Guitar Sustain

24th January

Electric Guitar Sustain – How and Why?

guitar sustainProperly executed and controlled guitar feedback/sustain is perhaps one of the most sought after skills in lead guitar playing.

When you first begin to learn electric guitar, this may not be the first thing which comes to mind. However, it will likely become something you’d want to master after a while.

A very common question goes something like this: “How does so and so guitar player (insert name here) manage to hold his tone like for ever? I would like to learn this.”

There are several factors that may come in to play and a number of ways to achieve guitar sustain in electric guitars, so why not let us look at them one by one?

Sustain in the guitar

Some guitars – usually the better ones – often times have more sustain to begin with. A quality guitar which has been played in will vibrate more freely and thus is easier to work with as far as guitar sustain goes.

It is also widely considered that a good guitar (well built, quality woods) with set neck has better sustain than a non set neck instrument.

Pick-ups, guitar strings and string height

It does not help having a good guitar if you’re using old and dead strings, or a guitar which haven’t been properly set up. A good guitar set-up is one of the important factors for achieving controlled guitar feedback (sustain).

You will need strings that are relatively new and clean, and you will have a hard time with “rubber band” (very light) strings and a very low action. Raise the action and use heavier strings, and you’re better off :-)

Also if the pick-ups are too close or too far from the strings, you may have problems. Some players prefer pickups with a higher output. In any case you need to have the distance set close to the strings, but never ever too close (this will dampen the sound)!

Guitar amp feedback

When we’re talking about electric guitar feedback, we usually talk about an interaction between the guitar player, the guitar and the guitar amp.

The player makes the string vibrate, and the pick-up sends the signal to the amp. The amp “sends” the signal back to the guitar – reinforces the vibration – and you get this desired feedback loop. It is more complicated than this, but I think you get the picture.

Anyhow, to get the loop working you will usually need a good tube/valve amplifier and quite a bit of volume. When you position yourself closer to said amp and begin to move the guitar at various angles, you will find the angle and distance that works best. But remember – you will need volume, so a small amp cranked way up (giving a healthy doze of tube distortion) may be just what the feedback doctor ordered :-)

Vibrate those strings!

To keep the strings vibrating and feeding the sound back, you’ll want to have a good clean way of playing your guitar and have the art of string vibrato down to a T.

Another way to accomplish this is to use a finger slide of brass, steel, glass or ceramics. The heavier ones give more sound.


Something which may help you to some extent is a compressor pedal (other places also called sustain pedal).

In layman’s terms, compressors “squash” the signal and then gradually release the sound. As this release effect raises the envelope of the decaying note over time, the sound lasts a bit longer.

Guitar sustainer effect

The first to reproduce a commercial sustainer effect device for live use was the trusty E-bow. This was a hand held device which could be used on one string at the time. By placing it over the pick-up, you can get the string to vibrate, giving “infinite sustain guitar”.

Anyone who remembers “Love Hurts” by the band Nazareth? Anyhow, they guitar player used the E-bow for the solo in that hit song. There’s also a video below demonstrating the electronic device.

Fernandes is a brand that makes something similar. However the Fernandes guitar sustainer system works on all strings, not just one. Here, the neck pick-up works as the driver – setting the strings to vibrate.

This neat system comes installed in many of the Fernandes guitars. They also have kits that can be installed in other guitar makes and models. I use this myself (as well as an E-bow) and it’s way cool.

You’ll also find a video down below showing one of these great guitars in action.

Fat fingers?

Groove Tubes has a product the call Fat Fingers. This is a small device that clamps on to the neck of your guitar (or bass). It is said to increase the sustain by adding physical mass to the headstock of the instrument.

I haven’t tested this device myself, but I intend to try it. It’s discreet, fast to take on and off, leaves no marks and is not expensive … so why not?

Other means to an end

The classic British band 10CC, used a device many years ago called the Gizmo or Gizmotron. This mechanical effect was used on some of of their many hit songs.  You’ll find a video of one of them below: “I’m Not in Love”.

Here’s a piece of information from
“The actual device, a small box which was attached to the bridge of the guitar, consisted of six small motor-driven wheels with serrated edges to match the size of each string. The continuous bowing action was activated by pressing one or all of keys located on the top of the unit. Pressing a key would allow the wheel to descend against a motor driven shaft and bow the corresponding string (…).”

Finally, other players have from time to time used other tools such as electric power drills (!) held close to the strings to produce that infinite guitar sustain effect in live settings.

Guitar feedback

The sustain effect we have discussed here is sometimes also referred to as guitar feedback.

However, feedback to me is more of an uncontrolled side effect, similar to when your acoustic guitars suddenly comes too close to a sound source or your vocal mike makes this high pitched squeal when you get too close to a PA speaker cabinet.

This type of feedback is never anything you want. Guitar sustain on the other hand can be a powerful tool in a the hands of a budding lead guitar player.

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