The Art of Sustain: An In-Depth Look at Guitar Sustainers

In the realm of electric guitars, the pursuit of the perfect tone and sound manipulation has led to a variety of innovations. One such innovation that has captivated players for its ability to elevate the expressiveness and versatility of the guitar is the guitar sustainer. 

What is a guitar sustainer?

A guitar sustainer is a device that uses electromagnetic feedback to allow a guitar string to vibrate continuously, thus prolonging the sustain of a note or chord. It can create effects ranging from long, smooth sustained notes to feedback-like sounds.

This fascinating device, used by legendary artists from Steve Vai to The Edge, transforms the guitar into an instrument capable of holding notes indefinitely, creating an entirely new world of sonic possibilities. 

If you don’t need infinite sustain, check out using a compression sustainer pedal.

In this article, we dive deep into the world of guitar sustainers, exploring their workings, applications, and the artists who have harnessed their potential. 

Sustainiac on Ibanez

What Is A Guitar Sustainer?

A guitar sustainer is a type of device that allows a string on a guitar to vibrate for an extended period of time, creating a sustained note. A sustainer can infinitely sustain the vibration of a string. 

This is often used for creating long, sustained notes or feedback effects without the need for high volume or additional equipment.

There are two main types of guitar sustainers:

  1. Electromagnetic Sustainers: These use a magnetic field to vibrate the strings. They usually involve a driver that replaces one of the guitar’s pickups.

    An example of this type is the E-Bow (Electronic Bow), which is handheld, and when held over a string, it drives the string to continuous vibration.
  2. Fret Contact Sustainers: These physically vibrate the string using a pickup, maintaining the sustain. An example of this type is the Fernandes Sustainer, which uses a pickup that doubles as a driver to vibrate the strings.

In both cases, the aim is to keep the string vibrating for longer than it would naturally, allowing for sustained notes or even infinite sustain, depending on the system and settings used.

How Does a Guitar Sustainer Pickup Work?

A guitar sustainer pickup works by using electromagnetic fields to induce vibration in the guitar strings, allowing them to sustain for a longer period of time. 

Here’s a general overview of how guitar sustainer pickup works:

  1. String Vibration: When you pluck a guitar string, it begins to vibrate. This vibration creates a fluctuating magnetic field around the string.
  2. Electromagnetic Induction: The pickup, which is a coil of wire wrapped around a magnet, is placed near the vibrating string. The fluctuating magnetic field induces an electric current in the coil of the pickup. This is the basic principle of how a standard electric guitar pickup works, and it turns the mechanical energy of the vibrating string into an electrical signal that can be amplified and processed to produce sound.
  3. Sustain Circuitry: In the case of a sustainer pickup, there is additional circuitry that takes the electrical signal, amplifies it, and then sends it back to a driver (which is another type of pickup).
  4. Driving the Strings: The amplified signal from the sustainer circuit is used to create a magnetic field at the driver. This magnetic field is fluctuating at the same frequency as the string vibration, and it drives the string to keep vibrating.
  5. Continuous Feedback Loop: This forms a feedback loop where the vibrating string induces a current in the pickup. The current is amplified and fed back to the string via the driver, which keeps the string vibrating. As a result, the string can vibrate for a much longer time (sustain) than it would naturally.

This process is continuously active as long as the sustainer system is turned on, allowing the guitarist to hold notes for much longer than usual or even indefinitely. 

This is different from standard pickups, which simply transmit the signal from the strings without feeding any energy back to them.

A sustainer pickup often comes with controls that allow you to adjust the intensity of the sustain effect and switch between different modes (for example, fundamental mode, which emphasizes the original note, or harmonic mode, which emphasizes the harmonics).

Who Makes Guitar Sustainers?

Several companies manufacture guitar sustainers. Here are some of the most notable ones:

  1. Fernandes: Fernandes was perhaps the most well-known maker of guitar sustainers, but has not been able to keep up with the competition.  Their “Fernandes Sustainer” system is a pickup set that replaces the neck pickup and comes with a circuit board that is installed into the guitar. The system is controlled by two switches that allow for different types of sustain.
  2. EBow: Technically not a sustainer in the same sense as the others, the EBow (or “Electronic Bow”) is a handheld device that uses a magnetic field to vibrate a single string at a time, creating a similar effect. It does not require any modification to the guitar itself.
  3. Sustainiac: Sustainiac produces a sustainer system that, like the Fernandes, replaces the neck pickup and requires installation into the guitar. Sustainiac systems are notable for their inclusion in several models of Schecter guitars.
  4. Mooer Audio: Mooer produces the Shimverb Pro, which includes a sustainer effect among its features.
  5. Boss: Boss’s SY-300 Guitar Synthesizer includes a sustainer effect.
  6. TC Electronic: The TC Electronic Aeon is a handheld sustainer device similar to the EBow.

The installation of a sustainer system often requires significant modifications to your guitar, so it’s not something to undertake lightly. If you’re not comfortable with doing the installation yourself, it’s a good idea to hire a luthier to do it for you.

Ebow Electric Guitar

How Does A Sustainiac Pickup Work?

A Sustainiac pickup, produced by Maniac Music, operates on similar principles as other guitar sustainers. It utilizes a feedback loop of electromagnetic induction to keep the guitar strings vibrating for a prolonged period, thus producing a sustained note.

Here’s a more detailed explanation of how a Sustainiac pickup works:

  1. Initial String Vibration: When a guitar string is plucked, it begins to vibrate. This vibration disrupts the magnetic field around the string.
  2. Signal Pickup: A traditional pickup (which is a coil of wire around a magnet) located near the string picks up this disruption and converts it into an electrical signal.
  3. Amplification and Processing: This electrical signal is then sent to the Sustainiac’s circuitry, where it is amplified and processed.
  4. Driver Activation: The processed signal is sent to the Sustainiac driver, which is essentially a specialized pickup that can also create a magnetic field, not just detect one.
  5. Sustaining the Vibration: The Sustainiac driver uses the processed signal to generate a magnetic field that pushes and pulls on the string, causing it to continue vibrating at the same frequency as the initial pluck.
  6. Feedback Loop: This creates a feedback loop, where the string vibration is converted to an electrical signal, amplified, and fed back to the string, causing it to vibrate continuously for as long as the Sustainiac system is active.

The Sustainiac system comes with a switch that allows the player to turn the sustainer on or off, and also to select different modes of operation, such as the “fundamental mode” (which emphasizes the fundamental frequency of the note), and the “harmonic mode” (which emphasizes the upper harmonics, creating a feedback-like sound).

The installation of a Sustainiac pickup requires some significant modifications to a guitar, which may involve routing out extra space in the body of the guitar and additional wiring. 

Can You Install A Sustainiac In Any Guitar?

A Sustainiac system can theoretically be installed in any electric guitar, but there are some important considerations to keep in mind.

  1. Space for Electronics: The Sustainiac system consists of not just a pickup, but also additional electronic components, including a circuit board and controls. Therefore, the guitar needs to have enough space to accommodate these. If there isn’t enough space, it may require routing the guitar body, which can be a complex process and may alter the guitar’s tone and sustain characteristics.
  2. Pickup Configuration: The Sustainiac replaces the neck pickup in a guitar. Therefore, it’s suitable for guitars with multiple pickups. If the guitar only has one pickup (such as some Telecaster models), installing a Sustainiac would mean losing the original sound of that pickup.
  3. Battery Power: The Sustainiac system requires a 9-volt battery to operate, which means you’ll need to have space to house the battery inside the guitar, or externally in a battery box.
  4. Installation Process: The installation process involves complex electronics and potentially structural changes to the guitar. It’s not a beginner-level project and might require the services of a professional luthier or guitar tech, which adds to the overall cost.
  5. Potential Changes in Tone: As with any pickup swap, changing to a Sustainiac will alter the guitar’s tone when the sustainer is not in use, as the Sustainiac functions as the neck pickup when not in sustainer mode.
  6. Cost: A Sustainiac is a premium piece of equipment, and it’s not cheap. When you factor in the cost of professional installation, it can be a significant investment.

Some guitar manufacturers, such as Schecter, offer models with a Sustainiac already installed. This can be a good option for someone specifically seeking the Sustainiac sound without the hassle of aftermarket installation.

Which Artists Use Guitar Sustainers?

Guitar sustainers are used by a diverse range of artists across various genres, but they are often associated with metal and prog players. Some notable artists who have used guitar sustainers include:

  • Steve Vai
  • Joe Satriani
  • Neal Schon (Journey)
  • The Edge (U2)
  • Synyster Gates (Avenged Sevenfold)
  • Adrian Belew (King Crimson)
  • Eddie Ojeda (Twisted Sister)
  • Kevin Cadogan (Third Eye Blind)
  • George Lynch (Dokken)
  • Ed O’Brien (Radiohead)​1​.

What Sustainer Does Steve Vai Use?

Steve Vai previously used the Fernandes Sustainer for many years due to its ability to hold tones and overtones, despite some inconsistencies in individual units. He has also experimented with the Sustainiac pickup but had some issues with its tone and functionality. 

Currently, Steve Vai is working with a company to develop a new sustainer pickup that aligns more with his needs and preferences. If successful, this new sustainer may be offered with an Ibanez PIA guitar in the future.

“For instance, of course, I have stock PIAs and they’re fine, but I’ve adopted a sustainer – I love the sustainer, I had been using the Fernandes Sustainer for many years. The thing about them is they’re fantastic in the way that they held tones and overtones.

But they were a little inconsistent, meaning I would have to buy three or four of them to find one worked the way I liked it to work. So I didn’t want to put a sustainer in a signature guitar that I didn’t feel would be consistent.

Also, it was a small company and they couldn’t manufacture the kind of numbers that we wanted – at least that is what I’ve been told.

Then there is the Sustainiac, which I’ve experimented with, but had some issues with – I wasn’t exactly resonating with the tone of the Sustainiac pickups. There were a couple of anomalies that would take place when you went into the higher overtone setting.

So, I’m actually working with the company right now to develop something that would be more along the lines of what I’m looking for in a sustainer pickup, and also that the functionality of the pickup is bulletproof in regard to the way like to use it. If we can come up with that, we will offer a PIA with a sustainer”

Source: Ultimate Guitar Interview

Can I Use A Compressor Instead Of A Sustainer?

A compressor and a sustainer (like the Fernandes Sustainer or the Sustainiac) are two different tools that serve different purposes, and one can’t completely replace the other.

A compressor pedal is used to balance the dynamic range of your guitar’s signal. It reduces the volume of loud notes and amplifies the quiet ones, making your overall playing more consistent in volume. 

This can give the effect of notes sustaining longer, because the quiet tail of the note is amplified. However, a compressor cannot create infinite sustain or the harmonic effects that a sustainer can.

A sustainer, on the other hand, actively drives the strings of the guitar to vibrate, which can create a nearly infinite sustain effect and can emphasize different harmonics of the note.

So while a compressor can help notes sustain longer and sound more even, it can’t replace the unique effects that a sustainer offers. If you’re looking for the effects that a sustainer provides, a compressor won’t be able to fully achieve that.


As we’ve explored, guitar sustainers are not just a tool but a doorway to a whole new dimension of musical expression. By extending the natural sustain of a guitar, they allow musicians to explore sounds and techniques that would otherwise be impossible. 

From the ethereal soundscapes of Steve Vai to the ambient textures of U2’s The Edge, the creative potential of guitar sustainers is only limited by the imagination of the player.

As with any tool, a sustainer is not a silver bullet for achieving great tone or musicality. It requires understanding, practice, and a sense of musical context to utilize effectively. 

While the technology behind sustainers is complex, the concept is simple: to provide musicians with the ability to sustain a note for as long as they wish.

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