Stringed Instruments -some have frets and others don't

Guitars and mandolins are one of the few stringed instruments with frets.

Violins, cellos, bass, and violas don’t have frets. I played violin in school. We were taught 1st position, 2nd position etc. These are areas on the neck where you place your fingers. You can adjust your fingers a little to stay in tune with everyone else.

I’ve often wondered why they don’t put frets on all stringed instruments.

Can you think of other stringed instruments? Frets or not?

Well, you can play slide on a guitar and the frets are irrelevant. With some guitars in the early part of last century, especially lap steels, the “frets” were flush with the fretboard and merely served as markers.

Frets are basically like a capo - they evolved as a crutch for easy playing. Violins and other classical-music stringed instruments play single-string lines of melody for the most part (fretting two strings - “double stops” - are the exception, not the rule). Lutes, vihuelas and other proto-guitars are designed to play chords - either strummed or in a fingerpicked pattern. Lemme tell ya, it is very hard to plant multiple fingers in exactly the right spots on multiple strings to build a chord on a fretless instrument - at least most double stops are at the same fret, so you can just flatten one finger out to fret two strings at once. But think about your first attempts at fretting a G chord on a guitar - on a fretless? Not gonna happen ;). So early players tied old strings around the neck at the correct spots to give themselves a fighting chance and it all played out from there.

So, to my knowledge, frets evolved in order to make a polyphonic stringed instrument a practicality.

I played viola in high school, and I’ve recently taken up the guitar. I like frets. I like them a lot.

Ever seen a sitar? Movable frets!

The Viol family are bowed, fretted instruments (the frets are also moveable). Really beautiful sound.

There are fretted violins, but they’re pretty rare.

Fretted instruments are far from rare. Banjos, ukeleles, lutes, Appalachian dulcimers, bouzhoukis, bass guitars, big families of Latin American instruments …

Once upon a time, viols were fretted instruments that were bowed. They were descended from their plucked cousin, the vihuela. Meanwhile, unfretted bowed instruments such as the lira or rabab have been around since at least the 9th century, both ancestors of the violin. (Do I ever wish Gorilla Man were here right now - he’d do a much better job of this.)

So here’s the thing - the frets aren’t there so much to give you a place to aim for, (though they do) and they aren’t there so much for intonation, either. (Though they do limit the range of the intonation, for better or worse. It’s still quite possible to cause a fretted note to be ‘out of tune’ by bending the string or gripping the note too hard. Have you ever noticed that vibrato on a guitar works backwards to what you’d expect on a violin? You aren’t changing the vibrating length of the string, you’re changing the tension behind the fret. That’s why it goes up as you move your finger down, and down as you move your finger up. Try it!)

Frets are there because if you’re going to pluck the string to sound the note, you need the fret to give you enough of a pinch to get a clear tone out of the stopped string. Compare the sound of a viola pizzicato to the sound of a classical guitar - make it a C# so both instruments have to stop the string. Which one is clearer? Yes, there are fretless guitars and fretless basses - how clear is their sound, though?

Same experiment in reverse - take a modern bow and run it across a single string. (Let’s bump that up to an F# so the guitarist has a shot at getting just one note.) The viola has a mellow tone like a viola. The bow is giving the guitar string way more energy than the string needs, and the string is very likely to screech and howl like a banshee (or like Jimmy Page in ‘Dazed and Confused’…). Those old curved bows in the days of viols didn’t transfer as much energy to the string, which is why early instrument groups have that characteristic ‘zing’ to their sound. It’s also why they tend to have a <> to their notes, because the energy transfer is less consistent along the length of the bow. Modern bows are way tighter, and more consistent.

There are other ways in which the instruments have evolved apart - the bridges are flatter on guitars than they are on violins/violas/celli/doghouses because guitars alternate between single notes and multiple notes much more often. Even classical guys strum with their thumbs or fingers, whereas the bowed strings do far more with single notes, and need to be designed so that they don’t accidentally play more than one. Single string notes on guitar are easier because the finger/thumb/pick can be controlled so it stops before it hits the next string. That’s not possible with bows - they’re being dragged across, so the bridges are curved so that no three strings are in the same plane.