There is a concept that sometimes proves to be right. And that is that the smallest things can sometimes be very important and have a lot of influence. That applies to the nut on the guitar.
That’s why I decided to take a look at the five main types of guitar nuts. But before I do, let’s briefly consider why is the guitar nut so important.
Is It That Critical To The Tone?
When we think about the tone of a guitar, we usually think about pickups and tone controls. But three other things are critical to getting a great sound from your guitar. The Bridge, the Frets, and the Nut.
This tiny insignificant thing is situated near the top of the guitar, where the neck joins the headstock. But it has an important part to play in the action of the guitar. And that will affect its overall sound.
It is a component that is often overlooked. The material it is made from makes the guitar unique in the way it sounds. And even its shape can have an effect on the performance, the tone, and how well the guitar plays.
That’s why I am going to take a closer look at it to try to find out which type of nut, and the material it is made from, might be best for you.
Why Is The Nut Important?
The final thing that the strings on the guitar have contact with before they reach the machine heads or tuners, is the nut. Part of its job is to act as an anchor for the strings. It also makes sure that the strings are spaced properly.
It makes sure that the strings sit at a good height over the fingerboard. And it is fitted with ridges or slots to ensure the strings will all stay in place.
The Density Of The Material
We will consider the materials a little later, but the density of the nut will affect the tone. And perhaps to some guitarists, the amount of sustain and resonance you get.
Another consideration is whether the material that is used for the nut can keep itself lubricated. If so, then the strings will enjoy a smoother movement, and that can also affect the tone. So, there are five types of guitar nut; let’s see what they are about.
What is known as the standard nut is the most common type of guitar nut. It is fitted to the majority of guitars. And this isn’t decided by the price point. The standard nut can be found from the cheapest through to the most expensive.
They can be made from a variety of materials, including bone and various plastics, such as TUSQ, which is quite common. You may also see them occasionally made from brass.
Compensated or Staggered Nut
Looking at a standard nut, you will notice that the strings are placed in a certain way. This makes the distance between the nut and the first fret the same for every string.
The compensated or staggered nut will change the distance between the first fret and the nut, depending on the string. The result of this design is that for the first few frets especially, it gives better intonation.
The Locking Nut design alters the whole concept of tuning your guitar. It is normally the tuners at the headstock that increase or decrease the tension applied to the string to achieve its pitch.
The Locking Nut system radically alters that design by using small clamps that pinch the strings where the nut would normally be. There are normally three of these clamps that tighten down on two strings.
A specialized guitar nut
You will usually find them where there is a Floyd Rose tremolo system or something similar installed on the guitar. Tremolo systems tend to detune a guitar very quickly. The locking system was introduced to counteract some, what is at times, violent use of a tremolo arm.
The tuners then are of no real importance other than to anchor the strings. And any fine-tuning is performed at the bridge end.
This again is a rather different nut design. It is a popular type of nut on Fender guitars and is found on many of their flagship instruments.
This design has small roller ball bearings that the strings rest on rather than cut grooves or slots. Therefore, the ball-bearings roll with each string and slide and move freely.
This, in turn, takes away any resistance that is present at the nut with a standard system. Removing resistance usually means that the strings will stay in tune longer.
A nut design that is often found in gypsy styles of playing is the Zero Fret. This is a system where the nut is purely a spacer to keep the strings in the right place. The real point of contact is a fret that is positioned close to the nut. This is called the “zero fret.”
Because this zero fret is slightly higher, it generates a different sound, especially with open strings, a sound that is popular in gypsy styles.
Materials Used To Make Guitar Nuts
The material used to make the nut varies, and we are going to look at the six main options. Setting up the guitar to get the best out of it is important. But the nut is going to have a big influence on how the guitar plays. The materials used then become important.
Now that we know the different types of guitar nuts, let’s look at the six materials used to make guitar nuts. Then we will see how they compare with their strengths and weaknesses.
Most guitarists will consider bone as the standard material for guitar nuts. They have a point, and you will find bone nuts on a range of older Fender, Gibson, and Martin guitars. As well as some of the more expensive modern instruments.
As a material, it is naturally very hard. Therefore, it gives you a brighter tone than other options. But there are drawbacks to that.
Bone is a natural substance and is prone to inconsistencies. You can find ‘soft pockets’ within its makeup, and that is going to affect the way the guitar plays and sounds. Those ‘pockets‘ can exist in any part of the bone and can find themselves in your nut.
Bone is hard-wearing and generally gives you a high level of consistency despite the ‘pocket’ risks. The tonal qualities of bone are significant, as is the ease of working with it in manufacture.
Being a natural substance, it can self-lubricate. This ensures there is a little less wear on the strings by reducing friction. Especially relevant to the sometimes problematic B-string.
By making the movements smoother and with less friction, the strings stay in tune for longer periods. Natural lubrication means that after each movement and bend, the string will return to its correct pitch.
It has been a natural thing for companies to try and replicate the material for a synthetic bone nut. It can’t be done, but the closest they have come is with Graphtech/TUSQ. That is a polymer plastic which we shall look at as well as other plastic options later.
Let’s look at the positives and negatives of a Bone Nut.
- A dense and very solid material.
- Natural lubrication.
- Easier to tune and hold its tuning.
- The choice for top-of-the-range guitars.
- The potential for defects, soft pockets, in the bone.
Just the word ‘Ivory’ in the title of this material is bound to set alarm bells ringing. The use of Ivory has been made illegal, but the legal alternative still bears the name. That will be enough to put some people off.
Fossil Ivory is considered the next best option to bone, giving you similar tonal qualities. Some qualities make it potentially better. Fossil Ivory is somewhat different from the ‘other’ Ivory.
Not Easy To Acquire
The problem with it is that it is so hard to get. The legal version comes from two principal sources. First, the Wooly Mammoth that was around quite a few thousand years ago and died out. Bit of a problem there, then.
The second is the walrus. Some advocate there is no difference between hunting walrus for ivory than there is in hunting elephants for it. A reasonable argument, and one which puts a lot of people off.
This Is A Review, Not An Opinion Column
I have my own views on the matter, and they will stay as such. This is not a moral crusade; it is an article about the nut on a guitar, so let’s stick to the descriptions.
A Significant Option
The differences between fossilized ivory and bone are very small. The former gives a brighter sound because it is harder and is more pronounced. Therefore, you get some nice acoustic properties. But, because they are so hard, they are quite difficult to work with to get the shape required.
- Sounds similar to bone.
- Helps to produce an excellent sound.
- Good acoustic qualities and a pronounced sound.
- Hard to work with.
- Not easy to install.
- As a material, it is very hard to find and can be expensive.
- Has some issues attached to it that will put some people off.
Use the word “plastic” in music circles, and people often recoil in horror. I have to say I have used plenty of plastic equipment and always found it okay. But, there is plastic, and there is plastic, if you get my meaning.
A plastic nut is usually found on cheaper, budget-range guitars. It’s one of many ways utilized to keep the costs down.
They are not as good sound-wise as better quality guitar nuts. And they do tend to be rather brittle and can break if you apply too much pressure. There is no disputing that. But they do serve a purpose.
The Good And The Bad
As I said, there is plastic, and there is plastic. There is the very cheapest kind you will find on budget guitars, and there is TUSQ and other high-quality plastics. These are polymer plastics formed and pressed under high temperatures and perform far better.
They are designed to create the sound of the bone nut. They don’t quite make it, but they don’t have the inconsistencies and do help to produce a good sound. Another plus is that they are self-lubricating, which helps for durability and tuning stability.
There are some other decent-quality plastic guitar nuts, Corian and Micarta. Both offer a decent sound, if a little bit heavy on the mids. Consequently, some think they lack a little sharpness and thus clarity at the top-end.
- A cheaper alternative to bone.
- If you look around, there is some decent quality at the high-end of the plastics range.
- Can be brittle.
- The cheaper options lack tonal quality.
You might think that metal was something that was used for the nut years ago. As a material, it has been used for the nut for a long time but is still used today. You will often find them on Danelectro guitars. The two main metals used are brass and steel.
They are, of course, both long-lasting and durable. But the sound is not as good as you will get from a bone nut. Although, the sound is superior to that obtained from cheaper plastics.
There are differing opinions about the quality of the sound. But they are ideally suited to genres of music that require a sharp tone. That makes them ideal for country music players, but that isn’t the only area you might find them.
Guitar nuts made of brass offer a very unique tone. It is bright and sharp with some excellent harmonics. That makes them a great pairing if you use a lot of heavy overdrive. The notes will retain the ‘dirt’ but will still cut through, courtesy of the brass nut.
Not so common these days
With the advent of other materials in the 70s, like plastic, for example, their popularity faded a bit. The metal nut is notoriously difficult to cut and work with. So, when easier materials became available, that was the obvious choice.
It might seem odd these days to talk about using metal guitar nuts. But, they have some benefits depending on how you play.
- A unique sound.
- Very durable.
- Good option if you require a sharp tone.
- Hard to cut into shape.
Another material used for the nut with benefits for playing in certain styles. If you do a lot of string bending and play the guitar hard, this may be the material to go for.
A Graphite nut is going to help with keeping the instrument in tune. It self-lubricates, and that allows the strings to move around with little or no friction.
Good for certain playing styles
If your guitar has a tremolo arm, you will also find benefits. Because the graphite is self-lubricating, the strings will move easily through the string slots. That allows them to easily return to their natural position after you have completed the bend.
If you use the bar to ‘dive-bomb,’ then this is probably worth serious consideration. They give you a smooth movement of the strings and are not difficult to work with. In many ways an excellent material for the nut.
However, you should be aware there are cheaper imitations. Going down the budget graphite route will not see you enjoy the qualities of the more expensive options. Something else to remember is that it is only available in black.
- Tuning stability.
- Low friction.
- Comfortable to work with.
- Only available in black.
- The benefits of using a graphite nut are only applicable to the expensive options.
Wood is probably not one of the first materials you may think of when you consider the nut. However, it has some big advantages.
It certainly looks good, and the sound quality is more than acceptable. Although, it is not as good as bone, or in some cases, metal, however, it is an affordable and cost-effective guitar nut alternative.
A Small Downside
If there is a downside to using Ebony for the nut, it is that being wood, it will soften up quite quickly. But as it is a cheaper option, if you don’t mind changing the nut more often than other materials, it isn’t a problem.
Some guitar players swear by them, not only because they look different. But, they are also more than happy with the sound. Although, it must be said that ebony does not resonate like a bone nut. Certainly an option to consider.
- It looks really nice.
- Produces a pleasing sound.
- Lacks resonance.
Types of Guitar Nuts – Resources
So, we have taken in the options regarding the nut and the materials they can be made from. If you are thinking about changing the nut on your guitar, here are some choices.
A Bone Nut for a Strat or Telecaster:
- Fender Vintage-Style Stratocaster/Telecaster Electric Guitar Pre-Slotted Bone Nut
Here’s a plastic option for Les Paul style guitars:
- Musiclily Pro Urea Resin Plastic LP Style Guitar Nut
This is a nice Roller Nut option:
- Holmer 6 String Metal Guitar Roller Nut
And the very good TUSQ/Graphtech nut:
- Graph Tech PQL-5010-00 TUSQ XL Self-Lubricating Guitar Nut, Fender Style
Types of Guitar Nuts – Conclusion
If you didn’t know before, then you will appreciate the importance of the guitar nut now that we have been through this. It can affect how your guitar sounds and how it plays.
Next time you buy a guitar, take a look to see what material the guitar nut is. It might be important to the sound, so you need to get the right material. And if you want to change the nut, there are plenty of people who can do that for you. Start by talking to your local guitar shop.
Until next time, let your music play.