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Increasing you guitar’s sustain can be dealt with in one of two ways:
Short or long term fixes.
This means that if you’re having trouble getting a nice long attack from your signal, your problem could be either a chronic equipment issue (meaning you’ve basically got to buy better gear) or you have a temporary and immediately solvable settings problem.
Gear I Used in this Post
I want to deal with both, because I’ve found that while optimal settings can go a long way in helping you increase guitar sustain, the right gear will often make it a non-issue entirely.
So let’s start by covering what we can do in the short term.
Increase Guitar Sustain: Settings and Short Term Fixes
This is for those of you who just want to improve your guitar’s sustain now without having to go out and spend more money.
Keep in mind, it’s possible this will solve all of your sustain problems. So depending on how it goes, you might not have to buy new gear at all.
When we’re talking electric guitars and sustain, we’d do well to consider it in the context of distortion.
Note that the primary setting you’re dealing with when it comes to sustain and distortion is gain.
Generally, the more gain you have, the longer your sustain is going to hold.
Sources of Gain
Depending on how your rig is set up and what gear you own, your gain is going to come from one (or more) of the following sources:
Typically, the most popular answer will be a distortion pedal, with amplifiers coming in a close second.
Whatever distortion pedal that is, you’ll typically have a setting called “gain,” “distortion,” “power” or something like that.
Different pedals will call it different things but, it’s all referring to your gain levels.
As a general rule, the higher you have that knob dialed, the more gain you’re going to have and thus the more sustain you’ll get.
The other variable is going to be the settings on your amplifier.
Assuming you’ve got a decent distortion pedal and you’ve gotten things dialed in properly, let’s talk a little bit about how you want to have your amp set.
It should be understood that depending on your amp, you’ll have to do your own tweaking and adjusting to get things right.
Everyone’s rig has its own leanings and idiosyncrasies
But as a general rule, here’s what you’ll want to stick to.
On a scale of 1 to 10:
- Treble: 6
- Mid: 4
- Bass: 8
- Presence: 5
- Reverb: 2
- Gain (if not using pedal): 8-10
How much gain you use will determine whether or not you’re already using a distortion pedal.
If you’ve got the pedal, than piling more gain on top of that via your amplifier is just going to make things sound messy.
Avoid using both at the same time in most cases.
I’ve found that in general, these are the optimal settings that will get you the most sustain out of your amplifier.
The Guitar Itself
Aside from your amp and distortion pedal, there are a few things you should do with your guitar to make sure you’re getting as much sustain as possible.
- Keep the volume knob all the way up: Turning the volume back on your guitar actually cuts down on the volume and gain in your signal. It’ll basically change the tone. If you want that, it’s great, but if you’re looking for sustain, leave the volume knob at 10.
- Use a heavier pick: The type of pick you use will actually have a pretty noticeable effect on how much sustain you’re able to get out of your guitar. The heavier picks usually mean longer sustain.
Your pickup selector and tone knob aren’t going to make a huge difference, so if you’ve got your volume knob at 10 and a heavy pick, you should be good to go in terms of your guitar.
That’s pretty much all you can do in the short-term, so before we move on to possible gear changes and/or purchases, let’s recap:
Increasing Guitar Sustain in the Short Term
- Distortion pedal settings
- Amp settings
- Guitar volume knob
- Guitar pick size
Increase Guitar Sustain: Long Term Solutions
The biggest consideration when you’re having trouble getting good sustain out of your rig, is the rig itself. Cheap amps and cheap guitars simply cannot be tweaked enough to produce great tone and sustain. It just won’t happen.
In terms of getting quality sound of any kind (sustained or otherwise), these are the price thresholds I’d recommend you stay above:
- $400 invested in your amplifier
- $500 invested in your guitar
In terms of retail value (what you would get for an amp or guitar new) this is what I would recommend you spend. Now it’s not a hard and fast rule, as some people might come up with different numbers. Yet the fact to take away is that you can’t get good tone and sustain out of a shoddy guitar and amp.
So if you’ve got cheap gear, that probably needs to change if you want to increase your sustain and get better tone.
We’ll take it one piece at a time.
You’ve got a couple different options when it comes to your guitar, First, you can go all in and buy a brand new axe. Like I said, anything about $500 is going to get you decent quality, and if you want more specifics you can check out this article I wrote on the best cheap electric guitars under $700.
Another thing to consider: If you like the guitar you have and you don’t want to sink a lot more money, you can install new pickups.
New pickups are usually between $100 and $300, and they can make a huge difference in your guitar’s tone and sustain. Look for brands like EMG, Dimarzio and Seymour Duncan, as they’ll give you the best tone and longest sustain.
Installation isn’t terribly difficult, so this is definitely a good option for you if you like your guitar and just want an easy sustain upgrade without having to spend a lot of money.
If your amplifier is lacking, the only thing you can really do is pay the money for an upgrade. In terms of sustain, tube amplifiers will be your best solution, although there are some great solid-state amps on the market now as well.
Stick with the following brands:
- Mesa Boogie
- Line 6
Again, the $400 or higher price is just a general recommendation, and you’ll want to pay attention to wattage and number of speakers. Try to get something that’s higher than 40 watts and with two speakers instead of one. If you can find something like that in one of the brands I mentioned, you’ll be in good shape.
The Line 6 amps in particular have great a variety of different distortion settings and great sustain, so if you decide to go solid-state, they’re one of the best options available.
Sustain is tough to nail down, and it can sometimes even fluctuate when you’ve got excellent gear that’s all setup the right way. But if you get your settings down and put some money into your rig, you should have no trouble getting at least seven or eight seconds of attack from your sound.
Good luck in your pursuit of great sustain and thank you for reading.
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