It’s fairy common to read about sustain in guitar reviews. Some guitars have lots of it, some have less. We sometimes perceive that a guitar is better if it has lots of sustain compared to if it doesn’t. Let’s pull on a thread to unravel the tapestry of what ‘sustain’ means in a technical and musical sense.
When the term is distilled to its raw, pure form, sustain simply means the endurance of the string’s vibration. Long sustain means the string can vibrate for a longer time; short sustain means the string can’t vibrate for a long time. The ability to vibrate for a long time means that a note can be held longer without it dying out. Easy as apple pie, you’d think. Right? Not really…
Sustain is the result of a complex system concerning the strings, the nut, the bridge configuration, the angles and many other tiny factors. Wood also plays a big role. Generally speaking there are two schools of thought when it comes to timber in this case. One group believes the wood should be as soft and light as possible, and the other believes the wood should be as hard and heavy as possible. The first group likes to cite the (old) SG’s, with their thin Mahogany bodies. The second likes to mention the 70s Les Paul Customs, with their Maple necks, thick Maple tops and heavy Mahogany bodies.
The reason the early 60s SG and mid 70s Les Paul are such good examples is because they have the same scale length, same hardware and same basic type of pickup but widely different body styles and wood types. The idea behind the first group’s idea (light guitar = good for sustain) is that the energy stored in the vibration of the string enables the body to resonate. This resonance in turn puts energy back in the string. In essence, a feedback loop is being made. Many argue against this idea, saying that guitars build of the super-soft Basswood or even simply the softer Alder don’t yield nearly as much sustain as Mahogany.
The second group may be on to something, because the wood is so hard, so dense that minute vibrations of the string don’t get dampened by the body or neck, resulting in all the energy being maintained in the string. No energy loss, no loss in vibration, no loss of sustain. That’s the second idea. But if that’s the case, why don’t we make a wood or design a material that’s as stiff and hard as possible?
Even the man-made material Arium, used for Aristides Guitars, wasn’t designed with that goal in mind, rather, a sonically sound instrument (which just happens to have a lot of sustain!). We’ve talked before about how the wood affects the tone, you can read that article here. But the general idea is that the wood dampens some frequencies (of the harmonics in the vibrating string) and the frequencies that are left ‘in’ the (vibration of the) string are what the pickup picks up and forwards to your amp.
Another point worth noting is string gauge. Let’s talk about two distinct scenarios. In our first scenario we have thin strings. If the amount of energy I put in the string by hitting it with my pick is the same as with heavy strings, you’d assume the inertia of the string would dampen the string later than with heavier strings. But… if I have heavy strings, I can put more energy ‘in’ the string, which will overcome the inertia problem.
If I were to put the same amount of energy in the thinner string, chances are the string would vibrate with so much force, it’d smack against the fretboard causing it to rattle and buzz much more fiercely than if I were to hit it with a regular force. I suppose that’s where the idea comes from that lighter strings facilitate a lighter touch and where the idea that heavy gauge strings have an increased sustain over thinner strings comes from as well. In other words, there’s a goldilocks region for the optimum amount of energy you, as a player, can and should put ‘in’ your string when you hit it. Don’t forget, your hands and arms are way more powerful in terms of energetic value than that lone, meager string.
The pickup itself is also very important for sustain. In this field there are again two major schools of thought as to which is better for sustain: a lower or a higher-output pickup. Low-output fans say the weaker magnet pulls less on the string, allowing it to vibrate more freely. For example, the Seth Lover isn’t a pickup known for its output, but if you were to install it, you’ll be surprised by its sweet tone and its ability to make your guitar sing and sustain in a way you never imagined possible!
Those that prefer higher output pickups might say a stronger magnet has a stronger magnetic field, and therefore it’ll be able to pick up smaller changes in the vibrations. If a stronger pickup can pick up tinier vibrations than a weaker pickup, the cut-off moment of where the pickup stops ‘sensing’ the string should be later in a higher output pickup than a lower one.
Another classic way to get more sustain is to add a compressor pedal or an overdrive set on low gain. The compressor pedal takes all the highs and lows of the signal and squishes it together, so all the highs and lows of its output are the same. Take Seymour Duncan’s newest addition to their family of pedals, for instance, the Vise Grip. A neat pedal with many tonal options to choose from.
I want to stress my personal belief: more sustain isn’t better, per se. When I play a Jazzmaster or Mustang I really don’t want howling, hour-long sustaining notes. I want sparkly, spanky notes that die out fast, so I can start picking short, fierce chords. When I pick up a Les Paul, SG or ES-335 I need the long sustain for those singing, vocal-like leads. The only guitar when I’m in two minds about sustain is the Strat. Sometimes I just want clean, spanky strumming but sometimes I need howling, long notes.
Further reading: Secrets To Sustain
How about you? How much sustain do you prefer and what guitars do you find give the best sustain?