I’d been toying with the idea of installing a sustainer on my Ibanez Jem since I saw Steve Vai use one on ‘Live at the Astoria’. The idea is simple. If you strum a string on a guitar, it will die after about 6 seconds. If you amplify the guitar, and turn it up to the very last, saturate the signal with gain, compressors and eqs, you might get ten or so. The only other way to get viable sustain is to stand in front of your amp facing it, and let the sound waves hit your strings causing them to resonate, and generate harmonic feedback. And then, there’s a sustainer. Steve uses the Fernandes Sustainer, which they custom made in white to suit the Jem. Unfortunately, it’s not available to the public. So I’m faced with two options : Install a black Fernandes Sustainer on my immaculate white Jem, or install a Sustainiac. I’ve gone for the Sustainiac for two reasons, one is the colour obviously, but the second is the quality of the unit. According to the reviews on JemSite the Sustainiac is a stronger unit in terms of electromagnetic induction, but also has varying modes to affect the sound being sustained. It can simply sustain the note, or cause it to resonate at harmonic frequencies.
So, let the madness begin. I submitted my order at Maniac Music, and received shipping confirmation the same day – something I’m always impressed with. They have a wealth of wiring diagrams for most guitars at the site, BUT, the site is is a little awkward to navigate, and putting the order wasn’t the easiest submission in the world.
Disclaimer : This installed worked for me. It may not work for you. If you break anything, you get to keep both halves. Don’t come crying to me if you wreck a perfectly good guitar, I’m not a Luthier and not qualified to give a guide like this, but that won’t stop me from trying.
Next on the list was how to tackle the install and make it seem like it was done from the factory. A quick search on JemSite listed Allen from Arrowhead Guitars’ install for one of his clients. Allen did a bang up job, and I’m going to try to replicate what he did, and try to provide a few more photos of the process. First of all, here’s my unmolested guitar :
The unmolested Jem 7VWH. She’s no idea what I’m about to do to her.
The neck and bridge stripped out. There’s no going back now.
This is my weapon of choice, a JCB router with 1/4 bit. I used this to plunge into the alder on the guitar. The underneath is covered with rubber which should prevent marking the paint, BUT, as you will see later in the install, you’re as well off to mask all areas you’re not routing to be safe. I did for most of the work, didn’t mask for one little bit, and it destroyed the paint in a little unseen area. No one will see it except me, but that’s enough
I traced around the scratchplate with pencil to show the area that would be covered by it, stripped all the electronics out, marked the area I wanted to route out, and then covered the rest of the surface with electrical insulating tape for paintwork protection. I used my JCB router with a .25 inch bit to plunge deep into the alder and route a 1.1 inch deep cavity into the swimming pool shape you see, using dimensions from the Maniac Music Website.
This is the parcel from Alan in Maniac Music. Undamaged, and with that lovely green American export sticker. I was smiling the whole way home with it.
This is the box opened. I was more impressed that there was an inner box wrapped in scrap paper and bubble wrap.
This is the inner box on it’s own. My name was written on the top left hand corner, indicating there were more orders going out that day, and that every piece of kit was itemized. Nice!
Inside the main box were three little boxes. One contained the Sustainiac Driver, the next contained the driver circuit wrapped in an anti-static sealed bag, the third contained all the switchgear/cables/heatshrink tubing/cable ties. Each small box had a label on top which had the precise contents marked. Lots of attention to detail. On top of all three boxes were two wiring diagrams that were later to cause confusion. Not at the hands of Maniac Music, but at the hands of my coffee sodden brain at 10pm.
A quick fit to see if my routing dimensions were enough. And they were. Phew!
The decision to place the battery box was based on a few items. Firstly, I wanted to keep as much of the body that wasn’t already routed solid to maintain enough Alder to allow the strings to resonate and generate their own sustain – and to preserve tone. The second decision was based on actually routing the battery wires to the Sustainiac circuit. I could have run the wires through the tremolo cavity on the rear, but this would cause problems if they were snagged by the moving springs. So the easiest option was to place it next to the jack socket cavity, and drill from the battery cavity into this to run wires. My battery wires were from the new battery cavity, via the jack socket cavity into the main wiring cavity. Out with the router again …
When I originally routed the cavity on the front for the Sustainiac circuit I covered the whole surface in electrical insulation tape. This protected the paintwork, and was easily removable with no adhesive residue. When I routed the battery cavity at the rear, I didn’t bother. In my infinite stupidity I reckoned the rubber coating at the base of the router would be enough to protect the paint, and thus not only did I route the box slightly wider than I wanted, if you look very carefully at the right on the jack socket cavity you can see some black marks. This is where the lacquer is chipped, and I have marked the base paint coat. Don’t make the same mistake!
A quick trip to the local B&Q DIY shop and I was back with a tube of white wood filler, and a thin stainless steel spatula to smooth it all out. A liberal coating of filler on the rough edges of the battery box cavity filled in the tiny gaps nicely. The trick to using the spatula is to wet it slightly, allowing you to shape the filler evenly. The reason I opted for filler is that when the battery box was test fitted, there was only one or two tiny areas showing up uneven. The rest were covered by the lip of the battery box itself. This would take two hours to dry. I thought I could wire the electronics and have the rest ready to fit when it dried. As if! Oh, and by the way, when you finally screw in the Battery Box later and run the wires through, make sure the Battery Box is fully open. If you pull the cable through with the Box closed and try to open it later you’ll have no slack in the cable, and it will separate from the terminals in the Box.
This is all the electronics stripped from my JEM. The next important step(And vital if you’re doing this yourself), is to draw a diagram of where exactly everything is connected. Two reasons. One, it helps to fault find later, and two, if you sell the guitar or want to move the Sustainiac to another axe, it allows you to rebuilt your JEM.
And here’s my incredibly crappy wiring diagram. Hey, I can read my own handwriting (I hope!
In the preparation section of the Sustainiac manual, it says that if your scratchplate is foil covered, you must remove the foil around the driver in an 1 inch radius. The easy way to do this is with a sharp knife at a 30 degree angle to the foil. Scrape it all off, and you’ll be left with some adhesive residue. Spray the residue with furniture polish and leave to soak for 10 minutes. A quick wipe with a clean rag, and you end up with a perfect surface like above.
This was the most enjoyable bit. Test fitting the components into the scratchplate. I tried to keep as many of the original wiring components as possible for nostalgia. The gold screws and springs from the neck Evolution pickup were kept, and I wanted the original cap from the selector switch to fit the new Super Selector switch, but it was too narrow. I could have taken my angle grinder and relieved the thickness of the 5 way switch, but I just put the one that came with the kit on. But when I had it all done, I stood with a steaming mug of Hot Chocolate looking at it with a huge grin.
The easiest way I could get the Sustainiac circuit board to fit was backwards than the way it was done on the wiring diagram. Doesn’t really make a difference, but it may help you if you’re doing the same.
Spaghetti Wiring! I thought it would never be over. I decided to use this diagram from the Sustainiac Website. It’s one of the Diagrams Alan Hoover supplied in my box. It’s for an RG funnily enough, and not a JEM, but it’s the superior diagram to work with. There are some things to watch out for. DO NOT CONNECT A BATTERY AT ANY STAGE UNTIL YOU ARE CERTAIN YOU ARE FINISHED. There is no mention of the Black cable from the Evolution bridge pickup. Join this to the White cable from the same pickup and solder to the same connector on the new Super Switch. The easiest way to make sense of the diagram is to break it down into manageable blocks. Start with the 10 pin connector on the Sustainiac circuit and solder all those wires. On the 10 pin connector there are two wires to be wrapped together in a twisted pair just like Cat5 – the Violet and Gray – and the reason for this is that cables wrapped in this way don’t induce signals into cables close to them. If it works for Ethernet, it’ll work in your install too. Then the 8 pin. Next do the Pickup Wiring, then the Wiring between the Tone and Volume Push Pull Pots. At the end do the 3 pole Jack Socket, and at the very end connect the Battery wires. Before inserting a battery, turn the two adjustable screw heads on the Sustainiac circuit to 12 o clock. When, and only when you’re happy with the wiring, connect a battery, lead to your amp, and test the operation of the circuit by tapping on the pickups with a thin plectrum and changing selector position on the 5 way. If you’re happy, then good luck with the new stage, fitting it all onto the guitar without crimping any cables under the scatchplate. I found the best method was to drop the plate on the guitar, and gently shimmy the cables into the cavities using a the blunt end of a thin butter knife. I do have to mention the excellent support from Alan Hoover of Maniac Music at this point. At my first test wiring I couldn’t figure out that the White and Black cables were to be connected from my Bridge Pickup. A quick phonecall to the States and a friendly chat with Alan didn’t give me answers, but sure gave me the tools to logically work it out for myself. And that ladies and gentlemen is what Customer Service is all about.
The finished JEM 7VWH sitting on the couch. Smugly enjoying the 10 hours it took from my life.
Here’s a small issue. With the Volume Push Pull Pot in the out position, the Whammy Bar has difficulty clearing it. However, when you force it past the push pull pot it gently pushes the Pot ever so slightly down (By about 1.5mm) so it can still be worked without too much trouble. Just takes a little getting used to.
The Battery Box closed, and the paint around repaired with filler. Hardly noticeable.
The Battery Box open, it’s very very slick, and solidly constructed. Should last a good few years.
And here’s a close up of the finished unit!
Conclusions : Order all the accessories direct from Maniac Music, battery box and all. Don’t be afraid to route cavities for this stuff. If you opt to install the battery in the Tremolo cavity for example, you’ll be mighty annoyed in two months time having to undo 6 screws to change a battery, having the screws shear the thread out of the wood and not screwing in anymore, and running the risk of having the cables snag on the Tremolo eventually. Tackle the job yourself too. Okay, bringing it to a Luthier might be easy, but the chances are he’ll never have done this either, and it’s not difficult if you have a steady hand, and a sensible head, plus the satisfaction is overwhelming when it’s done. Tell everyone you meet about the unit, and promote it. Tell them they can get it from Maniac Music themselves too, and help them to install it. The more people who fit this stuff, the more R&D that Alan Hoover and co can do on the unit, and it may even persuade Ibanez to follow Jackson and do a factory install down the road. We can but wish!
Update from Alan of Maniac Music : “We offer a tremolo cover with a pop-off door that is a good option to the battery case. You don’t have to unscrew this, just stick a pick in the slot and the door pops right out for a quick battery change. Not as elegant as the battery case, but you don’t have to do all the major routing.” Alan also went to the trouble of researching the DiMarzio website for me, and writing a very long eMail trying to further help in the search for the correct pickup wiring. This must have taken a good half an hour of his time, and again shows the lengths that he was willing to go to, in order to make sure my Sustainiac was in perfect working order.
I hope this isn’t too boring for JemSite readers, and maybe, just maybe it’ll help someone else to install their own unit too. I can be reached on [myname]@gmail.com, I haven’t put it on this website for spam purposes, but it’s easy to guess.