The guitar nut is crucial when it comes to the playability, tone and the overall performance of the guitar, but since it is one of its smallest components, it is often underestimated. It rests at the end of the fretboard and is the last component that the strings come in contact with before reaching the headstock. It ensures the strings are evenly spaced and at the right height above the fretboard
And not only that. The density of the material the nut is made of has an impact on both the sustain and resonance of the guitar’s tone. Also, the ability of the material to self-lubricate to ensure better movement of the string also makes a difference in the overall tone of the guitar.
In order to know what type of nut your ideal guitar should have, you need to know the characteristics of the most commonly used materials for the creation of guitar nuts. We are now going to take a closer look at them.
Bone is often hailed as the gold standard for nuts. It gives a well-rounded sound and good sustain and does this while still being durable with good tuning stability. The tone is very balanced and the open strings are never too loud or shrill. It is important to keep in mind to use unbleached bone, because it naturally self-lubricates, which helps the guitar stay in tune when using a tremolo and playing bigger bends. It is an organic material, which means that sometimes you can find irregularities within it, but a good luthier can help you out with that.
Plastic is the cheapest and most common material used for nuts on guitars and other stringed instruments. Plastic nuts are not very durable and can easily break under pressure and quite often the strings will saw through the nut slots through the years of playing. One of the main reasons why low-quality plastic nuts are frowned upon is because they offer poor sound quality and will rob you of some of the sustain. If you do get a guitar that has a plastic nut, it is a good idea to replace it if you can.
High-tech plastics are materials like TUSQ, Corian or Micarta. These materials are much harder and denser than the plastic used for cheaper guitar nuts. They are the closest man-made materials to bone and imitate its structure and oftentimes – colour. The advantage of these materials is that they are artificial and can offer the evenness of density without the natural irregularities that can be found in bone.
Graphite is also very popular, especially for guitars with a tremolo. Its biggest advantage is that it is self-lubricating for low friction. A good graphite nut also helps with tuning stability in combination with a tremolo. Cheap graphite nuts, however, tend to hurt the sustain, so make sure to get a higher quality.
There are many different types of metal guitar nuts: brass, steel, titanium etc. Nowadays though you will find very few guitars with metal nuts. It is by far the most durable of the materials listed here, but creates an extremely bright tone that is not for everyone. Also, the open strings can get very loud, which can be great for heavy metal, but unpleasant in other instances.
Ivory is said to be the premium material for guitar nuts, providing the best tone. However, it is illegal in most countries and immoral, since endangered animals have to die for it. The only acceptable way to get ivory is what is referred to as fossil ivory. Fossil ivory comes from animals that died naturally millions of years ago. For the specific ways it can be extracted, fossil ivory is more expensive than bone and is rarely found in guitars, since the difference in sound from bone is said to not be a good return of investment.
To sum up
There are many different types of guitar nuts and it can be confusing if you’re not familiar with them. The most important thing to take away from all this is to just not overlook this – when buying a new guitar or upgrading an old one, pay attention to the nut.
If you want some further reading materials on the topic, check out also these articles here and here. For more guides, tips and tricks we invite you to join Neli’s Guitar Family and subscribe to her YouTube channel! If you are ready to dive into the world of guitar (or ukulele) you can sign up for a lesson HERE – the first one is 50% off!
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