How To Make a Fretless Guitar – Converting Your Guitar to Fretless

Fretless Guitar Conversion

So you bought a super-cheap neck from the clearance section of some discount guitar parts website, and it arrived bowed and twisted, but you can’t bring yourself to write it off and throw it away. Maybe you have a terrible neck laying around that you can’t seem to find a use for. Whatever the circumstances, you find yourself with a neck you aren’t using and you’ve been curious about playing a fretless guitar. Here’s how to make a fretless neck out of a trashed neck you’ve found yourself in possession of.

In my case, I fell for it: I bought a neck from an online retailer (who shall remain nameless) for a price I couldn’t pass up. When it arrived, I was so excited to put it on a body I had—I threw caution to the wind and cut out the headstock shape, bolted it to the body, put on the tuning machines, and put some strings on it….let that be a lesson, naturally: test the truss rod AS SOON AS you take it out of the package. Since I DID NOT test the truss rod prior to doing all this work on this neck, I was sorely disappointed to discover that loosening the truss rod would not correct the back bow in this neck.

I tried several things: first, I put some HUGE strings on the guitar, and left it alone for about a month, to see if some of the bow could be pulled out of it—nope. Second, I tried to heat the bow out of the neck using a heated steel bar and some clamps. While that worked for awhile, after another month, the neck returned to its backbowed position.

Then I had an idea: why not a fretless guitar? It’s a junky neck anyway, and since I would ordinarily just throw this neck away and write it off as “stupid tax,” I would use this neck as a fretless guitar experiment! He’s how I did it.

Caveats

Here are some things that are worth going over: I am using a junky neck, so I probably wouldn’t do it THIS WAY on a neck I actually cared about…at least not until I practiced on a few of these.

Also, I’m doing things with the idea that I would be able to reverse these changes if I decide that I don’t need a fretless neck anymore.

Materials Needed

Before we get started, here are a few things you will need:

  • Guitar Neck – this is the kind of cheap neck I’m talking about, something that is so cheap it justifies your experimentation.
  • Tuning Machines – maybe you just happen to have some lying around. If not, just get a basic set.
  • Nut – if needed.
  • Wood Filler – for filling the fret slots so we have a nice silky smooth fingerboard.
  • Wax
  • Mineral Oil – to oil your fingerboard with.
  • Cyanoacrylate Glue – for filling voids in filler, and for gluing in the nut.

Tools Needed

In order to complete this complete this project, you’ll need to have a few tools on hand:

  • String Winder – for taking off strings and putting them back on quickly.
  • Fret Pullers – for… uh… pulling out the frets.
  • #1 Phillips Screwdriver – for taking off or putting on tuning machines.
  • #2 Phillips Screwdriver – for taking off and/or putting on the neck bolts.
  • Cordless Drill – for drilling tuning machine mounting screw and neck bolt holes in the neck.
  • Radius Block – for doing a basic level of the fingerboard, and for removing excess wood filler when we fill the fret slots.
  • Razor Blades – for cleaning out fret slots once they’ve been filled by dust from the leveling process and for applying the Cyanoacrylate Glue to the nut slot, and over the filler if you need it.
  • Straightedge or long ruler
  • Nut File – for filing our nut slots during setup.

Step One:

In my case, I bought a neck that did not function, so this is an attempt to salvage it. Since my neck is on a body already, and has tuning machines and strings on it already, we have to get so all that stuff off so we can get the frets off and the neck leveled.

So, step one is to take the strings off the guitar.

Removing the Strings
Strings Removed

Step Two:

Using the nippers, gently ease the edges of the nippers under the fret, and pull, being careful not to chip out any fingerboard surface as you pull.

Removing the Frets

Continue with down the fingerboard.

Removing the Frets Halfway through
Frets and Nut Removed

The nut must also be removed.

Step Three:

Next the neck must come off the body, and the tuning machines need to come off the neck so it can sit flat on the bench.

Removing the Neck
Tuners Removed

Step Four:

Since I have already determined that this neck is a bit backbowed, I tightened the truss rod a bit before the next step, so after it is leveled and the truss rod is returned to the loose position, it will be at the least straight.

Checking the straightness of the neck – lower area
Checking the straightness of the neck – middle area
Checking the straightness of the neck – higher area

After I tightened the truss rod about a quarter of a turn, I took a piece of chalk and marked the face of the fingerboard.

Marking the fingerboard before leveling

Step Five:

At this point, I took my radius block out. Using some spray adhesive, I put some 220 grit sandpaper on the 12 in. radius block.

Next, I started to level the fingerboard.

Leveling the fingerboard with a radius block

You can see in these pictures that the radius block is taking away material in the areas of the fingerboard that are dark, and the low spots of the board are still white with chalk.

Areas still with marks shows the low spots
Areas still with marks shows the low spots

I kept leveling and re-applying chalk until I can lay a straight edge on the fingerboard, without light passing through from behind that signifies a low spot. This particular neck’s trouble spot is from the nut to about the middle of the third fret.

No more marks = leveled fingerboard
No more marks = leveled fingerboard
No more marks = leveled fingerboard

It can take a while. Be prepared. If you’re working inside, use some kind of dust collection and wear a fine particle dust mask. If you don’t have good dust collection, it might be a good idea to do the levelling outside.

Step Six:

After you’ve slogged away at this levelling process for a few afternoons, and cramped up your dominant arm, you should be able to see no light passing beneath the straight edge.

When I have determined that the neck is level, I need to clean out the fret slots. You can use compressed air, an xacto knife or a razor blade. I chose to use a razor blade. Be careful! It’s easy to have the blade slip out of the slot and mar the fingerboard (and thereby cause you to do more work filling and sanding out a scratch.

Step Seven:

Again, as I have repeated ad nauseam in this article, this guide is a quick and dirty guide for reclaiming a neck that you would otherwise throw away. Here comes the fun part: filling the fret slots with some kind of contrasting material that will allows me to still see vaguely where I should place my fingers on my new fretless neck.

I’m sort of experimenting with materials at this point, so this time, I’m trying natural wood filler.

Filling the fret slots with wood filler
Filling the fret slots with wood filler

Basically, I’m smearing this stuff in the slots and letting it dry for 24 hours.

Filling the fret slots with wood filler
Filling the fret slots with wood fillerFilling the fret slots with wood filler
Smearing the with wood fillerSmearing the with wood filler
Finished filling the fret slotsFinished filling the fret slots

When I came back to the neck after a day, I use the radius block with the 220 grit sandpaper to remove the excess. I then carefully examined the slots to see if any of the filler has receded from the level of the fingerboard. I don’t want any dips! I want smooth! If there are any dips or voids left from the wood filler drying, fill them again, and wait another day. Keep doing it until the face of the neck is as smooth as it can possibly be.

Leveling the fingerboard after filling fret slotsLeveling the fingerboard after filling fret slots

Step Eight:

Since I’m experimenting with this filler material, I have noticed that it can be sort of soft. I decided to remedy this with a liberal application of cyanoacrylate on top of the filler. I’m using a razor blade to apply the glue in a bead along the top of the fret slot.

Applying super glue to the fret slotsApplying super glue to the fret slots
Applying super glue to the fret slotsApplying super glue to the fret slots
Finished applying super glue to the fret slotsFinished applying super glue to the fret slots

Naturally, the excess is removed with the radius block and sandpaper.

Leveling the fingerboard one more timeLeveling the fingerboard one more time

Step Nine:

When I have done all I can to make doubly and triply sure that there are no longer any dips, I used some mineral oil to lubricate the fingerboard and really make the rosewood shine and look nice.

Step Ten:

Next, I put my tuning machines back on.

Tuners InstalledTuners Installed

Step Eleven:

The new nut is installed next. If you can re-use the old nut, by all means do so…this particular nut was glued in with copious amounts CA glue, so it sort of shattered and came out in pieces. This time, I went for a TUSQ nut that was already pre-slotted.

Just a drop or two of thin CA glue will hold it.

Applying super glue to the nut slotApplying super glue to the nut slot
Installing the nutInstalling the nut

Use a spring clamp if you have to.

Clamping the nutClamping the nut to hold it in place while the glue dries

Step Twelve:

The neck holes are drilled. Proper alignment is always an issue, make sure the neck is properly aligned before drilling the holes. Measure twice, drill once.

Clamping the neck to the body to align itClamping the neck to the body to align it

Step Thirteen:

Re-bolt the neck to the body. I like to lubricate the screws by dragging them through some wax. In this case, I’m using a beeswax candle.

Lubricating the screwsLubricating the screws

Step Fourteen:

Re-string the guitar.

Restringing the GuitarRestringing the Guitar
Restringing finishedRestringing finished

Step Fifteen:

Setup. Here’s the interesting part. Since there are no frets to get in the way, the not slots can be cut down fairly low, so this guitar is going to have really low action.

Setting up the nutSetting up the nut
Setting up the nutSetting up the nut

Step Sixteen:

Tune, plug in, and enjoy.

Fretless Guitar Conversion FinishedFretless Guitar Conversion Finished
Fretless Guitar Conversion FinishedFretless Guitar Conversion Finished

Now you can do all kinds of crazy Dave Fiuczynski type stuff. you can nearly sound like a slide guitar! All from a cheap neck that a saner person would’ve thrown in the fire. Be proud of yourself, strange sonic possibilities await!

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