There is a classic scene in the 1984 mockumentary movie "This is Spinal Tap" about a fictitious rock band on tour in which Nigel Tufnel played by actor Christopher Guest holds aloft his Gibson Les Paul electric guitar and without plugging it into an amp nor plucking a string insists that interviewer, director Rob Reiner:  listen to the instrument's sustain, "just listen to's famous for its sustain," he asserts.

It's a guitarist's joke, obviously. Guitarists, particularly in certain genres, heavy rock, electric blues, occasionally even in avant garde jazz, are somewhat obsessed with the ability of their instrument to hold a note, usually when plugged in and plucked.

As with much in areas where art and science collide it is seemingly all about the materials, commonly the wood, from which the guitar is made.

As with the claims about Stradivarius violins and the supposedly "secret sauce" of their varnish, it's as much about the construction and the luthier's craft than the specific materials used. Crank that guitar up to the figurative "11" of the maximum setting on Tufnel's amps and even a fireplace lintel will give you as much sustain as you want provided the strings are vibrating and the electronic components working in concert. Just as real-world rock guitarist and astrophysicist Brian May whose distinctive custom-made electric guitar was made from just such a piece of wood.

Nevertheless, materials are important to the guitar, solid, hard woods lend body and weight, as well as producing aesthetically pleasing colouration and visual texture. Other woods, polished, bare or varnished are important to the feel of the guitar along its neck. Yet other electric guitarists seem to be able to generate great sounds and music using home-made, lo-tech instruments, just think Jack White and Seasick Steve, while the likes of "The Edge", guitarist with rock band U2, utilises and assortment of effects units to treat the stringy vibrations picked up by his guitars' ...pickups.

Back in the 1990s I was offered a news scoop by Loughborough University on a new guitar material being developed by researchers there and showcased by virtuoso guitarist Gordon Giltrap. I ran a couple of stories in the media about this new material, although never did get a chance to apply my own meagre guitar skills to the instrument. The material in question was a polycarbonate and was set to replace the old-school wooden body of acoustic guitars. At the time, the likes of guitar maker Ovation had been experimenting with round-bodied guitars, the bowl of which was a solid formed polymer, I have one of these in my negligible guitar collection. However, the important difference between these pioneering instruments and the even more cutting edge constructions from Loughborough is that the all-important soundboard, the front face of the acoustic guitar with the big hole in the middle was wood, whereas the Loughborough instruments were all polymer.

I've played lots of guitars over the years, classical, steel-string acoustic, 12-strings, semi-acoustics, lead electric, electric bass, (mandolins). The vast majority have been variations on the solid wood theme in the case of the electrics and hollow formed sheets of wood in the case of the acoustics. Playing style and technique as well as the electronics components seem to be the critical factors in that notion of sustain. You certainly cannot listen to the sustain on any instrument until you pluck the strings, even if the amp is turned up to 11 regardless of whether the wood is solid, hollow, or plastic.

First-time viewers of the movie "This is Spinal Tap" still approach director Rob Reiner and suggest that he should have profiled a more well-known band...

David Bradley blogs at and tweets @sciencebase, he is author of the popular science book "Deceived Wisdom".