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Fretless Questions: Franc O’Shea
FB: How long have you been playing fretless bass?
Franc O’Shea: I started playing fretless bass when I was about 18 years old, but first started on a fretted when I was 12.
FB: What influenced you to play fretless?
Franc O’Shea: I was listening to players like Mick Karn with Japan and John Giblin on John Martyn’s ‘Grace and Danger’ album. I loved the sound of the wood, it was very lyrical and mysterious to me. Then I heard Jaco on ‘Heavy Weather’ and that just clinched it for me. I had to get rid of those frets and a guitarist friend of mine helped me get the frets out, then after that I was in heaven!
FB: Are you self-taught or did you take lessons?
Franc O’Shea: I am almost completely self-taught, although I did do a preliminary course in Jazz and Popular music for one year when I was 19, this was for all instruments so it wasn’t bass specific. I taught myself theory from reading books like George Russell’s ‘Lydian Chromatic Concept’ and Nicolas Slominsky’s ‘Thesaurus of Melodic Patterns and Scales’ and then developed my own concepts which are part of a very advanced theory book I have been working on for the last 20 years. As far as technique goes it is a matter of common sense working together with the capabilities of your specific hands and for feel it’s a matter of REALLY listening and playing lots with others.
FB: Who are your main fretless bass influences or favorite players?
Franc O’Shea: Jaco Pastorius has been my biggest influence, but there are others like Percy Jones, Mick Karn, Carles Benavent from Paco de Lucia’s group, and John Giblin. My fretless voice is also influenced by non-bass sources like the great Indian violinist L.Shankar, Ravi Shankar’s sitar playing and even Kate Bush’s vocals. I love Arabic and Indian singers too and the fretless bass is a great instrument for playing all those sharp and flat notes that are outside the western tempered tuning system. I wouldn’t say I have just one favourite, all the guys above are included, but guys like Alphonso Johnson and Gary Willis are great too. Al MacDowell who played on Ornette Coleman’s ‘Virgin Beauty’ and then I love Stanley Clarke’s upright playing and also Eberhard Weber and Danny Thompson. I think Alphonso Johnson deserves much more credit than he gets and I think Jaco was actually influenced a lot by Alphonso’s fretless and Stanley’s upright playing. If you think about it there is no way that Jaco wouldn’t have been checking out Alphonso’s stuff with Weather Report before he joined and he went on to play some of Alphonso’s great lines like in the live versions of Black Market, Scarlet Woman and Elegant People. That is not to take anything away from Jaco though because of course he took many influences, mixed them with his own unique voice and opened the door wide for virtually every player on the planet. His voice resonates as strongly today as it did 30 years ago.
FB: Do you play upright, electric, or both? Which do you prefer?
Franc O’Shea: I play only electric. I have tried an upright but they are big instruments and I would need much larger more powerful hands to be able to do, technically, on a stand-up what I can do on an electric. It would be very artistically frustrating for me. Double bass, although having the same function as an electric, is a completely different instrument that utilises a different technique. It is a member of the violin family and it’s relation to bass guitar is almost like comparing a violin with a guitar. Although I do like the sound, I prefer the sound of electric. It’s funny, I consider the electric bass first and foremost as an amplified acoustic instrument, because the wood gives you the sound and different pickups are like using different microphones on a human voice. They colour the sound but they are not the source. I know some older generation jazz players who say that when electric bass first came out, a lot of them thought it was a gimmick that sort of played itself. They didn’t realise that each player had a different tone and style. There was a lot of ignorance surrounding the instrument and there still is today in some circles.
FB: What was your very first fretless bass? Do you still own it? Have you had or played others?
Franc O’Shea: My first fretless was the one I mentioned before that I took the frets out of. This was a Kay bass. After that I got a Westone Thunder 1A bass that was an unlined fretless and eventually moved on to a 1968 Fender Jazz bass that I made fretless. I don’t own any of those basses now. My favourite fretless bass is my main bass that I use now. It is a Tobias Classic 5 string. It was customised and re-built for me by my luthier Jeff Chapman. He put a rosewood fingerboard on it which is made from an old Victorian dining table. It has such a tight grain that it looks almost like ebony. Someone was chucking it out to the street as garbage and Jeff asked them if he could have it and they said ‘with pleasure’. He must have got a dozen or so fingerboards out of it. So my fingerboard is over 100 years old and has a history of people eating, drinking, socialising and who knows what else around it, like it has been charged with lots of vibes! It sings like an angel and is more than capable of expressing the plethora of human emotions! I also changed all the electronics and use single coil pickups, and had the bridge pickup moved to the same position as a Fender Jazz bass. The rest of the wood is bubinga and maple.
Basses include the Kay bass that I de-fretted with a friend, then the Thunder 1A, then the 1968 Fender Jazz bass which I eventually sold and got a Overwater 4 string fretted that I had made fretless. I didn’t get on with the 36 inch scale length of the Overwater, missed my Fender, sold the Overwater and managed to get back my Fender Jazz. In the meantime it had been re-fretted. I had to de-fret it again and the fingerboard had become so thin from repeated sandings that a hole appeared in it. I had a new fretless rosewood board put on it but I eventually got into 5 string basses and traded in the Fender for a 5 string Tobias. That got stolen from a party at my house and I bought a 5 string Aria to keep me going which I converted to a fretless. I then got the Tobias that I use today. It was fretted at first and I recorded all the fretted parts on my first album with this bass and then had it de-fretted and recorded all the fretless parts with the same bass. Eventually I had the fingerboard changed like I mentioned before. I have also just had a fretless bass made for me by Jeff Chapman based on the Tobias.
FB: What types of strings and fingerboards do you prefer?
Franc O’Shea: I like steel roundwound strings that aren’t too heavy. I endorse Bass Centre Elites. My favourite wood for fingerboards is rosewood and I also have them coated with epoxy resin. I find the resonance of the rosewood combined with the durability of the epoxy gives a warm sound that cuts through but without being too nasal. The epoxy helps the notes to sustain more too. I find some ebony boards can be a bit nasal sometimes, especially in the upper register.
FB: What playing styles do you use?
Franc O’Shea: I use two fingers on my right hand and sometimes my thumb as well. Occasionally I use my right hand palm on the fingerboard and sometimes mute the string with my right hand palm while playing with my thumb. Obviously varying where you play with the right hand gives different tones I like. For a punchy tone that cuts through I play over the bridge pickup and for a more upright type sound I play actually over the fingerboard. My left hand technique is the usual thumb at the back of the neck and occasionally I bring my left hand thumb actually on to the fingerboard for fingering unusual chords. For vibrato I use an up and down the string technique, slightly rolling the finger, rather than bending the string like on a fretted.
FB: What bands or projects feature you playing fretless bass?
Franc O’Shea: I have played combinations of fretted and fretless, on practically all the work I have done. The biggest highlight for me is my latest project ‘Alkimia’ which features members of Chick Corea and Paco de Lucia’s bands. This is my second solo album and I play fretless exclusively on it. All the other instruments on the album are non-amplified acoustic instruments apart from one tune that has some keyboards. There is violin, flute, flamenco guitar and a whole range of percussion including Spanish, Arabic, Indian and African instruments. As I mentioned before I think that the electric bass is a fully expressive amplified acoustic instrument (obviously you can hear and play it without an amp too), and my album features the fretless in this acoustic context. It is absolutely fantastic how well it blends sonically and dynamically with all these other acoustic instruments.
FB: Do you have a favorite song you played fretless bass on or some notable songs or experiences?
Franc O’Shea: I don’t think there is one song in particular but if I had to single one out it would be the title cut from ‘Alkimia’ as it features many different aspects of my playing. This track is nearly ten minutes long and goes through the whole spectrum of emotions from eloquent heartfelt sections to fiery fast passages. I am really happy with my playing on that tune and it really is an opus, like looking into and seeing the many facets of a jewel. In terms of riffs, there are many I like, but if I was forced to choose one it would be once again from my new album. This is the riff on the tune called ‘Enchanted’. It is a really snaking weaving riff that traverses almost 4 octaves and is 8 bars (in semiquavers) long. It utilises Arabic scales and is very hypnotic and vocal in quality. It is set in the Spanish Tangos rhythm and pushes and pulls the beat around with syncopation and anticipations.
FB: What would you say is unique about your fretless style?
Franc O’Shea: My style is really growing and evolving all the time. I am constantly curious about different avenues in music and I soak up things like a sponge and these influences come out in my playing, helping me to shape and refine my voice. I think that things I study and listen to, like Moorish melodies and Indian ragas, help me to create something that is distinctive. I have put in a lot of fiendishly difficult work into controlling things like fast glissandos between distant notes within melodies and really controlling vibrato and grace notes. Good examples of this are the bass melody and solo on ‘The Three Princes of Serendip’ and the intro of ‘Dream Catcher’ on Alkimia. These things add a real vocal quality and often sound much easier than they are to actually play. I am attracted to very unusual dark mysterious things that are hauntingly beautiful.
FB: Are you still actively playing fretless bass?
Franc O’Shea: Yes, everyday.
FB: Do you have any basic advice for bass players looking to take up fretless or those who are currently playing?
Franc O’Shea: With an upright bass your left hand moves parallel in relation to your body and you can pretty much stick your left hand fingers in your ear with your eyes closed. But with an electric, the bass is at a right angle away from your body, so there is no hand to body physical relationship to judge it by. This is why fret markers can help. That said though you don’t want to be relying on the markers 100%. Try also practising against tuned backgrounds and not looking at the bass neck as well, because in the end your ear is your best tool and you have to get used to constantly making micro adjustments.
Another thing is that sometimes fretless can seem easier to play because people can become lazy and complacent with the finger spacing on the left hand, so that generally it is in tune but in the lower positions the hand isn’t quite stretching enough. Then when they play a fretted it suddenly feels like they have to stretch more to not get fret buzz, when in reality they need to be stretching more on the fretless to get the notes properly in tune. The markers also don’t work in the same way if you are playing things like Indian Ragas that utilise microtuning.
I remember reading an interview once with the great fretless player Pino Paladino that I thought was funny. He was asked how he got such good intonation on his fretless and he said something like ‘I don’t have good intonation, I just smother the notes with lots of vibrato and it gives the effect of being in tune!’
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