Have you ever wondered why guitars have frets but violins, cellos, bass and double bass don’t? They all have strings and a fingerboard. What makes them different?
The guitar is described as a type of chordophone (one of a class of musical instruments whose sound is generated by plucking, bowing, or striking stretched string)(1). For example, the six guitar strings are strummed or plucked with the fingers, thumb, or fingernails of the right hand or a pick while pressing against the strings with the left hand. It’s shape and tuning procedure is unique to this class of instruments. The way a guitar is played–by plucking and/or strumming–produces a percussive sound, whereas a bowed instrument can produce a continuous tone and create its own “sustain.”
Frets are metal strips embedded along a fret board. They are placed at points dividing the scale length by a specific mathematical formula (2). Standard classical guitars have 19 frets and electric guitars between 21 and 24 frets. Each set of twelve frets represents an octave. The twelfth fret divides the scale length exactly into two halves, and the 24th fret position divides one of those halves in half again. The ratio of the spacing of two consecutive frets is 2. When the string is pressed against a fret it determines the strings’ vibrating length and therefore its resultant pitch. The pitch of each consecutive fret is defined at a half-step interval on the chromatic scale. As a guitarist often uses an instrument for chords the finger pressure and accuracy over six strings is easier if there are frets to fix the length of the vibrating string at pre-specified places. Some electric guitarists use sustain-increasing devices, overdriven amplifiers, and various delay pedals to achieve a more viol-like sound (3).
Early violins (viols) had frets (3). The frets were made of gut, like the strings of a classical guitar, and were tied on at the appropriate intervals to make notes of the 12-tone scale common in western music. Feted violins were widely used through Europe in the 14th century until the middle of the Baroque period. They were considered cumbersome to keep aligned and in tune (3). By the 1700s, it was rare to find violinists still using fretted viols.
A violin has four strings and no frets. Being fret less allows more expressivity in the music, the ability to play in scales other than the typical 12-tone scale, and is actually easier on the fingers! Violinists most often play melodic passages, wherein the smallest adjustments in pitch are needed. A violinist also uses vibrato, and must have the digital latitude to use their fingers without interruption by frets. Except for occasional pizzicato, viol family instruments are not played like guitars and when plucked, sound rather dull with short-lived notes (3).
It doesn’t take long to appreciate the differences in sound. This difference requires a difference in one’s approach to playing.