Sustainiac Ibanez S420

About Sustain Sustain is one of the big holy grail buzzwords of electric guitardom, and some Strat players are always looking for ways to correct the cruel injustice that Les Pauls have better sustain. Some are willing to weld their whammy bar to the body with wood blocks and install pricey heavy duty sustain blocks to help get there. (I dunno... Welding the neck to the body might help, as well as replacing the body with a dense hard wood, perhaps in the shape of a Les Paul?)

No one wants their guitar to sound like a banjo... unless it's for a special banjo emulation sound. It depends on the kind of music you play. For airy acoustic music, where open chords work with slower tempos to accompany vocals, long acoustic sustain and gradual decay is usually a good thing. Faster, clipped beat electric music usually calls for deliberate string dampening to complement whatever the bass and drums are playing. For lead playing it's all over the place, again, depending on style. Country-style often uses a blistering barrage of staccatto notes, whereas heavier rock/metal styles may use a blistering barrage of compressed, distorted notes separated by phrases where notes sustain and morph into feedback. If you play loud electric guitar and your guitar doesn't sound like a banjo, squeezing additional milliseconds of natural acoustic sustain from a guitar may not be necessary, since there are plenty of electric gadgets that will help you get a full, rich sound with "sustain for days", even if you've got a twangy old Stratocaster with single coil pickups.

There's an important distinction between natural acoustic sustain/decay and amplified acoustic feedback, a.k.a. "endless sustain". With unamplified acoustic and solid body guitars, the guitar's construction, setup, and playing technique determine the natural decay of a note after the note is plucked. With amplified electric guitar, other things enter the equation: Given enough volume or gain, the amplifier creates sound waves that can reinforce string vibrations and cause (partially) controlled feedback. Any amplified guitar can do this, providing the pickups aren't microphonic (since the uncontrollable, high pitched microphonic feedback will drive you nuts before you enjoy the fun of controlled feedback). Generally, guitars that have stronger natural acoustic properties (like semi-acoustic electric guitars) will tend to feedback more readily: This can either be a blessing or a curse depending on whether you want it or not.

If you're unfamiliar with string dampening techniques, feedback is a curse since notes that unexpectedly bloom usually sound very wrong. Dampening strings is extra work and can be a pain in the ass if you're trying to concentrate on using your hands to finger notes and pick, but it's something that you have to practice and incorporate instinctively into your playing style if you play loud, gainy stuff... or use a Sustainer.

The Sustainer is a special onboard gizmo that recreates the effect of a loud amp vibrating strings and inducing controlled feedback, without the loud amp. Basically, the string vibrations are picked up and fed through an electromagnetic driver that reinforces the string vibrations to recreate what the amp's sound waves do. Because of this, you can do this anywhere and at any time, consistently-- you don't need to be at an optimal position relative to the amp: You don't even need an amp. It therefore gives you access to (partially) controlled feedback reliably and consistently. I parenthesize the word "partially" because it's never 100 percent predictable.

01/05/11- This was an extravagant and impulsive indulgence: I'd just installed an onboard distortion circuit in my Ibanez RG2550Z and while I was in the "mod mood", something got me interested in electromagnetic sustainers. I listened to some sound samples and saw some YouTube videos of sustainers in action. I can't say that the examples instantly won me over since quite a few seemed to be gimmickery and wankery to showcase the "wow" factor. I'm not a total sucker for such things, since every multi-effect pedal seems to come with dozens of bizarre presets that sound trippy, but you'd never use them unless you were really stoned. However, there were a few examples that showed the effect being used tastefully in a more musical context, sounding somewhat like the stuff that Steve Vai does (if you were wondering how he did it, as I was). Mainly though, I just had mod fever and wanted to work on something.

The reality is that I usually play more notes than not, and that the opportunities to allow a note to sustain for an extended period would have to be contrived. In other words, I didn't envision (or want) my playing style to change radically just for the opportunity to show off the effect (especially since it would be installed in only one guitar). However, I was intrigued by the possibility of reliably forcing a note to morph into a harmonic while subjecting it to the whammy bar, or doing that fun '80s tapping stuff. It would be my ticket to reveling in that special brand of gimmickery and wankery. To be honest, wankery is fun and comprises a good portion of my "play time" (I'm talkin' guitars here, okay?).

Fernandes or Sustainiac? I first started looking at the Fernandes kits, did lots of browsing, and wound up at the Sustainiac website. Basically, consensus was that the Sustainiac sounded as good as the Fernandes models (if not better), and was easier to install since it had a smaller circuitboard and detached switches. The Fernandes webpage looked slick and polished, while the Sustainiac page looked kinda homemade (just like my website!)... but the important difference was that the Fernandes page was typically corporate and vapid, lacking in-depth and useful content, while the Sustainiac pages enthusiastically offered up answers to every question that you might think to ask, with many downloadable .pdf documents. It's pretty easy to guess which company might have the more responsive customer service, and that might be an important consideration for a do-it-yourself installation of a complex product. I'm all for supporting the little guy who actually seems to care.

The Sustainiac website had copious amounts of info to digest, which helped guide me towards a plan. The thing is, to order the right parts for your kit, you need to decide which guitar is going to get the treatment. I'd originally thought it was going to be the Ibanez RG2550, but after I'd ordered my kit, I wasn't quite so sure.

Initial Considerations It gets down to what I said in the first two paragraphs: The overdrive I'd installed in the RG2550 was a bread & butter mod, very practical and useful in almost any rock 'n roll situation. I imagined that the sustainer would be a fun mod, but useful in only certain situations, kind of like Piezo pickups or a hex setup to drive a synthesizer or guitar processor. In other words, unless that's your whole schtick, it's really something that you'd put in a specialty guitar, not a main guitar. When it gets down to it, I prefer to play plugged into an amp with a little reverb and with some overdrive... or massive distortion. The other stuff is fun, but can be a distraction if you're not in the mood. And that makes a very good case for buying a cheap guitar with the sustainer gizmo already installed at the factory. But where's the tinkerer's fun and gratification in that?

It's a difficult choice, since you may have to sacrifice something when you install a Sustainer in a guitar. For one, there are only so many things you can stuff into a guitar (unless it's a Variax): A sustainer and an overdrive circuit would be a real challenge, even in terms of the number of controls. Another one of those sacrifices is your pickup selection, especially if you've spent lot of money on aftermarket pickups, use coil-tap configurations, and like the sounds of the pickup selections you're getting. The Sustainer driver replaces your neck pickup, and while it can act as an active pickup, it doesn't offer coil tapping. So with the Sustainer mode off, you can do custom pickup selections (if your selector switch allows it), but the selection can't include any coil-tapped neck pickup combinations. This could be an important consideration if you use the Ibanez 5-position switches with two pickups, since the 8 terminals are "programmed" to switch combinations of terminal connections for series and parallel pickup operation. If you use a more flexible but physically larger aftermarket 4-pole "super switch", you have to figure out how to shoehorn it into the limited space and depth of the guitar's controls cavity. That's a real problem for an Ibanez S-series guitar, since the height of the uniquely short Ibanez switch is accommodated in the thin body by a fitting that protrudes outside the guitar's body wood.

An aspect of that sacrifice pertains to battery life and current consumption. If your battery dies or if you want to go battery-less, the neck pickup won't work. Sustainers draw a fair amount of current from a 9-volt battery, especially when compared to the SD-1 overdrive's 4 milliamp (ma) current draw. The Sustainiac draws about 2.5 ma in standby mode, which is with the Sustainer off, powering the active neck pickup and preamp. Not too bad. However, once the Sustainer is on and the driver is vibrating a string, the current draw jumps to the neighborhood of 50 ma. This reportly gives you anywhere from 10 to 12 hours of playtime if you continuously sustain a note. While this is ample runtime if you start each gig with a fresh battery, but is an additional expense and bother if you have to replace batteries frequently, just to be sure. If it's a main part of your style, it's probably a good idea to incorporate a wired power supply option.

Power consumption is a consideration for any kind of onboard active electronics, and for me, factor into whether the guitar is considered a "main" or "specialty" guitar. In my opinion, a main guitar should retain a good portion of its natural functionality if the onboard power source unexpectedly peters out; it's also preferable if the electronics draw little power so that the guitar can function for long periods of time without you even thinking about the battery. In my opinion, a specialty guitar is one that requires constant attention to the battery state or relies on external power and specialized tethers to provide that power.

Choosing the Victim After I'd gone through this line of thinking (and after I'd ordered my kit-- Humbucker style with 2 toggle switches), I decided not to install it in my RG2550Z, even though it would have been a fairly easy installation because the guitar was already routed for active electronics. Since I'd ordered the humbucker version of the kit, my choices were the Ibanez S-series guitars, the Gibsons, or a Gretsch solid body. In my opinion, for maximum wankery potential, a Sustainer belongs in a whammy bar-equipped guitar, which pointed to the Ibanez S5470 or the S420. The S420 was the obvious choice because it was the cheaper of the two and therefore more expendable in case things didn't work out. It was also somewhat redundant since I'd bought the S5470 shortly after the S420 and eventually rewired the S5470 identically in the humbucker/humbucker configuration. I don't gig anymore so I don't need redundancy; I prefer that my guitars offer different features than variations in the color and finish.

Sizing Up the Job I eyeballed the body for battery box installation. Although measuring body width is pretty difficult for the contoured and thin S-series body, I felt that installation in the S420 might be possible, although it would be very close and without much of a safety margin. I removed the rear controls cover to see how much shoehorning room was available and thought, "No fucking way!!!" Bummer. I thought about abandoning the mod, but then decided to Google "Sustainiac Ibanez S" and found a couple pages where brave souls had tackled the challenge... and succeeded! Very reassuring, although tempered with the knowledge that Ibanez is absolutely horrible for making models that outwardly look the same, but are actually different. Just because someone else had successfully routed a battery box in their S-series model didn't mean that it would fit in mine. I was resigned to the possibility that drilling to the battery box depth might put a hole through the front of the S420 body; that's just the nature of mod fever. It's perverse, but the risk actually made it seem like a lot more interesting challenge.

This change in plans necessitated buying additional parts and supplies. The metal pickup rings would have to be replaced by non-metallic ones-- I found some plastic ones at Stewmac. They also sold squares of single-ply pickguard material, which I'd need to make a new controls cavity cover to cover the additional routing for the circuit board.

Sustainiac Ibanez S420

The Battery Box I decided to tackle the most questionable part first: Installation of the battery box. I happened to have two styles of battery box available: One that I'd bought from Stewmac that was prewired with contacts, and a second one from a BBE stompbox that was a simple plastic box with a hinged cover. I chose the BBE box because it was a couple millimeters shallower, which slightly improved the safety margin.

I don't own a real router and wasn't prepared to buy one just for this (the time to have bought one would have been about 10 guitars ago). As with my other guitar cavity routing jobs, I've been satisfied with making functional, crappy-looking holes using the tools on hand. That means tracing the shape on the body and chiseling the outline, figuring out the depth, putting masking tape on drill bits to mark the depth and drilling bunches of holes and joining them together. After a good portion of material is removed, I clean up with a Dremel rotary tool. Like I said, it's not pretty, but I rely on the what's going into or over the hole to cover up the ugliness.

I positioned the outline template on the back where it looked like it would clear the topside tremolo routing. The challenge was to eyeball it as close to the center as possible since the body thickness drops off dramatically towards the edge. The first hole was drilled at the far side of the template where the body was thinnest: If there was any bad news, I wanted to know about it right away. Fortunately, it didn't drill through the front, so it was safe to proceed. After routing the cavity and fitting the box, I noticed that it wouldn't fit flush because I'd drilled 90 degrees into the body without considering the contour: The S-series guitars have an arch-top and an arch-bottom. Duh! Additional routing was necessary along the bottom edge of the cavity to create an undercut angle towards the bridge, but this undid all my careful eyeballing that I'd done to avoid the tremolo cavity routing. I cut a little more than necessary and the bottom edge cut through to the felt-covered recessed area at the rear of the tremolo bridge (for increasing the pull-up range of the whammy bar). Structurally and sound-wise this doesn't make a difference, and it isn't noticible from the topside with the box installed. Re-felting the area would hide it completely. However, it did allow me to measure the wood thickness at the thickest part of the body: 7mm. My guesstimate of the wood thickness at the other edge of the cavity is in the neighborhood of 4mm. Not a huge safety margin, but good enough.

Sustainiac circuit board installation Ibanez S-Series The Controls Cavity I'd seen an S-series installation that required absolutely no routing, but it was accomplished by installing it exclusively for wired power (no battery box); it used a more compact DIN jack and custom cable to accomplish this, and the smaller jack (along with smaller pots) created enough space in the controls cavity to lay the circuitboard diagonally within the cavity! I wanted onboard power so this wouldn't work for me, but it did give me some background perspective and ideas. Photos of another installation showed the controls cavity routing I'd need to do for a more traditional (battery-powered) installation.

This time, I used a routing attachment and a routing bit for my Dremel. I was initially concerned that it might not give me enough depth, but this was a shallower route than the battery box. Although it gave much cleaner (a.k.a. "professional") results, it took considerably longer than the crude holes drilling method.

Once I had the cavity extension routed, I cleaned up the existing controls: The neck pickup was replaced with the Sustainiac driver using the plastic pickup rings (I replaced both), the wiring was gutted, the pots were replaced and the toggle switch locations were eyeballed and drilled. There weren't many options for the switch locations unless I wanted to route additional cavites.

The Switches As it turned out, the on/off switch is located ideally (in my opinion), in close proximity to the volume knob and whammy bar. This lets me flip it forward (on) or backwards (off) with my pinkie circling the base of the whammy bar, or do it in reverse while the pinkie is positioned at the volume control. I'm convinced that this is the most practical way to use a sustainer: It's kept off most of the time (which keeps it from actuating unmuted strings and howling when that's not what you want, which is 99 percent of the time IMO), and kicked in briefly when you want the effect of a held note sustaining and mutating into a harmonic (which can then be mercilessly whammy-barred).

The mode switch was located approximately where a third pot might go-- I wish I'd mounted it a little closer, but drilling holes in wood doesn't offer many second chances. However, it isn't as important that this control be an "on-the-fly" control, since I've noticed that I prefer the "Mix" and "Harmonic" modes and rarely use the "Fundimental" mode (it draws more power and howls too readily with the bass strings).

The Pots I replaced the tone pot with the optional 25K intensity pot provided gratis (by request) in the kit. It's a small pot, and every bit of space saved in the controls cavity is good news. While this control isn't absolutely necessary, it does come in handy by letting you adjust the level of sustain if it's sustaining too readily. It also offers another means of activating the sustain feature, by blending it in or out more gradually than the switch. However, this leaves it in "Sustain" mode, so you're limited in pickup selection and are continuously drawing more current than the "off" mode.

The volume pot is a must-replace item for an S-series installation if the guitar was originally equipped with a standard-sized pot. I wanted to install the circuitboard component-side up (for access to the adjustment trimmers), but found out that the 8-pin micro-latch connector was too tall to fit: I'd have had to remove the connector and solder the wires directly to the board to reduce the board's height. With the circuitboard face down, there's just enough clearance between the barrel jack's end and a small volume pot for the connector to wedge between. (If you like to ride gain, I would recommend that you buy spare replacement pots since the tiny ones probably don't last as long as the full-sized ones.)

I'm pretty sure that you can't use push-pull pots for an S-series installation. The body contouring at the tone pot makes the profile too thin to fit one, and you need the space above the volume pot to fit the circuitboard. There may be other places to mount the circuitboard, but this plan seems to work well, with the benefit of keeping wire lengths short-- which is important if you want to reduce noise and other undesirable stuff.

The Output Jack The output jack is used to connect the battery to the circuit, so it's important that the guitar cord is unplugged after use or you'll drain the battery. I was concerned about this until I noticed that the stock barrel jack has a third terminal: It's actually a stereo jack that will act as a switch for the battery connection. Unfortunately, the S-series's Strat-inspired recessed jack makes it difficult to grasp a standard 1/4" plug by the plug (like you're supposed to), which makes it harder to remove than it should be.

Shielding the Cavity The installation instructions have many cautions about crosstalk and keeping wire lengths short, so I assume that it's more important than usual to do a good job shielding the controls cavity. Although Ibanez uses conductive paint for shielding, it's nowhere near as effective (according to my ohmmeter) as the adhesive copper tape that Stewmac sells. The great thing about that tape is that the adhesive is conductive, so you can piece together whatever it takes to line the cavity, without having to solder between pieces. (I measured about .2 ohm resistance between any two points in the cavity, which is about what I get from shorting the probes, unless I really squeeze them tight.)

The Pickup Selector This was one of my main sources of anxiety because space limitations meant that I'd have to use the stock Ibanez 3PS1SC5 Humbucker-Humbucker switch (which is a complicated beast), and I'd have to deviate from the standard wiring (since the neck pickup wouldn't be coil-tapped). I didn't want to end up with a bunch of redundant switch positions, or worse, positions that were inactive. After spending a couple of hours analyzing the switch and studying the Sustainiac info, I was satisfied that it wouldn't be a big problem. By removing the standard jumper between terminals 2 and 7 and soldering the violet wire of the 10-pin connector (the circuitboard's humbucker/single voicing option) to pin 7, I'd end up with the following pickup selections:

  • (1) Bridge, both coils connected in series (aka "Humbucker")
  • (2) Bridge, one coil (aka "Single Coil")
  • (3) Bridge, humbucker + Neck, single coil voiced
  • (4) Neck, humbucker voiced
  • (5) Neck, single coil voiced
This worked out much better than I'd expected, with all positions having different sounds when the circuit was running in standby mode. Position 2 is naturally thin and non-humbucking, and the neck pickup's humbucker/single coil voicing is a simple and not very dramatic upper-frequency filtering (to my ears)-- it's nothing like the dramatic difference between positions 1 & 2.

The included paper instructions were a little unclear about the optional neck pickup's H/SC voicing (violet wire) and the 6 dB volume boost (white wire) options, but visiting the online documentation made it clear that you could ground these wires/activate these features independently. I soldered the white wire to a ground, so that the 6 dB volume boost is permanently on, while the neck pickup voicing depends on the pickup selector switch.

The diagram to the right shows what's connected in the 5 switch positions. The table at the top shows continuity data from the 3PS1SC5 switch, showing which terminals are connected for each of the 5 positions. The numbers indicates which terminals are connected to each other in groups. For example, in position/column (2), terminals 1, 2 & 4 are connected to each other as group 1; terminals 5, 6 & 8 are connected to each other as group 2.

The brown blocks show terminals that are connected to the output terminal #4. The green blocks show terminals that are connected to the ground terminal #6. The uncolored blocks with the number 2 show terminals that are connected together, but aren't connected to anything (indicated in gray in the other diagrams).

Diagram (2): Bridge (single coil) shows the table data filled out on a template that resembles the actual switch in a specific position (in this case, position 2). Terminal 4 is wired as the output, so in this position the bridge pickup "hot" lead (terminal 1) is connected to the output (so is terminal 2, but it's not connected to anything). Terminal 6 is wired to ground, so in this position, the bridge pickup coil tap location on terminal 5 is grounded, making it a single coil. Terminal 8 (the neck pickup's humbucker/single coil voicing) is also connected to ground, but it doesn't matter because the neck pickup's hot lead (terminal 3) isn't switched in circuit.

Sustainiac installation Ibanez S420

The Verdict It's a pretty straight-forward installation if you're handy with a soldering iron-- the routing and planning is the hardest part. Because I was intimidated, I spent more time planning and executing this installation than usual and was relatively neat with the wiring; despite that, I was still surprised when I installed the battery and it worked! The only bit of tweaking I did was to turn up the Harmonic mode trimmer a bit so that it outputted better harmonics (at first they were off-key...???); I also bumped up the overall gain a bit.

I was pleased by the sound quality of the Sustainiac's active neck pickup and the overall mix of pickup sounds in standby mode. I was also surprised that the sustainer function worked for the Bridge pickup's single coil position (as expected, with less drive), and that the pickup selector had output in all positions with no battery in the guitar (it puts the bridge pickup in circuit for the inactive neck pickup positions, so there are no "dead" positions on the switch). The most amazing thing is to play it plugged in without the amp turned on: Yeah, you know it can do it since it's a physical effect built into the guitar itself, but to actually experience it is pretty mind-blowing.

You can get many of the same sounds without a sustainer through high gain and loud amps, but the sustainer gives it to you at a lower volume, more predictably, on demand, and with more choices of harmonic content. It's not entirely predictable or controllable though: Like regular acoustic feedback from an amp, it can get out of control at times, causing strings that you'd rather remain silent swell to dominance, and morphing to harmonics that aren't what you wanted. It isn't hard to get used to this and to get it under control. Good string dampening techniques are always a good idea, especially if you play loud and even if you don't use a sustainer. One of the best tools for gaining control is the sustainer's on/off switch. As I mentioned earlier, the sustain/harmonic feature isn't really appropriate for most of the time that I'm playing, and I don't want to constantly worry about odd notes ringing out. The on/off switch lets you turn it on when it is appropriate. Once the note is sustaining or ringing as a harmonic, you can turn it off and the sustain will continue for a while and decay naturally-- it doesn't suddenly cut off (unless you mute the string). The only caveat is that there can be a slight click when you switch (like a pickup selector). This is usually inaudible if you're playing with a lot of gain.

As I had imagined, it's a fun and cool thing that guarantees many, many hours of fun wanking and noodling. It wasn't long before I removed the Zero Point centering bar from my S420's tremolo unit so I could do the Steve Vai flutter thing (minus the other hard stuff that he does).


04/10/11-Ibanez S420-Sustainiac With a Roland GK-3 Hex Pickup and VG-99 V-Guitar System: I was wrong. I thought that the S-series guitars couldn't host a GK-3 pickup because the body has a weird contour that doesn't fit the clamp that's designed for a guitar with a (relatively) flat top. I was focused on the clamp not fitting the body, instead of just testing if the rear strap pin was sufficient for mount the external GK pickup's circuit housing. Actually, it does work if you forget about the clamp. With a foam strip stuffed at the rear to fill the gap at the edge, the GK circuit housing mounts as securely as you'd need it to with only the rear strap pin, barring any excessive guitar theatrics.

In fact, an S-series guitar with a ball-bearing tremolo mount is a great candidate for a GK pickup. The reason: The ball-bearing tremolo's pivot point is close to where the string exits the saddle so the string height doesn't change with whammy bar usage. That's a verrrry important feature since the GK pickup needs to be mounted close to the bridge and close to the strings. I initially tried to mount the pickup in my RG2550Z (with Edge Zero tremolo) and found that if I pulled up on the tremolo, the strings would lower onto the pickup, killing the string vibration (doh!). That's because the pivot point is double or triple the distance from where the string exits the saddle. The solution would be to raise the bridge so that there was more clearance-- but then the pickups would be further from the strings. I tried to convince myself that I just wouldn't use the tremolo for radical pull-ups-- but what's the point of having a tremolo that can do it if you install a pickup that doesn't allow you to do it? Ibanez's ball-bearing mounted tremolo works perfectly with a GK-3 pickup.

The Sustainiac circuit and GK pickup/VG-99 guitar system have a natural (cringe) synergistic relationship. In any guitar with a Sustainiac circuit, you give up the neck pickup while in sustainer mode (because the neck pickup is the driver). However, if you're getting your sound from a GK/VG-99 system, the tonal output of your magnetic pickups is irrelevant. The traditional magnetic pickup and Sustainiac driver are only responsible for the sustain; the actual amplified sound comes from the VG-99 system, which can have the voice of any pickup position of a Strat, Les Paul, or a sitar, nylon string guitar, etc. They are two separate systems, so you can have a sitar or acoustic guitar with infinite sustain. Because they are two completely separate electrical systems, there's absolutely no pop when you switch the Sustainiac circuit in or out, and you don't lose any of the tone component if the battery dies. Best of all, you get this in a lightweight, 24-fret guitar with a high-performance double-locking tremolo system.