"When it comes to playing fretless guitar I am a rank beginner, and I’m still figuring it out,” says Guthrie Govan. “But I think the first thing you should do when you start playing fretless is to stop being afraid of it. Instead of telling yourself that you’re trying to do a really difficult thing, start by thinking of the instrument as a normal guitar, and don’t even look at it too much. You’ll find your fingers do know—to some extent—where the notes are, and the less you worry, the quicker you’ll get natural-sounding results.”
Know What Not to Do
“Part of the next stage of familiarizing yourself with the instrument is to learn what you shouldn’t do. Some of the things that work really well on a regular electric guitar—such as vibrato and bending—are not going to work in the ways that you are accustomed to, so you’ll have to rethink the ways in which you get those sounds. It’s the same with chords. There are some chord voicings that will never work, no matter how hard you try.”
“The louder you play, the more difficult it is to play in tune. If you are in your bedroom or home studio, or if you have headphones on, you can play with a lot of confidence with regards to the precise pitch of the notes. But as soon as you crank things up, say, to gig volume, that changes. The best analogy I can think of is that the needle on the tuner seems to get wider. It will still be easy enough to hear if you are a semitone out, but you could feasibly be ten cents out and not really appreciate it, because everything you are hearing is fuzzy and ill defined.
“One liberating thing about pitch and playing fretless, however, is that sometimes if you are aiming for a note while zipping wildly from one end of the fretboard to the other, on a fretted guitar if you miss that note by a fret or two it will be obvious, but with a fretless it’s not a mistake, yet. There’s still a chance that you can swoop into the correct pitch, and no one but you will know that anything went wrong.”
Know Your Motivation
“It is very, very helpful if you enter the world of fretless guitar playing with some idea of why you’re doing it. What kinds of noises are you hoping to get out of a fretless that you can’t out of a fretted guitar? Of course, that’s a good question to continually ask oneself in regard to why one is playing any instrument.”
The sometimes implausibly modest Guthrie Govan plays mind-blowing fretted and fretless guitar with the Aristocrats, as well as serving in Steven Wilson’s current recording and touring band.