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How To Make A Guitar Sustainer System, Tutorial


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This is intended to be an organized description of how I built a guitar sustainer that infinitely sustains the vibration of the string (at least until the battery runs out). If you are interested in sustainer theory, just about any aspect of it has been discussed on the thread that this tutorial was born from:

PSW's Sustainer Thread

Disclaimer #1: This is not even close to a solo effort on my part. As anyone who read the original thread knows, PSW Pete is really the driving force behind all of this. Endless thanks and all the credit for this project go to him. And there have certainly been a lot of players along the way that contributed a lot (lovekraft, biohazard, onelastgoodbye, and too many others to mention) So thanks to everyone.

Disclaimer #2: I'm just a guy who came along and wanted to organize everything and get an established point for people to be on the same page so that the design can be refined. In short, this is just a starting point for more experimentation to take place with the driver and circuit design. The system I have built works really well, but it does not do well to sustain the high E string and has a little trouble with the B as well. Hopefully this tutorial will motivate some people to build sustainers and give some input on how to improve on this design.

General Overview:

The chart below illustrates the general signal flow of the sustainer system. The signal is taken from the bridge pickup, amplified through a preamp/poweramp circuit, and fed into a driver, which is essentially a pickup wired to only 8 Ohms, or a speaker with no cone, however you want to think about it. The general idea is that the signal from the guitar is amplified and the driver is used to send an electromagnetic field that will reinforce the vibration, and on and on the sustain goes until you stop it.

As you can see, there are only two things to really build here, an amplifier and a driver. I used a common circuit for the amplifier and the driver is simple enough to build, so this really is not too challenging for the solder-competent builder.



The guys over at runoffgroove.com have a circuit for a small 386-based amplifier called the Ruby which is very well suited to our needs here. I built this and found that it worked great with hot pickups but did not have enough gain for lower-output pickups. Fortunately, they also have a preamp design called the Fetzer valve which is enough of a preamp to get sustain with about any pickup I've tried. The schematic is given below, and more info and troubleshooting tips can be found in the forum at runoffgroove. Thanks to runoffgroove for allowing the use of this circuit in this tutorial. The only difference here is that our "speaker" will be our driver, which is discussed next.



The driver took me a couple of hours to wind and is probably the most labor intensive part of this build. Still, it's really not too difficult.

My driver was built from a stainless steel bar that originall measured 6.2x6.2x61mm as the core. I rounded the edges of this so the corners wouldn't hurt the wrapping wire. I then cut two bobbin pieces (top and bottom) from the black plastic from the back of a CD case. Just cut them in a pickup shape as you can see in the pictures below, then cut out a little rectangle in the middle for the steel bar to poke through. The steel bar and the bobbin top and bottom are then all epoxied together to make the bobbin structure on which the wire is wound.

I used 30AWG wrapping wire from Radio Shack for the windings. I squeezed some Elmer's glue all in the bobbin and then started wrapping the wire, keeping it tight. The glue squeezes up through the windings as you proceed and this hopefully pots the driver and avoids squealing. Just wrap it until you get around 8 Ohms, and then solder some wire on to the ends of the wrapped wire. I epoxied this connection into the bobbin, too, just so that the wrapping wire does not flex too much and break.


After you have the winding, just stick a magnet on one side of the steel rod. I used some rare earth magnets that I salvaged out of an old hard drive. This is another issue to investigate: which magnet type is best? Mine were kind of strange because they had N and S on the same side and so I had to make sure that only the proper side of each magnet contacted the steel.

Speaking of "proper" side of the magnet, there are two ways that this sustainer thing can run. In one mode it will be in phase and keep the dominant mode on the string alive (infinite sustain). In the other mode it will try to cancel out the main mode and kick up some harmonics in the string. This is a cool effect. To switch between these two modes, either switch the lead wires of the driver (essentially change the direction of current in the coil), or flip over your magnet. The best way to handle this is probably to use a DPDT switch to be able to switch the driver leads easily. This way you can flip from regular to harmonic mode with no hassles.

That's pretty much it for the driver. About an hour to make the bobbin, and about an hour to wrap the wire. Let the glue dry, and you're ready to sustain!

General Comments:

1. My current (temporary) setup is to tape the driver under the strings of a guitar with no neck pickup. I always got a little bit of feedback when I tried to use the driver held over the strings of a guitar with a neck pickup. My electromagnetic interference classes make me want to say that the driver signal is coupling through the pickup winding and ground connections even if the neck pickup is not selected. Anyway, the ideal situation is not to have a neck pickup at all, but at least make sure that you do NOT have the neck pickup on (selected). More people might be able to elaborate on this, but that's my experience. I know that PSW tried a combination driver/neck pickup, so he would know more than I would.

2. The way that I play it is to pick normally and solo for a bit. Then I hit the note that I want to sustain, and adjust the preamp gain until it has the right amount of power to keep the string going. Too little power and the string dies out eventually, too much power and the string kind of goes into a square wave and sounds a bit distorted. So I pick and then start sustaining a note and make little adjustments to the preamp level as I play. On my setup chords actually work really nicely too. I was surprised by this.

3. I haven't done it, but it seems easy enough to take the output after the Fetzer valve and have an onboard boost. Kind of a byproduct of the sustainer. Just a thought.

4. As I mentioned, my setup works great but has difficulty keeping the B and high E strings going. The discussion on the other thread mentioned things like the frequency being too high and the strings not having enough physical material for the field to act on. Just some things to think about as everyone builds these things and improves on it (which I know you guys will do).


Hopefully I've described it well enough for someone to replicate this, but here are some pictures of my test setup in case anything was not clear enough. I may even get some sound clips up later to give everyone an idea of what these things can do. Thanks again to everyone that contributed to this work!




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Thanks Mike...This is a terrific tutorial...If i'd done it, it would never have been so concise :D !

As far as installing it more permantly and in guitar's with neck pickups...Lovecraft and I came up with a solution and I'll add that here when it comes to hand. It's a simple DPDT switch as I recall, that connects the power turning it on and switching the pickups. Clearly it can be done....as the commercial systems do it!

You can see that it is possible to make the driver thin enough to surface mount to the guitar. My latest version actually sits on top of a single coil neck pickup as a solution to the potential loss of the neck pickup in creating a "sustainer guitar".

I think the most important thing about the sustainer is that it's a lot of FUN and you'll soon be hooked once you start playing with it. It's pretty cheap and simple to do in this format. The winding wire is nothing like as fragile as pickup wire and it's low ohmage (8 ohms) means that you should have no problem winding it by hand...no machines or counting required.

There are also a number of ways you can put together drivers...using cheapo pickup bobbins and magnets...ordinary steel bar for the core...making fancy laminated, ferrite,or powdered cores for improved performance...putting the magnet inside as the core...etc.

So, again...THANKS MIKE... :D For other stuff and further developments check out the ongoing Sustainer Ideas Thread in the electronics section...

psw / pete

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  • 2 weeks later...

hey, i came here from psw's page on sustainers, which i found while looking for some more info on ansil's sustainer mod.

anyways, although i do know how to solder, i don't have much of a background in electronics at all. i still don't know what's going on, but i do want to build one of these things and stick it in my guitar, hopefully.

i understand the signal flow chart, and i think i understand how to make the driver - however, i certainly don't understand the wiring diagram for the amplifier

also, i have no idea where i'd look to find any of the supplies

can anybody help me out?

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Thx Mike for posting that - and thanks to the people that helped with the creation of this tutorial :D

Im hopefully going to try this B) maybe not on my jimmy page try hard guitar but on a telecaster that i hope to make out of silky oak :D

lol how big are the shafts on those post that you have, like 3 inches


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Hey Monkey...isn't this the type of question best put on the Sustainer Thread...this tutorial is only indended to demonstrate Mike's version of what others like him have been putting together...I know it's a bit long but you've been around it long enough to get used to it....

Now...get over there and I'll answer your question....

Sustainer Thread


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  • 2 weeks later...

Here's a couple of shots of my DIY Sustainer...

The driver is combined with the neck pickup

Here's the guitar...


Here's the back cavity and circuitry, etc...


And here's the controls...on/off, LED, harmonic switch, sensitivity knob (the lower knob is for a future piezo project)....


The making of this driver was illustrated on the Sustainer Thread with more details on this installation...and it's quirks...go there by clicking the link on the above post


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Thank's ZoSo S....

It's a cheapo pawnshop jap strat...originally a sunburst, it's made of laminated 2"x1" unknown timber with plywood laminated on the top. When sanded back the plywood laminations show through on the edges and body carves...

Originally I wanted to make it hollow but the back carve makes that a little difficult so I just cut an F-hole right through! It is pretty much hollow under the pickups, the scratchplate and this new back rout...

I call it my hippie guitar...I think I went a little far...even has PSW on it behind the bridge (seen in the control shot)...it looks even more hippie-ish with those extra knobs on it...got to love a blue light (it's very bright by the way, so it's off in those other shots)...it dims in sustainer mode when the battery starts to go flat and it's time for a recharge.

Actually it's my Test Strat and it's had all sorts of fancy wiring ideas and such tried out on it...the wiring is actually really useful...the 3 way gibson style selector selects the bridge, neck or both pickups...there is a master volume and tone...the middle pickup is controled by the centre knob and can be blended in...the 3 toggle switches are phase switches for the neck and middle pickups and the bridge is a stacked humbucker and it's switch switches from series to parrallel...The two knew knobs are for the sustainer and a DIY piezo system I'm going to do... the switches for the sustainer are on/off and harmonic mode...

Sounds complicated but in practice you just use the 3-way, having preset with the toggles for the range of sounds and use the mid-pickup-blend as a kind of tone control (dialing in knophler like phase sounds or humbucker like mid boost depending on the mid phase switch setting)....

can you answer one question - it may sound stupid lol - can a sustainer act as a pickup when it is not actively sustaining??

Not at all stupid...in fact it's the only time that I know of that it's been done...check out about page 49 of the Sustainer Thread to see pics of it being made...

Here's a pic of it out of it's cover...


The thin blue part is the driver coil, the black part the original pickup coil (exactly the same as the mid pickup on this guitar and the neck pickup it replaced) and there's a ceramic magnet underneath...the poles have been replaced with a blade that goes right through both coils...

So with the sustainer off you have the guitar working exactly as it had done...in fact I think the tone of the pickup is slightly better...more robust or something...certainly no worse with little if any real tone change...I'm pretty proud of this thing...

The installation has shown up a few "quirks" but, with the right settings, I'm getting fantastic performance on all strings and both sustaining modes...so it does work...which is great...is it not...!!

psw / pete

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Hey thats cool - i was kinda hoping that a sustainer didnt only sustain as i wouldnt want to put one on my guitar then :D

Jap strats are pretty nice......sometimes and yours looks pretty good...........to me....... japs make the best guitars (in my opinion) just look at - greco, burny, tokai, orville, jap epiphones and yamaha's

ive got a Greco 1970's les paul bolt on - its about to undergo some major surgery B)

- top removal (its like plywood with a chamber underneath it so ima route the whole thing off) - put on a solid walnut top

- try my bolt to set neck conversion B) lol... its gunna work...hopefully

- fill in original pickup cavities - re-route pickup wiring channels and the re-route cavities for 3 pickups - ive done the jimmy page wiring mod

Jimmy page wiring mod

to my guitar so ima have to add some switches for the 3rd pickup for coil shunts which will make it a wiring mess :D

and much more crap......


Edited by ZoSo_Spencer
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The guitar is what it is...the best thing about it is that I have no qualms in modifying it....I wouldn't be hacking into my Gibson LP like this...in fact I'd be taking more care all round on just about any other guitar....

My other "strat" which plays great is a "Legend" by Aria I believe and can be bought new I discovered for under A$150...on mine I added some graphtec bridge saddles to the original bridge and sealed tuners (cheap and non-locking but better than was on there) and then really worked on adjusting the trem, etc to suit me...again it plays great...not as good as a real strat...but better than your average student model and again, a lot of fun and suitable for modding...

A$150 here BTW is about 10 sets of strings...and you get a whole guitar for that with a decent neck...learn to wind pickups and the thing will sound great...practice building a body and swap over the hardware and you'll have something really interesting.... :D

If you really play around with them so that they play in tune, and stay in tune and you make sure they're as quite as they can be...they are a lot of fun to play...

BTW...you dont need to be plugged into an amp to use the sustainer function...it'll sustain away acoustically and produce all those harmonics just the same... :D

anyway, back to the sustainer...

I'll be attempting to post some sounds in the future so stand by....catch that on the Sustainer Thread...see you over there too, ZoSo...


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can you answer one question - it may sound stupid lol - can a sustainer act as a pickup when it is not actively sustaining??

Not at all stupid...in fact it's the only time that I know of that it's been done...check out about page 49 of the Sustainer Thread to see pics of it being made...

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  • 2 weeks later...

G'day there.... :D

I've invited people from other forums to check this stuff out so I'm posting this for a couple of reasons...

It'll bring it back onto the forum front page....

It'll give me a chance to say hi to all of you guys....

And it gives me a chance to link to a new thread demonstrating what the thing sounds like....which is here...

Sustainer Sounds

before it all gets lost in time...

So, hi to all the members and visitors and feel free to join in at the sustainer thread and, if you're giving this a go...let us know, how you're getting along with it

psw :D

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Thanks J....haven't visited this tutorial for a bit...

There's a lot to explore with those clean sounds...someone with a little bit of practice and talent could do some great jazz/ambient stuff by playing chords or melodies over a bass simply by holding the bass note (no picking) with a finger or thumb over the top...the bass would come out kind of bowed and you could set the sensitivity so that the higher parts were kind of normal (ie not adversly sustained) if you know what I mean...little bit of chorus and you'd get a kind of organ effect...would be even more versitile with a seven-string or something too...

The edgyness you hear may be the fact that the notes will swell to the limit of the drive setting (which was maxed out) and the volume control limitation. As notes swell they increase in output overdriving the amp in a cool kind of way.

Another thing is that the swell can be halted and restarted, or held steady with some careful left hand damping. Also, if you slightly release the presure on a dominating sustained note in a chord, the next (typically lowest) note will begin to dominate. If you could develop the technique (not easy!) you could get a more polyphonic sustain and less domination of one note over another or a kind of bowed appegiation of chords with no picking at all...tricky but cool!

Other tricky things are...pinch (pick) harmonics in the fundumental mode morph from the harmonic, down to the original pitch.

Another favorite is to have the thing in harmonic mode, but with just enough power that as the note dies away the harmonic (typically an octave above) breifly appears softly as it decays. It's not sustaining the note as such but adding this cool little detail to the normal decay...tre cool

There's no doubt a million new subtle little techniques and sounds like these just waiting to be discovered, and sometimes it's the details that really make for a great solo. I really dig how in Hotel California there's a part of the solo that every prase ends with a quick upwards "zip"...I'm not even adverse to the odd string squeek...way too much digital editing these days on such things ($0.02)...

Anyway...thanks for the feedback...my favorite is still "beckistan"...I'd really like to make something of that as it, like the others, were noodle improvs, but even though I haven't heard it since the recording, I still find myself humming it...


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i have a question, could this be used as a sort of feedback effect? i know that it basically loops it around which is what feedback is (i think?) but i didnt want to go making it if noone has tried it. I was wondering if anyone who have built it could either try putting heavy distortion on it and dont mute the stirngs or if they've alreayd tried it tell me the results.

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There's an MP3 "thrash and trash" that's distorted and some of the LP sustainbox riffs are distorted if you want to here them. If there's trouble downloading select the all tracks link and select them from there :D

here's a link back to the sustainer sounds thread....

Sustainer Sounds Thread

Basically it is just feedback...it's a bit more predictable and so easier to control (with string damping). All those classic Hendrix-like feedback extravaganzas, divebombs and harmonic effects are there...it really is like a really loud amp and standing in just the right spot...but can work clean and not loud...if you want. It often even sounds louder than it really is!

Basically you can play as loud and distorted as you like...with any kind of sound. I'm not a metal player myself and the clean feedback effects are pretty unique (except for ebow users I guess) so I was keen for these to be heard...it's definitly not a one trick device.

You do have to develop good damping technique, but it kind of teaches you that in a funny way too...not a bad thing. Basically if you take your hands off the guitar it will just start feeding back as if you hooked up to a really loud amp. The bass strings will tend to dominate but if you dampen them the higher strings will start to ring.

The idea of the device is to not change the tone or function of the guitar so, if your sound is a super-saturated-out-of-control-distorted-feedback-frenzy-wall-of-sound-a-thon, and that's what you dial up, that's what you'll get!!!

hope you're encouraged....psw

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  • 2 months later...
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Hi interested Sustainerphiles

It's been a while since this tutorial was made and quite a few sustainers have been made of various designs. I'd invite people to join in on the sustainer thread Sustainer Ideas...pg74 to see up to date progress on the evolution of the DIY Sustainer.

Here's a couple of Pics of some recent contributions





All terrific stuff....there are alway's new developments as people pool together there experiences in making this device so I'd encourage people to check it out over there...enjoy...psw

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  • 2 weeks later...

I wanted to try making one of these but want it to fit nicely into my guitar if it works, so I tore the windings off of a a cheapo single coil with over sized pole pieces. I had some 26 AWG enameled wire laying around, and i tried wrapping it. I put as many turns on it as i could fit under the pickup case, and measured the resistance. About 200 turns came out to about 4.2 ohms so I figured I should probably get some smaller wire.

But before I try this again, I have a question. How do you measure the resistance as you're winding it? The tutorial says wrap 'til you get 8 ohms, but if your pulling wire off a spool, how do check that?

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welcome jbm222

I'd like to invite you over to the main sustainer thread...here's the link...

Sustainer Ideas Thread...pg75 33,000 visits so far!!!

I know it's big but don't worry about all trying to read all that...just tag along for more advice and the latest ideas on this project. I'll add a post shortly directly relating to your questions there...psw

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