Sustain for Days, the Old School Way

The idea of a guitar singing endlessly is not new and there are a number of gear items to get the job done. Few are as iconic as the use of a violin or cello bow. Thanks to both classic rockers and ambient soundscapers, the bow has now become a piece of guitar gear.

I’m willing to bet that a few sentences in we probably all have the same image in mind. It’s 1967. A young Jimmy Page unsheathes a new weapon on stage. He’s breaking with tradition, running a violin bow over the strings of a Gibson Les Paul. One unforgettable moment filled with fluid yet rhythmic tones. In the years that followed, the bow would feature on stage and in studio with Led Zeppelin, perhaps most famously on the track “Dazed and Confused.”

As Page recollected in a recent Q&A on the topic with the American Academy of Achievement, the initial idea came at the suggestion of a violin player. “I said, ‘Well, I don’t think it’ll work. Because the strings are uniformed whereas a violin is arched’…But I tried it and I could see there was massive potential. After that I went and bought my own bow.”

Page wasn’t the only one—or not even the first one—in this era to toy with the crossover of classical music gear to guitar. Eddie Philips, the guitarist for the UK group the Mark Four turned the Creation, seems to have picked up a bow as early as 1963. In a 1988 interview with Guitarist, Philips recalled being intrigued by the sonic and visual prospects of a bow: “it just felt like a good idea…to try and get a sound out of the guitar that no one had ever heard before, something that was against the rules.”

Since these pioneers, the bow has become a more common tool for making the guitar sound like an entirely different instrument. A more modern image that might come to mind is Jonsi por Birgisson of Sigur Ros. With a cello bow in hand, por Birgisson creates and conjures sounds that have an airy yet almost glacial sound to them.

Going from otherworldly to absurd, who could forget the over-the-top performance of Nigel Tufnel in the 1984 film This Is Spinal Tap. In the pursuit of all things that go to eleven, Tufnel bypassed the pedestrian bow and ran a full violin across his guitar strings. Of course, he even took the care to check the tuning of the violin!

So let’s say you’re inspired by some of these players. Where do you start with gear and technique? While I’d recommend against Tufnel’s approach, here are some quick tips for working towards endless sustain.

  • There are no rules only experimentation.
  • Find a bow that’s comfortable. Some say a cello bow is better due to size and structure, but this shouldn’t trump comfort and personal preference.
  • Apply a bit of rosin to the bow. This will reduce unwanted friction between the bow and your strings.
  • Strike a pose. Because you’ll need full arm motion and long sweeps back and forth be sure to lower your strap so your guitar sits around your beltline.
  • Use a guitar that has a slight curve to the fretboard radius. Even the slightest arc as the strings meet the bridge can help give you a bit of control over bowing either a few or all the strings.
  • Start off with single notes or power chords. The latter are awesome for adding body and polyphony.
  • Toss in some effects. Since violins and cellos are hollow by design and tremolo is a natural part of playing them, some modulation and reverb effects can really make your your bow bloom.
  • Finally, don’t forget about gear like eBows or the new TC Electronic Aeon. These provide pulses to send your guitar strings into expressive drones. No bow required!

Whether you’re looking to capture the sounds of classic rock or to unleash your creative energies into galaxies where rock doesn’t even exist, a bow is a great way to take you there! Enjoy the ride.

One thought on “Sustain for Days, the Old School Way

  • July 8, 2018 at 9:16 am

    Was it ‘ In the still of the night’
    Toward the end of the tune?


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *