Point of Contact Part I: Guitar Nuts
Updated: Apr 10, 2018
Confused why your guitar has no sustain? Looking at your nut material can help solve the problem!
Image by Specimen.
Hello fellow gear heads and guitar lovers one and all!
I wanted to write a quick piece explaining the differences between guitar nut materials. Choosing the right material can make a huge overall difference in sustain, resonance, as well as more attack (overall edge to the sound). For me there is only one type of material to use on any guitar: Bone. Bone nuts are what were used on vintage instruments, and in my opinion sound the best. A properly made bone nut will give your instrument more of a bright, resonant tone that sounds more alive! But don’t just take my word for it when you can prove this yourself. Take an instrument that has a different nut material (most off the way nowadays are made out of plastic) and play it until you learn the tonal shape of the sound. You can even record your instrument on your phone for future comparison. Then take the instrument to a professional luthier or guitar tech, like Kenny Kranzow of Texas Guitar Workshop in Dallas, and have a bone nut made and installed on your guitar. You’ll soon be singing #Bone4Tone.
Why is the Guitar’s Nut Important?
The guitar’s nut affects the tonal quality of the strings. It is one of the three points of contact with the strings on the instrument, the others being the fretboard and the bridge. Paying attention to the points of contact on an instrument will result in better playability and deeper tone. The strings vibrations are what pass through the nut when plucked, and as such the density of nut material can add to the amount of resonance and sustain you get when you play notes. The denser the nut material, the more sustain a vibrating string will have. The texture of the nut, and the materials ability to self-lubricate, will affect the strings movement in pitches returning to being in tune after bends, or changing tunings.
Now, it’s very important to understand that the tonal quality of a guitar’s nut material is only as good as an instrument’s setup. If the angle on the nut isn’t cut correctly, you can see notes run sharp when you fret pitches. It is very important to have your instruments nut angled properly in place, as well as have the nut properly slotted so your strings can sit in place. This helps with getting the best tone and playability out of your guitar! It’s best if this is done by a professional luthier or guitar technician who has made many nuts in their lifetime because the material you choose for your guitar nut directly affects the ability to setup your instrument.
Types of Nut Materials
Cheap guitars are a wonderful thing for the beginner looking to get in on purchasing an instrument without killing their bank account. When I first started to play it was on an $80 pawn shop acoustic I haggled with the owners over. I loved it for many years and built my playing chops up on it. However, there tends to be issues with instruments that are made on as low a budget as possible, as opposed to quality. One of these many issues are cheap, plastic nuts.
Image by Stings by Mall.
Plastic nuts are in my opinion nothing but a plague on the world of great guitar tone. They rob you of all the tone you work to develop with your fretting hand. Plastic tends to be a brittle material, and can be very difficult for guitar technicians to work with. Plastic also tends to give you a much weaker string sound, and chokes the resonance of guitar strings. Plastic nuts choke, or sonically die out, rather quickly after playing a note. There isn’t much hang time or long ringing in the overall sound. Also, most of the time plastic nuts are premade at a company’s factory and aren’t even carved correctly to the specs of the instrument they are put on. So, most players end up getting these replaced down the line regardless.
There are also “higher quality” plastic nuts that you can install on your instrument that claim they have better bass response and are easier to work with. I call BS. They are called TUSQ or Nubone and in my opinion have a thinner tone response overall than bone, or ivory. However, they are better than stock plastic, and much cheaper material than bone… so if you don’t care about tone please buy these and save all the bone for discerning ears J.
Fossilized Ivory and Bone Nuts:
DISCLAMER: IVORY IS ILLEGAL TO HARVEST AND IMMORAL TO USE IN ANY MODERN APPLICATION. DO NOT KILL SWEET ELEPHANTS FOR TONE PURPOSES! THAT IS ALL.
Fossilized Ivory on the other hand is completely legal to purchase and use on your instruments because the material comes from an already extinct animal. Most Ivory on the market for instrument builds come from very old mammoth or walrus bones. However, as a material ivory as a building material is still very hard to come by than regular bone, and is much harder to carve. Be forewarned that this can translate into cost for you the consumer when looking to have one made for your instrument.
I have had an ivory nut made out of very old mammoth bone for one of my electric guitars and I can honestly say it is the best nut I’ve ever heard on an instrument tone-wise. There is so much more sustain with the notes as well as a distinct clarity between pitches that it made the guitar one of my favorites to play. Sustain is more like 45-50 secs per note as opposed to the 5 to 7 secs for a cheap plastic nut. Also, the fossilized ivory looks much better on the guitar as opposed to brand new bone!
Bone Nuts have a ton of hype that surround them in the guitar community and that is simply put because bone is superior to all other types of nut material. Bone nuts provide consistency from nut to nut, provides a spectacular sound to the strings, and is an easier material to work on that fossilized ivory. Angling the nut, doing string relief, and cutting slots for the strings are all easier with bone as your material of choice. Bone is also a denser material typical than plastic, or even some ivory, and therefore has a deeper tone.
KEEP ON PLAYING-AM