006 diamond anniversary edition, and that they put together one with the color I liked (none of the online dealers offered Oly white at the time – although Olympic white has been offered off-and-on over the years prior and since). I received my new, freshly-assembled Jazz pretty quickly and took it home to play.
What followed was nothing short of revolutionary and enlightening.
My Fender Fretless MIM Jazz came with a lovely buffed and polished flat rosewood fretboard, a slick and (really) perfect Olympic white poly candy shell, great basic MIM electronics, and those heavenly Fender flatwound Jazz strings. zZounds offers the Fender Fretless Jazz at a competitive price. Read here for more details and specs. Shameless plug alert… The gig bag was thin and light, but it got the bass to my house in the factory box OK. If you’re not worried about the finish of your Jazz, the gig bag makes an excellent strong carry bag. NOTE: Some current models may not come with a Fender gig bag. I was happy enough with my Jazz that I went out and bought a Fender plastic hard shell case for it. The setup was pretty impressive, the intonation was decent and the string height was about where I’ve kept it in the years since.
The Fender Fretless Jazz bass is a bargain, an excellent player, and a permanent fixture in my sonic library. Here’s why:
Quick Opinion: The Fender Fretless Jazz bass is an extremely well-made instrument with a great sound for everyday playing and recording. The body is that excellent rounded-corner easy-on-the-body-and-arm shape, with a standard long-scale reach and traditional old-school Jazz controls. It plays effortlessly, sounds great, and is a bargain in the grander scheme of basses.
There aren’t a lot of low-to-mid cost fretless basses out there in the new-instrument market… so the market is a bit limited for profitability’s sake. With that said, I think it is important that quality instruments remain in the retail stream with an on-going view into the market. Bass players will often (at least) try fretless basses during the maturation of their skills. With some, fretless guitars and basses are a curiosity, with others, there is a need to get that “upright bass fiddle” sound in some situations. Still, with others, a fretless is the only way to go! (Jaco Pastorius, anyone?) I am glad Fender continues to produce MIM- and USA-made Fretless Jazz basses. I know I will be holding on to “Polar” as long as I have hands to hold it.
Here’s a quick breakdown of this particular guitar’s features:
* Rosewood fretboard
* Thin light-colored strips in the fret locations for those of us who still have to look at the fretboard (;-))
* Everyday Jazz MIM electronics and pickups
* Poly paint offered in several opaque colors (varies from year to year)
* Reliable open-gear butterbean large-button tuners
* Factory-issued Fender Flatwound strings
zZounds has satisfaction guarantees – I have received excellent sales and service from them for my own guitars. I’ve bought a lot of my gear from them. Shameless plug to help me keep the site going: if you buy stuff from them, it helps me write more reviews!
Sound: Part of the Fender Fretless Jazz sound is its strings and fretless-ness, part of the sound is the guitar’s materials and workmanship. You can put cheap round-wound strings on your fretless and get cheap sounds with an ability to play glissandos and scoops – and the guitar will do its best to sound like a traditional Fender jazz. You can put high-end tape-based flatwounds on the fretless and it will sound like a million bucks. The pickups are “vintage” strength and sound as they should, if a little quiet for low-powered solid-state amps and DI applications.
On the whole, the Fender Fretless Jazz sounds great. Here is more detail…
Here are some of the components of the Fretless Jazz sound:
2) Tone woods, neck woods
3) Strings and fretboard/fingerboard
Pickups and Electronics: Opening the Fretless Jazz’s cavity shows a pair of ceramic-magnet single-coil Fender Jazz pickups, standard CTS-type potentiometers, a basic burgundy-colored chicklet tone capacitor, and a Switchcraft jack. The pickups are wired in parallel, and each has its own volume control. There is a master tone control on the circuit.
The pickups are low-output vintage-sounding pickups. The Jazz allows you to blend the sound of the pickups by turning one and/or the other down/up with its individual volume control. There is no pickup-selector switch – the volume control gives you flexibility and dial-in sound. I played my Fretless Jazz with wiring as-is for the first 5 years I owned it. I’ve used it for countless recordings and small gigs, so I can attest that it really sounds like a nice traditional Jazz sound. I have found that great 15″ speaker cabinet(s) and a tube pre-amp REALLY bring this bass to life. If you’d like to record with it, I recommend finding a nice tube pre-amp to put in between your bass and the DI or computer recording interface. My recordings are so much warmer with tubes in-line.
As a side note, after 5 years, I did decide to do a little upgrading… I wired in a series/parallel switch and installed a factory pair of genuine Fender “Original Jazz Bass” Alnico pickups. The factory sound of my Jazz was awesome. My re-worked Jazz is now a real tour-de-force for rock, funk, jazz, classical, and new age.
Tone and Neck woods: Here’s a bit of something that most bass players might find interesting: Fender doesn’t list the body tonewood for its MIM Jazz basses in its on-site specs any more. I am not an authority on this, but I suspect that this gives Fender the flexibility to use the tonewoods it chooses (without having to update specs or guarantee content). Most Jazzes I’ve seen with materials listed were either alder or basswood. (Note that many special edition or FSR Jazz basses will state explicitly that they have ash bodies – my favorite.)
For the Fender Fretless Jazz bass, I think that either the alder or basswood body types sound great. I don’t actually know what wood my Oly White Fretless Jazz has as its body. I just know that I like the sound of it. I have known and heard of Fretless Jazz players who buy a bass with the neck they like and search out a specific body wood and color, then put the two together in a sort of a FrankenJazz (JazzenStein?). I can understand doing this… but know that if you “just want to have a great sounding bass that’s fretless”, the factory Fender Jazz bass is awesome.
The neck: The neck is a nice hard maple one-piece chunk of wood with that awesome narrow Jazz nut width. It feels great, it transfers string sound great, and is a pleasure to play. Fender takes care to create a great 9.5″ radius rosewood fretboard for the player. The surface is buffed to an almost shiny extent on most of these I’ve played. Mine looks as though it has been coated (although it hasn’t). It feels awesome, is pleasing to the touch, and is a real joy to play.
Strings and Fretboard/Fingerboard Most (not ALL) manufacturers ship their fretless basses with flatwound stainless or nickel strings – Fender is no exception. There are two primary reasons for using flatwounds (or tape-wounds) on a fretless.
1) The sound: the sound is the reason for the season, the color of the sky, the raison d’ etre. Flatwounds lend themselves to bass sounds in general, but really make the sound of a fretless Jazz.
2) Fingerboard life: On fretted basses, round-wound strings are pretty rough on the steel/nickel frets. Active bass players who use round-wounds on their basses will always see divots in their fret wires after a time – it is a fact of life in the life of most basses. Fret metal is pretty tough stuff: imagine what it would do to the much softer wood of a fingerboard. Using round-wounds on a fretless bass might give you a sound you are after, but doing so will definitely carve grooves in your fretboard. If you choose to go with cheap round-wounds to save money, you will end up with a chewed-up fingerboard.
The rosewood fingerboard offers a rich feel and sound experience that most players find enjoyable. Whether you are a beginner or a seasoned professional, the excellent fingerboard is an integral part of the experience and sound.
Playability I’ve played many different manufacturers’ fretless basses, both acoustic and electric. I must say that my experience with my Jazz is the most enjoyable and memorable. It’s predictable, easy-to play for anyone that can reach a 34″ scale bass neck, and even works with those with small hands. The neck is just right. The body is just right. The fretboard is invisible to my hands – I just let the music flow from my soul to my ears through this bass.
For those of us (like me) who still feel insecure when we play a fretless – and want to nail the intonation of a note from the finger attack, the lines for the fret markers are awesome. They take the crazy out of “where is C#?”. On one hand, the lines are a crutch – I encourage you to learn to play the neck without looking at it – on the other hand, the lines are comforting. I’d rather have them there than not – but if I played every day for a living, I’d learn the fretboard without my eyes. Let the music flow from your mind and soul and build up muscle and music memory…
Quality: My Fender Jazz Fretless Bass was made extremely well. The neck pocket is pretty decent, the finish of all the items is flawless, the components feel and sound good. What’s not to like?
I have found the tuners to be reliable and solid. The finish on the neck and body are both excellent. The fretboard is awesome. The wiring was clean and well-done. The bridge placement was nearly spot-on. The pickups sounded just as they should. Over all, I have not found an issue with my bass in 6 years.
Value: Fender’s Fretless Standard MIM Jazz bass is underpriced. The street price of the Fender Fretless Standard Jazz is less than East-Asian-made fretted basses from a variety of manufacturers. The quality, however, is well above those same basses. The MIM Standard Jazz Fretless is comparable to something that would be like an American Special in overall quality – but at a price that is actually pretty low. Whether you buy a new Fender fretless or buy one on the used market, they are a bargain. Really.
If I were blind-pricing Fender’s Standard Jazz Fretless compared to $799 Chinese basses from some of the popular mass-market makers, I’d say this bass should street-price at the same level or a little more.
Wishes: I wish there was a maple fretboard version – I have no idea if it would sound different, but when I see Fender, I think maple fretboard. It would be nice to continue to offer traditional colors such as Olympic White, Black, and Wine.