View Full Version : Sustain - good or bad?

09-11-2011, 08:48 AM
Was curious about how everyone felt on this topic. I know there are a lot of people who naturally assume that more sustain gives a better sound and signifies better construction.

On the other hand, flamenco guitars - the traditional cypress "blancas" in particular -are built with the goal of keeping sustain to a minimum. They look for a quick, immediate, sharp attack and don't want a lot of lingering notes "muddying things up".

To use guitar terminology again, ukuleles have usually seemed to lean toward the flamenco sound instead of the classical. Of course some of that is inevitable with a smaller body.

Nonetheless, more and more ukuleles today seemed to be built with the goal of classical guitar sound in mind. UU - what are your preferences?

09-11-2011, 09:01 AM
I love my new Mya-Moe, which has sustain for days...

09-11-2011, 09:12 AM
With a ukulele already limited because of it's size,....any additional sustain is welcome, especially if you like to fingerpick out solo arrangements. If you just strum chords,....not as critical maybe and average sustain works fine.

But when you have some low tempo passages that you like to emphasize with a longer pause,.....it's nice to have the notes ring a bit longer with a uke that gives more in that area.

....flaminco guitars would probably still have a sustain advantage over any ukulele most likely. So more is bettah.

09-11-2011, 09:30 AM
With a ukulele already limited because of it's size,....any additional sustain is welcome, especially if you like to fingerpick out solo arrangements. If you just strum chords,....not as critical maybe and average sustain works fine.
Yeah, as a CG convert who primarily fingerpicks, I like sustain. :)

09-11-2011, 10:05 AM
Great question, Dirk. As with many great either/or questions, my response is "Depends."

Depends on what type of music one plays. Depends how much musical space one prefers. Depends which size ukulele one plays. Etc.

I mix up chords and picking quite a bit. I like singing along with my uke and I like playing solo pieces. I like lots of musical space, Lee Perry's dubs (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SBHucOSjkQs) are good examples. Lately, I prefer nylon strings for depth and mellowness---I've noticed that strings with terrific sustain often lack those qualities. I play soprano ukulele.

With all that in mind, sustain is "bad" for me, at least lately. Of course, sustain is "good" for many players; the arrangements of Ken Middleton, for example, sound best when notes ring and ring.

My question for you, Dirk, is whether there is a trade off when you're making string sets between sustain and depth?

09-11-2011, 10:25 AM
Personally, I am on the fence. I like sustain, but it needs to be controlable depending on what you are playing. I have a mahogany concert that has the most amazing sustain than I have ever heard on any uke at any price, and it is one that sells for less than $300. I think it was more of a mistake than anything, but it has crazy sustain. I have a sound sample somewhere floating around with it. It has so much resonance just moving it around the air you can hear the strings resonate. I love it, but at the same time, it can be an annoyance when I don't want that sustain on specific applications. I think it is a good thing, as long as you can control it properly.

09-11-2011, 10:26 AM
I prefer sustain for fingerpicking. I play with a mic through a VOX amp with reverb if I want LONG sustain that makes me sound like a classical guitar player...


09-11-2011, 11:12 AM
In the words of Tarzan, "Sustain good."

But I can appreciate the thought and reasoning put into it by the other camp. I may change my mind, but right now given what I like to play, I like it a lot.

It would be interesting and cool to see strings labeled more for their sonic character and not necessarily for their tension, color, etc.

09-11-2011, 11:27 AM
It would be interesting and cool to see strings labeled more for their sonic character and not necessarily for their tension, color, etc.
But that is largely dependent on the construction of the instrument they are used on.

Going back to the example of flamenco vs. classical, the same strings will sound different because the guitars are built differently.

09-11-2011, 11:49 AM
I think itsme has a very good point: the instrument's response to vibration—how sensitive it is—can make a big difference. I have a couple of ukes with excellent and sensitive response to strings, but I have found (especially in low g) that the lower notes can "hang around" a bit too long. This tendency can be adjusted substantially by string choice.

09-11-2011, 12:10 PM
Great subject !

I am sure there is confusion talking about sustain as to what it really is we are talking about. If you strike a string and let it ring; it is normal to have sustain and that is the one that comes from the string. For the instrument, it is the sound that lingers after you have stopped the string for ringing. That is my uderstanding of it in this case. Too much sustain would make the sound muddy and, not enough would make the sound dry and sharp.

To me, it all depends of how you use the instrument. I would prefer more sustain on a low G (more finger picking) and less on a high G (more strumming)

09-11-2011, 12:52 PM
I'm new to this, but I think it depends on the song and type of music being played as stated earlier. I'm currently relegated to playing my Makala tenor while I'm saving my pennies to get a nicer uke. I slapped some aquilas on it and that thing rings for 30 seconds after being strummed I swear, lol. Sounds nice when I'm strumming a rock tune or slower songs, but gets "muddied up" when I'm trying to do some "islandy" stuff. I'm learning "somewhere over the rainbow" and I've been strumming higher up on the neck to get less sustain. Wish I had a capo...

I'm thinking this is one of the reasons tenor ukes are favored by players who do a lot of finger picking, in which case a long sustain sounds nice.

09-11-2011, 01:31 PM
I completed a little experiment to kind of guage sustain, and put some definable reference as to what "good" sustain is.

I just did some note timing with a watch having a second hand as a guage to get a feel for actual sustain times in real world conditions. I had my recently aquired Kanile'a K-2 S at hand, which for sure has what i consider above average sustain for a soprano. It's sitka spruce top has some nice bearclaw, with a B&S of figured Claro Walnut.

I plucked each string one at a time, and started timing at a 5 second point on my watch to keep it simple. I stopped counting when i could no longer hear that particular string. I did the same for all the individual strings, and more than once for each open string. Tried a few up times to the 3rd fret also.

What i discovered was that plucking each string firmly with my sizable thumbnail in a rest stroke (stopping my thumb on the next string except on the "A" string),.....i found that i could be fairly accurate in stating that most times the individual notes sustained for a full 4 seconds.

This on a soprano scale, but with a slightly wider than normal lower bout that Kanile'a uses. You have to do this more than once, because you mind can play tricks on what your ears are hearing.

"Can i still hear the note or not" will go though your thought process a lot,....so the multiple samples will will bring the results into a more accurate assessment.

.....i suspect some concerts and tenors might better this time,....maybe by a second or two. But 4 full seconds sustain on a soprano is excellent, IMO. :D

By the way,...long sustain on a uke that sounds thin of tone is not good, no matter how long the sustain. Given the choice, i'd choose a full and rich sounding uke over one simply offering good sustain. One without the other will leave you wanting more.

Fortunately, i didn't have to choose,....the Kanile'a (as well as both my Moore Bettah sopranos), sustain well and sound wonderful.

09-11-2011, 01:51 PM
totally on the fence with it= played a few ukes today that I really liked, totally different ends of the spectrum.
Chocolate Mango Mya- Nice long ring- wanted to sit with it in a park and fingerpick it all day...wished it was a Baritone tuned C linear though.
Then I played one of Tony Graziano's ukes, modeled after a jazz guitar (I wish I could remember which). Floating bridge and tail piece, spruce top-short, bright and loud notes...felt like Django Reinhardt (without the talent or disfigurement). It was also very nice.
Then there are my banjos- no sustain, perfect for some tunes. I guess you have to have more than one for when the mood may strike. Now to convince my wife.

Rick Turner
09-11-2011, 02:22 PM
I don't see sustain as being an issue of stopping the strings and hearing an after-note; to me it's more about the string continuing to vibrate, and that depends on a number of construction factors as well as the wood chosen. Highly flame figured wood will tend to damp sustain, for instance. A uke with stiff back and sides will tend to sustain more, particularly with a cedar, redwood, or Western red cedar top.

Scale length is also a factor. I think that the popularity of tenor ukes these days is because they do tend to have greater sustain; the strings are have a different ratio of diameter to scale length and they thus tend to damp vibration less as the strings are less stiff for the length. I certainly exploit this in the design of my Compass Rose tenor ukes; I'm very deliberately going for a guitar-like sustain. I think if you want a "spankier" sound, you're more likely to find it with concert or soprano ukes...or for the ultimate, a banjo uke with a resonator uke being somewhere in between.

Brad Bordessa
09-11-2011, 04:47 PM
Sustain is absolutely a good thing. I wish my instrument had more of it. But like people have said, you can only coax so much sound out of a tiny little body.

I listen to a lot of guitarists (Santana, Johnson, Hendrix, and Mayer mostly). They actually do have sustain for days (if they want it). But they can play incredibly fast and make it clean. I think that keeping things clean has to do with the player. The instrument shouldn't be in charge of how long your notes are. If you want a note to ring, let it ring, if you don't, then mute it.

Rick Turner
09-11-2011, 06:28 PM
A lot of that electric sustain is from stages of tube amps compressing the sound, and a lot is controlled feedback.

09-11-2011, 06:55 PM
As a relative newcomer to the uke, I've come to associate the lack of sustain with the 'traditional' uke sound.... sopranos playing a certain style of music - either Polynesian or old school jazz/pop..... that being said, I think the uke is being used for so many different types of music now that folks are adapting the sound of the instrument to whatever they want it to be. Coming from a guitar background, I'd love a full, rich sound with as much sustain as I want. As Brad/Hippie Guy points out, the technique of the player is what really defines the sound you can get out of a particular instrument, but I guess I really want a uke that has a more typically guitar kind of tone.

I'm playing a pretty low end Kala with a laminate top that has pretty poor sustain, especially higher up the neck. I've played a couple of ukes that I'd love to own - and they are very 'guitar-like' and don't really have a traditional uke sound. Just today, I played SpecialMike's Mainland soprano with a cedar top - it was bright, loud and had a really nice rich, sustain.... just made me want want one of those Mainland tenors with a spruce or cedar top even more. But it sounded more like an itty-bitty guitar - not a 'traditional' uke sound at all, in my opinion.

I think there's a market for both as more people pick up the instrument and desire a variety of sounds.....

09-12-2011, 02:35 AM

There is no good or bad. There is only what works best for you in a given situation.

Personally, Sustain isn't much of an issue for me. The average length of sustain amongst the ukes I've played is fine for me in any situation where I would play a uke. If I required less sustain I would explore muting techniques or maybe employ a banjo-based instrument. If I needed dramatically more sustain I would use my fiddle or guitar. For just a little more sustain maybe my mandolin.

I tend to find that if I am disappointed in what an instrument delivers in a particular context, maybe it was the wrong instrument for that job at that time.

But where a uke is needed, nothing else will do!

09-12-2011, 05:12 AM
As much as a uke sustains, I think acoustic ukes as a whole have pretty low sustain.
It's not really the instrument of choice for lengthy sustain.

So to me, a uke with relatively lots of sustain is still not much sustain overall.
So it's better to get as much as you can!

09-12-2011, 05:40 AM
One of the styles I like on the uke entails the use of campanella which appears to be most effective with increased sustain. I'm not any good at it, but really enjoying listening to someone who is.

09-12-2011, 07:27 AM
I didn't start learning flamenco techniques until I picked up the ukulele. Just to see what it was like, I grabbed a classical guitar (not a good one), and the 8-finger roll was SO much easier! This was absolutely, definitely due to the huge body of sound, much of it due to sustain. I had been wondering about a flamenco styled ukulele, but I think as some people have mentioned, a ukulele AT BEST has very little sustain. I think it's probably too easy to take our guitar thinking and just shift it over to this little instrument which is so different in some very important ways.

09-12-2011, 07:42 AM
This got me thinking, so I roughly measured the sustain on three ukes, all soprano scale.

Banjo uke - when playing, feels like almost no sustain at all.

Solid mahogany - average uke sustain

Spruce top/mahogany - when playing, feels like it sustains hugely.

My rough numbers are 3, 4 and 5 seconds. I expected something like 2, 4,and 6.

So the differences are really quite small, but the effect when playing is very marked.


09-12-2011, 11:29 AM
ProfChris' thinking got me thinking.

Let's say you're playing 1/8 notes (quavers). You're playing at 100 beats per minute. You will be playing a note every 3/10 of a second. If you play a half note (minim) it will last 1.2 seconds. I haven't encountered too much music which uses longer notes for ukulele. But maybe that's just me.

So, if you play an arpeggio on all 4 strings, with 1/2 notes, the last note will sound after the first note has been sounding for 3.6 seconds.

So, firstly, the smaller number of strings probably means you NEED less sustain on a ukulele versus a guitar. The guitar technique where you want lots of sustain is pedal notes, where you play a low note and other things on top. A guitar naturally does that better than a ukulele. Might need to explore that from a composing standpoint. Hmmm.

The other issue is, of course: how much sustain and where? A note on the 11th fret doesn't sustain like an open note.

I suspect that the important thing about lots of sustain is actually the resulting slow decay. You want to retain sound energy from previous notes.

This is hardly scientific, but I think there are a number of factors which make less sustain AS USEFUL for a ukulele as the correspondingly long sustain of a classical guitar. The job each needs to accomplish is on a different scale.

09-12-2011, 01:59 PM
You can finger- or palm-mute to dampen sustain when desired. There ain't no way to put sustain in that ain't there to begin with!

That's a long winded way of saying - "too much sustain is still not enough!"


09-13-2011, 05:44 AM
The more the better. More sustain helps people to sloooooow down and make more dynamic music.

09-13-2011, 12:00 PM
I figured this topic might generate some interesting replies. Someone had asked me about it in relation to strings, and I had also been giving it a lot of attention in regards to sound on our new instruments.

One thing I learned a long time ago, was not to try to make things "for the market". It's not that this is a bad idea for some people, it's just that I personally have always had a hard time nailing down where the market is. I always make what I like, and figure there will be others who like that too. Just the same, now that the designs are set, I thought to take a look at what people here had said about the topic. When I searched, I was surprised to see how little discussion had occurred.

The "depends" answers are the ones I like best - I put "Good or Bad" as the topic for simplicity's sake. Roy Smeck, for example, would probably go mad trying to play some of his stuff on a nice Devine or Compass Rose Tenor. He was more than a pretty good player, but not a fan of "slow".

Most of us are not playing Smeck style - nonetheless, it seems to me that there actually can be too much of a good thing. Tudorp gave an example of an instrument that I don't think could be played well through fast passages. There were references to damping - but again, that takes time.

Rick gave a pretty good description of our new instruments: "stiff sides & back - cedar top (though some will have spruce) - long sustain". The way we build our backs gave me the chance to dial it back just a bit. A long way from banjo sound, but at least out of the annoying aspects Tudorp mentioned.

There were some questions about strings, specifically nylon strings by Ralf. I do think traditional low density nylon strings are a good choice for lower sustain, and yes, I also think they tend to have a bit more of what I would call "meat" on them than flourocarbons.

We use nylons in some of our sets for the high note strings. If you are just buying varied diameters, one thing you can do with nylon, is fine tune your sustain. No other material changes more in this regard depending on tension. Give it some slack - get a nice sustain. Put some tension on it and you can make it drop dead in a heartbeat.