Question: Which solid body guitar has better sustain, the Fender Stratocaster or the Gibson Les Paul? If you were like me, you’d probably pick the Les Paul. I’ve taken it as plain truth that there’s no competition: Gibson Les Paul = incredible sustain. Boy, was I so wrong!
An article by Mottola, R.M. “Sustain and Electric Guitar Neck Joint Type”, piqued my interest. Mottola, in his experiments performed power analysis, spectral analysis, and listening evaluation on three types of solid body electric guitars with 1) Bolt-on neck construction 2) Neck-thru construction and 3) Set-neck (glued-in) construction.
Conventional wisdom has it that Neck-thru construction offers the best sustain followed by Set-neck construction and then Bolt-on neck construction coming in last. His results suggest that this order may be backwards. Yeah, backwards! Bolt-on neck construction gives the best sustain. Neck-thru construction comes in last.
So, when in doubt, test! It’s easy enough to verify Mottola’s results. I collected some high quality un-looped Strat and Les Paul samples, one for each guitar’s E2 (Low E open), E4 (High-E open) and E5 (High-E 12th fret) strings. These are raw unprocessed samples (no compression, no overdrive, no effects). The first set of samples comes from a stock American Standard Stratocaster while the second set comes from a Gibson Les Paul Custom.
The world of guitar building is so full of myths and it’s about time we start questioning preconceptions that’s been handed down the generations.
The envelope of a waveform produced by a mechanical (e.g. piano) or electronic device (e.g. synthesizer) is the general shape that follows the contours of the peak amplitudes of the sound over time. A somewhat crude but illustrative representation is the ADSR envelope found in analog synthesizers. ADSR stands for A: attack; D: decay; S: sustain; R: release.
With the guitar, the attack and decay sections constitute the part when the string is plucked and set in motion. These sections are relatively short but very rich in harmonic content. While the spectral color remains dynamic throughout the duration of the sound, the sustain section is that section for which the characteristics of the sound are relatively constant, while the amplitude is constantly decreasing. The release section is the point when the player finally releases or damps the string’s movement.
The kinetic energy in the form of string vibration is set in motion once the string is plucked. Over time, this energy will slowly dissipate due to various factors such as internal damping of the string itself, the magnetic pull of the pickups, the body and neck material absorbing the energy and converting it to sound, etc. We quantify sustain as the inverse of the rate of decay of the audio. The faster the decay, the lower the sustain.
Passive vs. Active Sustain
Keep in mind that in this article, we are only concerned with passive sustain. Many confuse passive sustain with sustain from feedback or active sustain. I hear people say the Les Paul will sustain for days. That is simply not possible with natural sustain alone. You need a sufficiently cranked up amplifier to force the strings into oscillation (infinite sustain). The amplifier boosts the weak guitar signal from the pickups and its output stages move the speaker. This sound emanating from the speakers, in turn, vibrates the instrument and the strings, which once more gets sensed by the pickups, sending the signal again to the amplifier, creating a feedback loop. Very resonant guitars, especially those with internal chambers, are easily driven into feedback and oscillation.
Strat vs. Les Paul E2 (6th string open)
The graphs below show the waveforms of the 6th string open-E plucked hard. The top waveform is from the Strat while the one below is from the Les Paul. The waveforms are normalized such that the maximum absolute sample value of both waveforms is at 0db. This step is intended to level out any variations in pickup output. The absolute maximum power is irrelevant anyway: we are interested in the rate of decay.
The side-by-side visual comparison of these raw waveforms already shows the slower rate of decay of the Strat vs. the Les Paul. Yet, is this good enough to do a comparative analysis? Not quite. The Strat’s single coil pickups give it a stronger attack transient. The Les Paul, on the other hand, uses humbuckers with a wider pickup window (the distance from both coils). The double coil configuration somehow evens out the attack transient —energetic higher frequency transients tend to cancel out.
Compared to the Les Paul, the Strat is perceived to have inferior sustain primarily because its bright attack transient masks the ensuing sustain. What you hear is the fast rate of decay from the attack transient and not the subtler rate of decay once the waveform settles down into a stable state.
We want to remove the attack transients from both waveforms by fading-in at 4 seconds. At 4 seconds, the initial attack has more or less settled. After removing the attack transients, we do another normalization. Here are the same waveforms faded-in at 4 seconds and normalized:
Now we can clearly see that the Strat has better sustain. The point where the waveform decays to -30db on the Strat is at 24 seconds while on the Les Paul, the -30db is at 14 seconds. That’s 10 seconds more!
Strat vs. Les Paul E4 (1st string open)
Here are the waveforms for 1st string open-E plucked hard. As before, the top waveform is from the Strat while the one below is from the Les Paul. Again, both raw waveforms are normalized.
The attack transient on both waveforms is very short. We fade-in at 1 second to zoom in on the relevant details, disregarding the attack spike.
Again, we can see that the Strat sustains better than the Les Paul. For the open E4 string, the point where the waveform decays to -30db on the Strat is at 7.2 seconds while on the Les Paul, the -30db is at 4.5 seconds.
Strat vs. Les Paul E5 (1st string 12th fret)
Finally, here are the normalized waveforms for 1st E string at the 12th fret, plucked hard. Again, the top waveform is from the Strat while the one below is from the Les Paul.
Fade-in at 1 second:
Here now, the tide has turned in the Les Paul’s favor. For the 1st E string at the 12th fret, the point where the waveform decays to -30db on the Strat is at 4.0 seconds while on the Les Paul, the -30db is at 4.6 seconds. Now that’s interesting. A good guess is that this accounts for the Les Paul’s singing quality at the upper registers.
While for the most part, the Strat sustains better than the Les Paul, the Les Paul sustains more where it is needed most. The Les Paul wails there at the top!
Here’s the tally for our short experiment:
|Decay at -30db point|
|Fender Stratocaster||Gibson Les Paul|
|E2 (6th string open)||24 seconds||14 seconds|
|E4 (1st string open)||7.2 seconds||4.5 seconds|
|E5 (6th string 12th fret)||4.0 seconds||4.6 seconds|
Further Down the Road
I have to admit that more experiments and research needs to be done. There is not enough research into the actual science behind the guitar and guitar building. The deeper I search for answers, the more questions emerge. With the surprising results obtained from this simple experiment, I am really starting to question long held beliefs. At the very least these following conclusions are now in question:
- Les Paul style guitars have more break angle at the nut (due to the angled head) and at the bridge, and tend to sustain open strings longer as a result.
- A guitar with a fixed bridge (Les Paul) will sustain longer.
- A guitar with heavy and dense wood will sustain longer.
While there may still be some truth in the statements above, these observations are at best sweeping generalizations that may or may not be true depending on application and circumstances. It’s not unlike saying that American food is unhealthy when all you can see are Big Macs and deep-fried potatoes.
I haven’t tested traditional thru-neck guitars like the Gibson Firebird. It is known that neck-thru guitars have the best sustain because there is no neck-body joint at all (the wood grain runs uninterrupted from head to body) that will interrupt or impede the flow of sound. Well, at least that’s what I believed, until now. The Cycfi Alpha guitar is a neck-thru design because of this belief. Now that I am starting to question that belief, it might be good to try and test other designs.