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I play in three finger style, but I have been using a banjo with a semi-fretless neck to play the old-time repertoire. Actually, I have three semi-fretless banjos, each is fretless up to the fifth fret. While I rarely use closed position chords up the neck when playing old-time music, I do use some fairly complex left hand fingerings in those upper regions, which I would not be able to execute without the benefit of frets. Hence the semi-fretless.

I built the first semi-fretless neck, which was for a Paramount pot, about twelve years ago. I have had a local luthier make two more for me since then, one is a short scale, so I can tune the banjo to open A. I use a brass plate, which tapers down to a knife edge starting about halfway between the 4th and 5th fret position, and ending right behind the 5th fret. Thus the 5th fret is functional. With the first neck I made, I first tried using rosewood veneer for the surface, but the result was too muted for my taste, so I changed over to brass, which is crisper in tone. I do try to stop the strings along the fretless part with the nail whenever possible, but it often isn't possible. There is a muted quality that comes with the fretless that is part of the trade off to get the flexibilty in intonation that is so unique and exciting. But then, life is always about trade-offs, and compromises with perfection. I have since added to more semi-fretless banjos to my arsenal. One is a Tubaphone pot with a regular scale neck, shown above, and the other a short scale Paramount, shown in the image below. Both of those necks were made by Steve Pierce, a luthier in Lawrence Massachusetts.

In addition to producing liquid slides, there is another utility to a fretless fingerboard, the ability to find distinct notes between the notes of the conventional chromatic scale. I think a lot of the old time modal tunes that we assign to either Dorian or Mixolydian mode are actually in between, because they use a scale which instead employs the quartertone which is between the major and minor third. This is sometimes called the neutral third. One might speculate that the the Dorian and Mixolydian scales are merely derivations of this a more ambiguous scale, with the Dorian sounding tunes being those where the performer had a tendency to sing or play the note closer to the true minor third, and the tunes we think of as Mixolydian those where the singer or musician leaned more towards the major.

To hear how the semi-fretless banjo sounds finger picked, listen to Chilly Winds on my short scale Paramount, tuned aEABE..

Don jamming with his Paramount short scale semi-fretless at Clifftop, 2008
(c) copyright 2007, 2008, 2009, by Donald J. Borchelt, all rights reserved.