Are Guitar Ebows Worth It?

Since ebows were invented in the 70s they have been seen in the hands of many famous players.

The eerie sound they help produce can be a great addition to the arsenal of players that focus on more ambient sounds.

But are ebows really worth it for the majority of players?

Guitar ebows are really not worth it for most players since the ambiance sounds they excel at generating might end up clashing with the sound of the rest of their bands. For guitarists that play in trios, or in bands with a rather free frequency midrange, they can be a great tool, alongside pedals.

In this article, I will tell you all you need to know about guitar ebows, how they work, how to use them, and what are some alternatives to them.

After leaving this page, you will have a clearer idea if an Ebow would be a wise investment based on your playstyle.

Are you ready to get started?

Let’s go!

What is a guitar Ebow?

A guitar Ebow, at the most basic level, is a handheld tool that allows you to drive a string at a time and make it keep vibrating infinitely.

Think of it as a device to generate infinite sustain on a certain note.

The name “ebow” is just a contraction for “electronic bow”, referring to the kinds of bows used on violins, for instance, that allow you to sustain a note as long as it is in contact with the string.

The sound you get out of an ebow is nothing extremely special, but it has its adepts. 

You can hear players using them in many popular songs such as “Unforgiven”, “Sad But True” by Metallica, “The Day I Tried to Live” by Soundgarden”, and “Worldwide Suicide” by Pearl Jam, many Radiohead, Coldplay, The Smashing Pumpkins, Genesis, and Opeth songs, among many other artists.

Here’s a brief video as an example of how it sounds:

How do Ebows work?

Ebows basically work by creating a feedback loop that keeps driving a string indefinitely.

Armed with a 9v battery, the ebow captures the signal from the vibrating string and then emits an oscillating electromagnetic field that maintains the string vibrating sympathetically.

I don’t think there’s too much value in going into the small details and technical aspects of how this whole process works, so I’ll keep moving on.

The way an ebow drives the string can be compared with the old trick of putting the strings close to your amp’s speaker.

Doing so generates a feedback loop in which the sound your guitar is making when coming out from the speaker hits the strings and makes it keep resonating, sustaining that note.

Of course, to do so with your amp you require a certain level of volume, and things can get messy very easily.

How much does an Ebow cost?

Ebows go for around $100, and you will need to throw in an extra $10 for a set of two 9v batteries, so you have a backup one in case the worst happens during a show or rehearsal.

Are guitar Ebows worth it?

Ebows are fun devices to mess with, however, their actual utility for making music is debated.

Do you need an ebow? Definitely not.

Will an ebow improve your songwriting? Not at all.

Can an ebow help you fill the holes in your playing? You are insane.

An ebow can’t do much for you, other than allow you to create haunting ambiance sounds, and drone tones which in some genres might be ideal.

Throw in some reverb and delay, maybe spice it with any kind of modulation, pitch shifter, or octaver, and you will be in a completely amazing uncharted territory.

I’d argue that such a big sound, however, could get in between other instruments on your ensemble, so I would recommend messing with an ebow to players on bands where the guitar could take over the midrange spectrum without bothering any other player.

For instance, I can imagine how these explorations could fit a trio of bass drums and guitar nicely.

If you are in a band with keyboards, synths, another guitarist, and say a wind section, you might be better off leaving that ebow at home if you don’t want to start a fight at the moment you start droning their patience away with it.

At the $100 pricepoint, ebows are not prohibitively expensive, nor something a beginner should be rushing to buy to see if it’s good fun.

If you are an experienced player and the idea of infinite sustain sounds interesting to you, by all means, give it a try.

Ebows, in fact, are one of the less intrusive ways of achieving this effect, since they don’t require any actual modifications on your guitar.

What are some alternatives for guitar Ebows?

The most common alternatives for a guitar ebow are infinite sustain pickups such as Sustainer or Sustainiac ones.

A lot of players from Steve Vai to Adrian Belew use them and are a great alternative that works very similarly to ebows.

However, these pickups require, of course, to be set up on your guitar, and not all players are ok with this sort of mods on their instruments.

Another common alternative is achieving this effect with pedals.

As technology goes forward, what some years ago was impossible to conceive now is pretty doable.

EHX has its Freeze pedal, one of my favorites, that allows you to hold notes infinitely, and also there’s the PLUS pedal from Gamechanger Audio.