What is a String Nut?
The string nut, more commonly called simply “the nut”, is a small piece of hard material designed to support the strings of an instrument. It is typically located at the end of the instruments fingerboard, closest to the headstock. It marks one end of the vibrating length of the strings. (The saddle serves a similar function on the opposite end.) In addition to supporting the string, the nut sets the spacing of the strings across the neck and typically holds them at the proper distance above the fingerboard.
Symptoms of Nut Issues:
- Open String buzz
- High string action at first fret (difficult to play open position chords)
- Strings are too close to the edge of the fingerboard
- poor tuning stability
- pinging sound when tuning strings
- slots are too small or wide for string diameter
Nut Types and Materials
String Nuts are available in a variety of different forms and materials. The material this small piece is made from can have an outsized impact on the look and feel of an instrument. Even more importantly, its fit and adjustment has a crucial role in the guitars playability. String nuts often require adjustment or replacement due to wear and tear or player preference. Below are some of the common materials loosely grouped by their similarity of hardness and/or my perception of their workability.
Inexpensive instruments often come from the factory with a pre formed, molded plastic, nut. While these are functional and cheap to mass produce, they are also soft, sticky, prone to breaking, wear out quick, and do not produce the best tone. These days, usually only the cheapest of instruments will have a molded plastic nut.
Micarta, Corian, Tusq, and Graphite.
These synthetic materials are certainly a step above molded plastic, and are in common use throughout the industry. They have a uniform density and are generally a bit softer than bone. Gibson widely uses Corian nuts. They generally do not age in appearance and keep a white look throughout their life. Martin has used Micarta nuts and saddles on many of their instruments for decades. They are ivory colored in appearance. An upgraded type of plastic polymer sold by Graphtech under the brand name “Tusq” is widely used by Taylor Guitars as well as many other brands. Tusq is probably the most widely available and heavily marketed aftermarket nut. They are available in a variety of different pre slotted configurations that have enticed many a D.I.Y repairman to attempt their installation. Unfortunately, even pre-slotted nuts rarely drop right in and thus specialty tools, files, and a keen eye, are still required for their proper installation. Graphite nuts or “black tusq” nuts are a good option in this grouping for someone wanting the look of black material.
Bone and Ivory
Traditionally instrument string nuts were made out of either bone or ivory. Due to bans on its sale, and the obvious ethical issues that precipitated that ban, ivory is no longer commonly used. For those feeling saucy enough, fossilized walrus or mammoth ivory is the closest thing legally available. For most of us, bone is the accepted benchmark material. It is widely available, works well, polishes up nice, and has a good hardness relative to its weight. Bone is typically available in two forms. Bleached bone looks more uniformly white as compared unbleached or “vintage” bone which has a more aged, dull yellow, appearance.
Other Nut Materials
The above are by far the most common materials, but there are some others worth mentioning. Brass nuts are known for their brightness. They were popular for a time in the 70’s and 80’s and I still get asked to make one from time to time. Mother of pearl is occasionally seen on high end banjos. Buffalo horn, nylon, ebony, etc. have all also been used to lesser extent.
What Nut Material Sounds The Best?
Guitar Players are all about the tone. Internet forums are ablaze with people comparing and contrasting the merits of one material over another. The raw truth of the mater is, in practice, the difference in tone between these materials is really quite subtle. Its also important to remember that any perceived tonal benefit of one material over another applies only to the instruments open strings. As soon as a string is fretted, the tone of the nut is out of the equation.
My reasons for choosing one material over another typically are much more centered around durability, vintage correctness, fitting a clients desired aesthetic, more so than any grand tonal difference between materials. If you are searching to change the tone of your instrument, there are probably many other ways to do so much more drastically than replacing the nut.
Pre-slotted or Hand-Cut
We are happy to use pre-slotted nuts whenever possible. They are a huge time saver for our busy shop and are more cost effective for our clients. When properly installed, they are virtually indistinguishable from a hand cut nut. Unfortunately, sometimes a pre-slotted nut is unavailable. This could be either because a unique shape or string spacing is desired or because a client wishes the nut to be made out of a specific material. In these cases, we are happy to hand-cut one from a blank.
Is It Worth Upgrading Your Nut?
If your instrument has a molded plastic nut, or a nut of any material that is worn or not fitted correctly, you would absolutely benefit from having the nut adjusted or replaced.
However, as a repairman, I generally lean on the adage of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. If you have a perfectly serviceable nut made of something like Corian or Micarta, It is my experience that you are unlikely to notice a dramatic improvement by switching to something like Tusq. As a matter of fact, it one purchases a pre fab nut and installs it improperly, they are likely to take a step backwards rather than forwards!
About Guitar Repair Long Island:
Guitar Repair Long Island is the area’s premier destination for fretted musical instrument care and maintenance. We fix all fretted instruments, including: guitars, basses, banjos, mandolins, and ukuleles. Conveniently located in Ronkonkoma NY, the shop is dedicated to providing quick, honest, and reliable service. Our vast experience in all aspects of instrument repair ensures that we can help with whatever your needs are. Contact us or book your appointment today