Whether you play or want to play guitar, violin, mandolin or any other string instruments chances are you have heard about the small part of the instrument called a nut. Though small, this rectangular, simple looking thing has a humongous effect on your instrument. In this blog, I will concentrate on guitar nuts but a lot of the more general information fits other instruments as well. So as I have already said the nut is really important but you are going to say: so are the other parts, what’s your point exactly? The thing is that while every detail of the instrument has to come together to create a great instrument and you have to take all of it into account when getting a guitar, chances are a lot of the time you (maybe not you, who knows) are probably turning a blind eye to this vital part. Just so that this does not happen anymore and you finally end up with the best acoustic or best acoustic-electric or best whatever it is you are looking for the thing, we will go over some of the basics of the guitar nut.
First and foremost, guitar nuts are the small rectangular shaped things located at the end of the fingerboard and before the headstock. If you get a guitar with high-quality nut material that does not have any issues you will have an instrument with great playability, good sustain, feel and tone. If you do not… well, you get the exact opposite. The nut determines the spacing between the strings as well as the action. It also, along with the guitar bridge, influences the vibrating lengths of open strings. All of these things differentiate a bad guitar from good and good from great.
Spacing & Action – Though I have mentioned many reasons why the nut is so important, I want to discuss the spacing and action a bit more in detail because this is the two main things that come up a lot, especially for beginners. Sometimes certain things are so basic we take them for granted. In this case, the spacing between the strings is such a basic and important part of any guitar that we sort of do not even think that there should be anything wrong with it (and if there is, God forbid!). So to explain it simply, the indents in the nut hold the strings separate from each other, giving enough space for playing the guitar well (or at all). Now when it comes to action it is also a pretty basic part of the instrument which basically means how high or low the strings are located from the fretboard. If the strings are too close you get the buzz; if it is too high it is hard to play and ruins the sound.
Although for years and years ivory and bone were the primary choices for the nut material today things have changed. The mass manufacturing of more affordable instruments has created a vast range of options for plastic and synthetic materials that vary in quality. It is not only the material but also the density that plays a critical part in the nut “construction”. While a high-quality real bone nut is dense a lot of nuts on cheaper guitars are actually hollow on the inside. While I can be pedantic and say that the bone is the only material that true guitar lovers should use to achieve the best sound for the best guitar that is definitely not the case. So without further ado, let’s discuss the three major and most popular materials (or material categories):
The one of the oldest and most beloved materials for the nut is ivory. It is also very illegal in most countries and not to mention cruel. Despite that, I feel like I have to describe the material just so that you have a comparison with other (more legal) materials. Ivory provides amazing sustain, it is very dense providing bright sound. Apart from the tonal characteristics, ivory is very durable as well. There is also an option of fossil ivory which is not as morally wrong since it uses the bone from a long-dead animal. That being said, it costs more than other materials.
Bone is the most well known and in my opinion best material for the guitar nut. It is dense and pretty light. Bone provides great resonance, sustain and it is durable like hell. Good quality does not come at a low cost so a lot of manufacturers, nowadays, opt for plastic or synthetic materials that try to imitate the effect of the real bone.
Now, plastic might have a bad reputation (in some instances, for a good reason) but there are various plastic nuts on the market that vary in quality. For instance, ABS is a ‘no-grain’ plastic material that is pretty dense and produces a decent tone. Some of the other plastic varieties are Nubone, Micarta and TUSQ. These three materials are sort of faux bone in a sense that manufacturers use them primarily because they replicate the effect of the real bone.
When To Change The Nut
Now that we have gone over some of the basic things about the nut let’s get into the question of whether or when to change the nut on your guitar. First of all, if you are getting a guitar that you are pretty sure does not have a good nut and think about switching it after you buy it think twice. Choosing the right nut material on your own and then changing it yourself is a whole ordeal that you can easily avoid. BUT if you have realized that you got a beautiful guitar that is pretty much perfect in all ways but has an awful nut you have no other option. So some of the more specific signs that you should change the nut are as follows: there is a buzz, problem with tuning, spacing issue, bad tone, too low or high action or even the weird feel when you play the guitar.
There are so many things to keep in mind when choosing the best guitar for your needs. You need to know your tonewood, body style, scale, tuners, so on and so forth. Most times the bigger (literally bigger) things get more attention while things like guitar nuts are pretty much ignored. Hopefully, from the article, you have found out: 1. Importance of nut 2. Importance of nut material 3. When the hell you should change it. Now, a lot of the guitars even in the best acoustic under 500 or best acoustic-electric under 1000 might not have the real bone nut or ivory (unless you want to get yourself in some legal problems) but that does not necessarily mean you should dismiss the model. Use of materials like Tusq and Micarta is more widespread (and it is honestly not bad at all) and in combination with the right tonewood and hardware, you will get the best results.