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Why do bassists seem to be so obsessed with sustain?

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Reading yet another bridge thread this morning, and realised that in nearly every thread about mechanics, e.g., the various Badass v BBOT, through-neck versus bolt-on, tone woods versus whatever the opposite of tone woods are, and even about the basses themselves, sustain is often the characteristic of the bass that is discussed. But why? I get it with, for example lead guitar (although for rhythm it's often completely undesirable), and I get it with some orchestral instruments, although in many again it's undesirable (and I'm prepared to be told I'm wrong, but I assume that with many instruments it's de facto undesirable, for example kick drum)?

Anyway, I've realised over recent years that I've always been impressed by sustain on a bass, as if its capacity to sustain was somehow a mark of superior quality build or components, but that I rarely, if ever use sustain, even on fretless. In fact I use foam mutes so often that whilst being impressed by an instrument's sustain in principle, I often immediately inhibit it.

So, genuine question, why is this? Is sustain just the Emperors' Invisible Clothes, or a legitimate mark of quality? 

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Blooming good question. Can't help you with the answer, but you raise an interesting point. 

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Interesting question and I’m sure a lot of people will have a better idea than me but I have always seen sustain as a by product of quality craftsmanship. 
 

I couldn’t give two hoots over how long a bass sustains for but I have noticed the better put together basses seems to acoustically sustain more or so it seems. 

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I never got it myself.

Sometimes I want a bass to ring out bright and long, oftentimes flats and foam suits the music better. The idea that more sustain=good and less sustain=bad makes no sense to me.

Sustain is a quality of a sound, not a mark of the quality of that sound! It is neither good nor bad in isolation.

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I believe good sustain can give a more even and smoother sound and help pronounce dynamics, however sometimes I find that ‘popped’ notes can sound a bit too ‘long’ and as such a bolt on instrument with flats for example can make them sound more proud and like a snap. 

I don’t find changing the bridge has any real benefit either way but think it’s more about construction in particular the neck. 

I don’t think it’s generally about what I understand sustain to actually mean, I.e how long a note will ring when fretted, which as you say is generally more than enough - but more about how ‘alive’ the bass feels when played which can be an advantage or not depending on the context. 

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The way I have always interpreted the comments about sustain is that it sets certain basses apart from those that very little sustain i.e. the ones that just sound dead and lifeless. A muted sound has its place, but not a bass without foam under the strings. 

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This for me is the contradiction, for many of us it appears to be a desirable quality of the instrument yet an undesirable quality of the note the instrument produces. That is reasonable I guess, but do we as bass players occasionally confuse this? How many gigs have we all been to at which a few foam mutes (and/or pillows) might not have made the whole thing so much more pleasant :)

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Posted (edited)

With specific regard to changing bridges I suspect that increased sustain is something that's easy for manufacturers to claim precisely because they know that unless you record before and after samples, it's not actualy an easy thing to test and most bass players have probably never really investigated how much their instrument sustains prior to fitting the new bridge anyway.

Edited by Cato
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Posted (edited)

I have never had a bass which didn't sustain long enough for my needs, regardless of bridge or other unquantifiable magic items.

Edited by Doctor J
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Posted (edited)

A well built instrument can transfer string vibration into body/pickups more effectively and with less loss, hence giving more sustain. I would argue sustain indicates effective and efficient transfer by a good neck/body joint, nut, bridge and quality wood. And therefore sustain = quality (to a point).

But do you “need” sustain? Often no.

Edited by HazBeen
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Depends on what you want to achieve and the music you play. My fretless will sustain for days but I can also successfully play staccato finger funk on it no problem..... It’s all in the fingers.

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Last night I took the high mass bridge off a 51 style p bass, just not needed on this kind of bass, replaced with a bbot. Does it sound different, not really, but is a little lighter (weight).

Any bass with a thick poly coating, which is the majority these days, will sustain to a reasonable degree, no need for high mass bridge's. 

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It is something bass players seem to go on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on...

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Interesting topic, as someone relatively new to learning bass, I have read and watch video's where sustain is mentioned, it does seem to get a lot of attention from players right from amateur through to pro.

David Ellefson for example with his signature basses, states that he has a Jackson high mass bridge fitted to add more sustain. 

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21 minutes ago, OliverBlackman said:

My fretless will sustain for days...........

I think you’ve just won yourself the ‘sustain cliche’ award.

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26 minutes ago, Doctor J said:

I have never had a bass which didn't sustain long enough for my needs, regardless of bridge or other unquantifiable magic items.

Same here. I might change bridges or parts of them for better quality/stability but never based on lack of sustain on the instrument.

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Better to have it and not need it, than need it and not have it. 

Sustain can be controlled but a bass that can only thump will always do just that.

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I think, vainly, it might've been my post on another thread that prompted this thread. 

I mentioned sustain being the holy grail of bass attributes but maybe should've used some emoji as it was intended as being tongue in cheek. I usually spend most of my playing trying shorten notes with various methods and have never needed more sustain. 

This thread has perfectly pointed to what my other post was about as folks tend to link sustain to a high build quality, yet my longest sustaining, most resonant bass is the cheapest, most badly built, plywood neck and body rubbish that I own. 

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10 minutes ago, Maude said:

I think, vainly, it might've been my post on another thread that prompted this thread. 

I mentioned sustain being the holy grail of bass attributes but maybe should've used some emoji as it was intended as being tongue in cheek. I usually spend most of my playing trying shorten notes with various methods and have never needed more sustain. 

This thread has perfectly pointed to what my other post was about as folks tend to link sustain to a high build quality, yet my longest sustaining, most resonant bass is the cheapest, most badly built, plywood neck and body rubbish that I own. 

Yep, this is exactly why I started this thread, I assumed the tongue in cheek also :)

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I think it's important for a bass to be have decent sustain. You might not need it a lot of the time but if you have to hold a couple of bars of tied semibreves at ballad tempo, you want to bass to ring out clearly. 

It's easier to cut a note with technique or foam or whatever, than it is to add sustain that isn't there.

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Someone said that his instrument will sustain longer than his clothes are in fashion. Loved that.

If we go back to 1950's, Mr. Paul told that his g-word would sustain for ages. For the same reason many instuments were built heavy, because heavy equals long sustain, doesn't it Mr. Sadowsky?

As long as the instrument is well built (tightened screws, reasonably good materials and parts), and the strings are functional, I see the instrument has reasonably long sustain. I do can enhance it with a compressor. Some audio technician said that Stan The Man wanted "something like three compressors" after his Alembic for the ultimate sustain. The instruments he plays should be the best there are. After all his technical team has long experience compared to most of us.

ADSR or reverberation (60 dB) can be different in different instruments, but I don't remember anyone measuring it. Without decent measuring environment and results the discussion is mostly at the level of "I think". Bolt-on and neck-through are slightly different constructions but neither is ultimate. Only different in the building phase. It is the same with parts like bridges, or materials. Yes they are different, but the final mixture is the product which we should evaluate against other products - in an independent laboratory. Not by ourselves, where biased opinions mean far more than physical facts.

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I was interested enough to read this thread and It's an interesting question. I've been thinking about it for a while. My go-to practice bass is my Cort action bass, I love the neck and it's my starter bass and owes me nothing so it's left lying around completely carelessly and nothing to worry about. The down side is that it has no real sustain and sounds completely dead. Over the years I've tried all sorts of strings and changed the PUP's (currently Kent Armstrongs) but it's just lifeless. I've two Fenders and a Japanese Thunderbird and they all sound so much better and they all have a lot of sustain as well as sounding so full of life but they stay in the rack until gig days arrive. 

Sustain is really demanding, you really have to worry about string damping and dynamics. Playing live in really loud environments makes it really lively as feedback creeps in and the strings start to run away from you but it also increases the fun factor. There's nothing like it when the bass comes alive in your hands and every fret touch becomes a hammer-on. So sustain is a really double edged sword. Hence the foam damping I guess.

I've always assumed sustain is at least partly about resonance, the body of the bass vibrating in tune with some of the string movement. For me the sustain of the fundamental always seems there but the higher frequencies within the note seem to fade away quickly if the bass doesn't have sustain, so it's not just the volume but the timbre that changes over time.

So I'd love to hear some opinions and maybe someone with a bit of knowledge to come along and maybe i can mod my old Cort and make it come alive.

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I think it's one of those things, if you've got loads of it you can reign it in when you want to (e.g. Muting techniques or devices) but it's much harder to add in sustain if it's not there naturally 

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