By: Courtney Gayle Morgan
The violin above has a few features that are...unconventional.
It is painted, the scroll shape is unusual, the pegs are geared, the chin rest is center-mounted, and it has frets.
The violin is widely considered to be more difficult to play than the guitar because it does not have frets (a misconception, as explained here). As a result, people who are interested in learning to play the violin often ask why violins do not have frets. After all, it seems like a simple solution, if you believe that frets would make things less difficult, to simply redesign the instrument so that it has frets, and there are in fact violins with frets, especially electric violins. Some have frets that only go partway up the fingerboard, like the violin in the picture above, while others have frets that go nearly to the end of the fingerboard.
Frets on electric violins are widely considered helpful in certain styles of music, especially electronically-amplified music. However, there are other solutions for violinists who are not comfortable with frets. Classically-trained violinists would generally disagree with the claim that frets are an improvement, as will be further explained below.
A History of Frets
Another common misconception is that the violin has been around longer than the guitar and that fretless instruments are outdated and obsolete. The truth is that the guitar is much older than the violin, and before we had metal frets and metal strings, frets were gut strings tied around the neck of the instrument. Because the frets were tied around the neck, they could be moved or removed if the player chose to do so. There was actually a fretted instrument family, the viols, that developed around the same time as the violin family and was used interchangeably with it in the Baroque period. They varied in size, range, and number of strings. At some point, composers began to favor three members of the violin family - the violin, viola, and cello - in combination with the bass viol. The frets were removed from the bass viol, which was renamed the double bass and made to more closely resemble the violin family, and violin makers stopped making bass violins because they were no longer in demand. When ensembles performed pieces written for the viol family, they used this new instrumentation, and publishers began labeling instrument parts for those pieces accordingly. In short, we don't use fretless instruments because they are traditional. We use them because it was a gradual but deliberate transition away from the fretted alternatives.
The video below is a comparison of the viol da gamba and the cello. You might notice that the shape of the bow and the way it is held to play the cello are different than what you might have seen or what you use yourself if you play cello. This is a baroque bow and baroque technique, neither of which are still in use except among musicians who specialize in baroque music.
Why Guitarists Like Frets
The pitch a string produces is determined by the weight, length, and tension of the strings. When a finger is placed on the fretboard, the string is pressed down against the fret in front of the finger, stopping the string at that point. Frets are set in place. As long as the instrument is in tune, the only way you will play the wrong chord is if you place your fingers behind the wrong frets (or on the wrong strings).
Why Violinists Don't Like Frets
Well, some violinists do like frets, obviously, or else it would not be possible to buy a fretted violin. The video above from the Electric Violin Shop is an example of that. However, violinists who use frets often learned to play guitar or another fretted instrument first, and their preference is based on a belief that fretted instruments are easier to play and a desire to apply their guitar knowledge to the violin instead of learning traditional violin techniques.
There are things we do on violins that simply wouldn't be the same if we had frets. We wouldn't be able to play microtones (intervals smaller than half steps), for instance. Violins don't use equal temperament, like a guitar. We like to make our "half steps" a bit closer sometimes, especially between the seventh and eighth intervals in major keys, so we raise that seventh interval higher than a pitch with the same name would be in a different key. A slide (glissando) sounds different with frets than without them. Vibrato is different. In short, we would have to alter our technique significantly if frets were added to our instruments, enough that it would be difficult to re-learn and to teach future generations of violinists.
Frets also mean adding metal to the violin, and that would alter its tone. The reason you can't tune another four-stringed instrument (perhaps a ukulele) like a violin and it sound like a violin is that there is so much more to string instruments than how they are tuned. The materials of the strings and the body of the instrument, the shape and size of the instrument, the shape of the sound holes, and other factors all affect the way the instrument sounds. With violin-family instruments, there is a lot of concern with how wood resonates and how that affects tone quality. Instrument parts that are not made out of wood or anything that makes contact with the wood alters the way the instrument resonates. In short, a violin with frets doesn't sound the same as a violin without frets. The same goes for geared tuning pegs and any metal accessories. Sometimes, a violinist will even notice a difference if they wear jewelry or clothing that contains metal.
Frets Are a Preference, Not an Improvement
It should be noted that there are guitars that do not have frets, and it has already been stated that there are violins that have frets. These exceptions have not altered what most of us imagine when we hear the words "guitar" and "violin." Perhaps instruments with frets and instruments without frets continue to coexist because neither is better than the other, or because each has a musical niche that the other cannot quite fill.
When a musician chooses an instrument, sometimes it's not much of a choice at all. It might be the only option that they have available to them, or it might be something they do because their parents enrolled them in lessons as a child or because a teacher decided they need to play that instrument because that was the best choice for the band or orchestra. However, if a musician continues to play an instrument, whether they chose it initially or not, at some point it becomes a deliberate choice to continue doing so, often because they have fallen in love with the instrument and with the music they play. Different musicians will love different instruments, so the things that make instruments different are things to be embraced.