We all want it – that rich violin like sustain David is a master at achieving. It can be a challenge though and a real inspiration killer trying to make your guitar sing and all you end up with is a choked dead tone. In this article we’ll look at some tips and tricks for making your guitar sustain on stage and while playing on smaller rigs at home.
It doesn’t take many bootlegs to realize that David too has had his share of those frustrating moments when the guitar just won’t cooperate. Sustain is often taken for granted but you have to consider your rig as a whole – guitar, pickups, pedals, cables and amp – as well as your technique and the venue to make it work.
Buying a new guitar and maintenance
Although not a rule guitars with a rich natural sustain are often to be found in the higher price ranges. Good quality parts and craftsmanship is vital for a good sustain and it costs. Still, I’ve been surprised by many cheaper instruments that in some cases both sound better and has a richer sustain than a more expensive similar models. When you’re buying a new guitar – in this case a Stratocaster – it’s always wise to check the following:
- There should be no gap between the bolted neck and the body.
- The bridge should be mounted straight and in the correct distance to the saddle on the top of the neck. If not, the bridge block will touch the body when you bend the tremolo arm and deaden the tone.
- Bend the tremolo arm and see that there are no sharp edges on the bridge saddles or anything that might prevent a smooth string operation. This is also something you need to check regularly as a sign of wear.
Be sure to play the guitar acoustically and with an amp you know well before you decide to buy it. Try other identical guitars and also different models and compare their tone and character. One often just pays attention to the guitar’s shape and colour but wood, lacquer and assembly plays a huge role in the instrument’s tone and even two identical guitars might sound very different depending on the selection.
Once you get home and as often as needed you should do a basic set up. This helps the guitar stay in tune and optimizes its performance.
- Always restring a new guitar and unless you have a specific preference I recommend that 1-2 hours of playing per day demands new strings at least every 4-6 weeks.
- Have some lubricant (hair wax and/or pencil graphite) in the neck saddle to avoid the strings from fastening and cutting the sustain (a noticeable snap or creek when you bend the strings).
- A proper intonation and correct string height/action is crucial for the strings to vibrate as smooth as possible. See this article for more on guitar maintenance.
As you’ll see in this clip your playing technique is equally important as your guitar, pedals and amp in achieving a rich sustain. The way your pick the strings, how you bend them and vibrate them is all a part of your tone and style and by combining the different techniques showed in the clip you can improve both your playing and sustain.
Whether you’re playing at home, on stage or in a studio you should always have some thought and meaning about your setup. As we’ve talked about before it’s very impressive with huge pedal boards and multiple signal splits into different amps but it will drain your signal and kill the sustain. In most cases you’ll end up adding more compression, more boost and more eq, which will only alter you tone. Not enhance it. Different venues demands different setups but there is a reason why David has returned to a much more basic setup compared to what he used in the 80s and 90s. A moderate pedal board and a good sounding amp results in a much more honest and transparent tone that’ll let your own technique to shine through.
Pedals can be a challenge because the wrong effect settings and/or pedal combinations can do more harm than good. It’s often the small nuances or the so-called sweetspots that makes the difference. The settings I’ve listed throughout this site is not meant to be used as a blueprint for your own setup but a guide for creating your own tones that suits your guitar, pedals, amp and technique. Having this in mind I’ll guarantee that you’ll have a much better sound.
In terms of recreating David’s tones you need an amp with as much headroom as possible. Preferably a tube amp. Always use the clean/normal channel and set it up for a warm punchy tone. Try this: bass 50%, treble 50-60%, mids 40%, presence 50-60% and the master at about 1/3 of the channel volume. If your amp allows it, linking the outputs (link upper normal with lower bright with a small patch cable and plug the guitar into the upper bright) adds more presence that helps the sustain (set the bright volume at about 2/3 of the normal).
Stage and studio
David’s using volume and the feedback he gets from playing loud as a part of his sound. To achieve the same effect I always place the amp right behind me and set the volume according to the size of the stage and match the front monitor so that I get some sound in front as well. Then I start with the pedals adjusting one at a time according to the amp level and the stage’s acoustics. The louder you play and the harder you drive the amp the more you need to roll back the gain on your overdrives and distortions. When everything is matching I find my position on the stage (I don’t run around a lot) and increase the volume on the amp until I notice a vague feedback emerging. When I’m in my spot between the amp behind me and the front monitor I should be able to tame the feedback by taking a step forward or backwards for more or less feedback. We’re not talking screaming noise but that vague vibration you can sense when you push the rig a hair extra. This is what Hendrix invented and guitarists like Gilmour has refined to perfection. It allows him to base his tones on his guitar, amp and fingers and it requires just a minimum of pedals with very mild settings. By making the feedback a part of your sound you can easily get the sustain you want. It just effortlessly pours out of your guitar as an extension of your fingers.
Playing at home
Extreme volume is obviously a problem when you’re playing at home so you’ll have to find other ways to get the same result. Whereas on stage a Muff > Tube Driver > delay will be enough for those larger than life tones you might need to use twice as many pedals set much more aggressive when trying to achieve the same tone at home. This of course will add more gain and noise to your tones but careful matching easily solves the problem and again don’t expect David’s football stadium setup to apply for your bedroom. You will need to compromise and do the needed adjustments.
Setup is: Boss CS2 (level 3:00, attack 12:00, sustain 1:00), Boss BD2 (gain 4:00, tone 8:00, level 1:00), OD808 (gain 9:00, tone 11:00, level 3:00).
Not all smaller amps have the headroom you need for your Gilmour tones but try to set your amp up for the cleanest tone possible without getting thin or too bright. Try these settings and make your own adjustments: bass 50%, treble 50%, mids 40%, presence 50% and the master at about 1/3 of the channel volume. You might want to roll off the treble a bit and increase the bass and mids for a fatter tone. Increasing the master also adds a bit more bite but be careful that it doesn’t distort. If your amp doesn’t have a lot of headroom it’s better to use the gain stage as a part of your tone by placing all modulations and delays in the effect loop and running only wah, compressors, distortions, overdrives and EQs in the front.
Choosing the right effects is crucial for achieving a rich sustain on lower volume. Mid boosted pedals like the Tube Screamer overdrive and RAT distortion will not only cover most of David’s tones but their saturated character will also help with the sustain on even the lowest volume. If you do use a booster with the RAT and TS be sure it’s a transparent model like the BD2 or Colorsound Powerboost. Using the TS as a booster with the RAT will be mid range overkill and you’ll end up choking the tone.
I always use compressors with my home setup. By increasing the sustain and volume beyond what’s normal I get a rich sustain and a nicely saturated tone. It may give you more noise but adjust the gain settings on the distortions and overdrives accordingly.
Good quality cables are often overlooked but nothing kills your tone like cheap multi coloured spaghetti. There are lots of brands and models to choose from like Planet Waves, George L’s, Lava and Evidence Audio. Cables should be transparent, properly shielded and able to maintain the signal through the path. This will make your pedals sound better and more importantly your sustain last longer. Keep in mind that instrument, patch and speaker cables are equally important.
I hope this has given you some pointers in achieving those tones we all love. It’s a lot of things to consider but the golden rule is to keep things simple and not trying too hard with too many pedals and complicated combinations. Your tone is the result of years of practice and experimentation and a good portion of patience will get you far!