What makes a guitar sustain?

Discussion in 'Luthier's Corner: Guitar & Bass Technical Discussi' started by Rich T Fingers, Mar 21, 2005.

  1. Rich T Fingers

    Rich T Fingers Member

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    I don't believe that there has been a definitive technical discussion on this key subject in these pages. I've seen sustain noted as being created by the ability of the strings to "ring on" without impedance from the body of the guitar which is why the Les Paul has a heavy body. However, the most sustaining guitar I have is a PRS CU24 trem with a WT (thin) neck so in theory it shouldn't sustain much. Moreover though, the next most sustaining guitar I have is a PRS Singlecut stoptail with a Brazilian neck like a tree trunk! Two totally different guitars that both sustain for days.
    Clearly, individual guitars will embody factors that produce sustain outside of the ground rules.

    But generally speaking, what are the ground rules : what in your opinion are the key factors that contribute to sustain?
     
  2. Taller

    Taller Silver Supporting Member

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    I think it's the luck of the draw actually. What you're describing is the sympathetic vibration of the body and neck as the strings vibrate.
    Sometimes, the various pieces of wood simply work together as one.
    Take the same guitar and put a different neck on it [same species of wood as the old neck] and it might not sustain as wonderfully as the original.
     
  3. rooster

    rooster Member

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    Hmmm. Out of my guitars, the Heritage H150CM Classic definitely has the most sustain. The second place would be my USA Dean Caddy, third would be either the 1987 PRS Custom or the homemade flying V, with my Heritage H170CM next, and my strats trailing at the rear.
     
  4. Tone_Terrific

    Tone_Terrific Member

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    Seems to me that sympathetic vibrations can be a nuisance in that open strings start to ring too easily. I know, bad damping technique, but a nice even, equally distributed sustain over all the notes without a pronouced resonant hump would sure be nice (specially in a Strat)
     
  5. rooster

    rooster Member

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    Yeah, but those imperfect resonances are what give each guitar its character. If you want to do without them, buy a Steinberger; they are "perfect" every night, but at the expense of the "cluck" of a Strat, the "chunk" of a Les Paul, or the "chirp" of an SG. My Heritage has that LP "chunk" and "honk" in spades, and I wouldn't trade it for the world. Now, if I could only play worth a crap....

    rooster.
     
  6. alderbody

    alderbody Member

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    it's definately the wood type(density, weight, body and neck design) but i believe it's the materials the hardware is made of,
    plus their design.

    then it's also the nut, the string type-gauge and the pickup distance especially in single coil equipped guitars...

    and luck of course, to get all those work right at the same time... :)
     
  7. Rich T Fingers

    Rich T Fingers Member

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    It's going to be all of those things, after all that is what a guitar is made of. However, what actual materials in what place? Sure, any materials can sometimes be in synch with each other but what, if you design it from the ground up, are the key factors - what wood in what place? Mahogany makes a great body wood but doesn't make a good fretboard for instance. But it's a technical question - what actually creates sustain? Sure any guitar can sustain well just because ... But I was interested in the technical answer, is it because the guitar itself does NOT impede the string resonance? And so is sustain all in the strings? Or do certain constructions using certain materials create or add to sustain?
     
  8. alderbody

    alderbody Member

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    In a "perfect" world with "perfect" materials, the sustain should be endless, because the strings should vibrate for ever.

    But in this imperfect world we live in, there are certain rules that contribute to the loss of the amplitude of such a vibration,
    and this has to do with the nature of the materials, the magnetic fields of the pickups, the friction between the surrounding air and the strings, and so many other factors that we practically ignore...

    So what i believe is that the materials and designs in a guitar contribute to the amount of loss of the initial sustain,
    but in an 'opposite manner' than we understand it.

    This means that "better" materials/designs deduct less, and of course "worse" deduct more sustain...

    The sustain is always "there", but also there are all those factors that kill it...

    ;)
     
  9. Mark Robinson

    Mark Robinson Gold Supporting Member

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    To me sustain is pretty much a function of how close you are and at what angle to the 4 x 12" cabinet you are. If there is a lack of sustain in your guitar, add a second 4 x 12" cabinet. Should take care of it easily.:D
     
  10. Rich T Fingers

    Rich T Fingers Member

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    Mark, would I need to have the volume on number eleven?
     
  11. Mark Robinson

    Mark Robinson Gold Supporting Member

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    A non-master Marshall will give it up as low as two. It's just positioning and pressure. It's not too difficult to get feedback at low volumes. Fuzz units, compressors, some overdrives, or just giving the instrument a big exposure to radiating speakers, all will do it. Amps based on Marshall/Bassman circuits are sort of voiced for it IMHO. Also light guage strings and single coil pickups seem to help, also IMHo.

    My reply was half tongue in cheek, but only half. A 4 X12" really accelerates the sustain of a guitar. All I'm trying to say is that sustain, to me, is way more about amplification, rather than what the guitar build is like. I'm no fan of excessively microphonic pickups though.
     
  12. Rich T Fingers

    Rich T Fingers Member

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    I know, so was mine.... :cool:
     
  13. John Phillips

    John Phillips Member

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    Alternatively, use a small amp with tons of gain, and you don't need the volume!

    Actually I find heavy gauge strings and humbuckers work better - I can sit in front of my Mesa 1x12" with my PRS (with 11s), and get feedback at will at barely more than talking volume... even on stage, facing the other way, I don't need that much volume - which is a good thing, as I play in a band with a fairly 'delicate' female vocalist, and I don't want to drown her out.

    It's the interaction between the strings, the pickups, the wood, the amp, and the speakers all together that does it. You do need a guitar that is inherently 'resonant' in the first place for the most even, controllable and 'musical' feedback though. Some combinations are much better than others, if the frequency responses and peaks line up in such a way as to exaggerate the closed loop. Also, if you're using a small amp, raise it up to the same height as your guitar body (but don't tilt it) - this increases the ease of getting feedback, and the control, really quite a lot.

    I do actually like slightly microphonic pckups too - not excessively so, you need to be able to stop it if it starts to squeal - but I find it gives a lot more 'life' to the tone.
     
  14. LavaMan

    LavaMan Gold Supporting Member

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    Several factors affect guitar sustain:

    - Type of wood - heavier/more dense the wood the more sustain - also size of the body affects sustain also

    - Type of pickups - Humbuckers vs. Single coil - of the two humbuckers tend to have more sustain - EMGs are the industry leader for pure sustain

    - Material used in neck - necks made of graphite composite or a combination of graphite composite and wood typically have more sustain

    - Type of strings - certain strings have more resonance than others

    - Type of Cable - run of the mill vs. high-end - better the cable the more responsive the amp - therefore more sustain

    - The obvious: Amp choice - a good tube amp with nice gain channel or a clean good channel combined with a nice overdrive pedal directly affects sustain


    These are just basic principles - you can get more technical detail than this on sustain....
     
  15. rooster

    rooster Member

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    I have one in my case. I upgraded my pickups to Bill Lawrence 280S's, and no longer use it.

    rooster.
     
  16. Tube Guy

    Tube Guy Silver Supporting Member

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    Hi John

    Any particular reason not to tilt?
     
  17. emjee

    emjee Supporting Member

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    yeah, Groove Tubes amp co. put 'em out, of all people.
    If I could just find one guitar that sustains the same length of
    time at all frets on all strings i would be ecstatic. Example: Hit
    your Low E, and count how many seconds go by. Now hit the same string at the 9th fret. On my Hamer the open e lasts about ten seconds, and then when fretted at the 9th fret it only can be heard
    for 4-5 seconds. Never tried a "Fathead", but Satriani sponsored them for awhile.
     
  18. John Phillips

    John Phillips Member

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    Because it points the amp at your head.

    I honestly think anyone who does this is nuts. Yes, I know it's quite popular :).

    The biggest reason is simply that it totally distorts your perception of what the amp sounds like, or how loud it is. Pointed at your ears, it will sound far brighter and louder - so the temptation is to get a 'good tone' (actually for me that means really turning down the treble a long way, I hate the sound of a speaker pointed straight at me at short range), and set your volume about right for you - which means that for everyone else in the room, it will be too quiet and too muddy. If you're miked so much that the amp isn't really audible off the stage it's perhaps less of an issue, but it still doesn't tell you what the amp is really sounding like out front, unless the soundman mikes the center of the speaker and then leaves the EQ dead flat (which I've never, ever seen one do), and it's hard to put back missing top-end in a way that sounds good.

    Equally, a small combo on the floor is no good either, you'll set the amp far too loud and bright to compensate for your ears being so far off-axis. All the experience I've had (I quite often go out front with a long cord at soundchecks if I can, and also take other people's opinions on my sound seriously) is that having the amp about waist-high and upright gives the best representation of the out-front tone and level when you're standing a few feet from it.

    Secondly (the reason I mentioned it this thread) tilting it raises the volume you need in order to get controlled feedback, since the amp isn't pointing at the guitar any more.

    I also think pointing a speaker straight at your ears like that is likely to be worse for your hearing, even compared to slightly louder and not directly at them - although I don't have any factual evidence, just the perception I get when the monitors are too loud (I also hate having my guitar in them for all these reasons).

    There's also a small possibility that tilting the amp may be bad for it - some (though few) tube types don't like being operated off vertical, and on most combos it will also allow heat to build up under the chassis, where the hot air will more easily become trapped.


    How many pro touring bands do you see with the amps tilted? ;)
     
  19. Tube Guy

    Tube Guy Silver Supporting Member

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    Thanks John - I'll take that as a DON'T TILT then :)

    I saw Dr Robert at a Gibson guitar clinic a few months and his first advice to everyone was the same as yours, get a combo up to waste level pointing at your guitar.

    He went on to suggest that the EQ should then be set to maximise the sustain from the guitar in that particular venue. (I think I'm quoting him correctly there).
     
  20. AJ Love

    AJ Love Member

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    there is natural sustain coming from a guitar acoustically and then there is electric sustain coming from the right pickups/amp etc...ideally both is happening

    in my experience, you need to play an electric guitar unplugged first to see whats going on with it... a solid dense wood like Alder will give a good sustain, especially if it is joined with the right maple neck
     

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