All this talk about 2016 Presidential’s and the media frenzy surrounding runner Deez Nuts, I had to work on an article on guitar nuts and what they are made of (Cue laughter LOL).
It’s important to know that the material of the nut only influences the tone of the open strings directly. With a good nut the open strings sound balanced and open, compared to the other notes. The nut also influences the overall tone of a guitar because the nut transfers the vibrations of the strings to the neck, so the material and density are important. So lets look at the materials commonly used for guitar nuts.
The nut can be made of many different materials according to the quality and tone we want to achieve such as:
- Fossil Ivory
- High Tech Plastics like Micarta, Corian, etc.
- Metal (mostly brass or steel)
- Lubricated materials such as Graphtech’s Man-made Tusq
In terms of tone the material the nut is made of influences the tone of an instrument on the open and fretted strings. What we are looking for here is that the open strings sound the most possible like the fretted ones.
The best way to achieve this is by using a so told “zero fret” meaning a fret which is installed in place of the nut with a sort of strings guide behind which holds the strings in the correct position. Another way to achieve this is by using a metal made of materials such as brass or steel.
Here is a brief list of each material and their tones:
Plastic nuts are the most common. Some higher-priced guitars have cheap plastic nuts. Plastic nuts are not very durable, and before too long, the strings will saw through the nut slots. Additionally low-quality plastic nuts will kill your tone, especially your sustain. It is always a great idea to replace a plastic nut if you get a guitar that has one. Plus, the standard white color of plastic nuts isn’t the nicest looking. Just one more reason to replace it.
High-tech plastics are materials like TUSQ, Corian or Micarta. These are industrial materials with high density. They imitate natural bone in structure and color. The advantage of these is that they are artificial, offering the evenness of density without natural irregularities found in bone. These materials are used by a lot of companies, and I would recommend trying them. I can’t hear any differences when compared to a bone nut. Some claim that these are actually better than any bone nut. Some companies like Martin have used Corian in some of their instruments. It’s definitely worth checking out if it’s good enough for a high-end Martin guitar.
Black in color, graphite is also very popular, especially for guitars with a tremolo. The biggest advantage to graphite is that it is self lubricating for low friction. A good graphite nut helps with tuning stability in combination with a tremolo. Cheap graphite nuts, however, tend to kill your sustain, so take care to get the good stuff.
Brass and metal were very popular during the eighties, and some companies still use brass today. It is the most durable, and will probably last forever, but it is heavy. Brass gives a very unique tone that you will have to try out to see if it is for you. The open strings can get very loud and shrill, but some heavy metal guys are into it because it helps the tone stay clear and defined when using heavy overdrive. Additionally Roller nuts are another type of metal nut. This type uses barrel rollers similar to a roller style bridge.
Bone remains the “king of nuts,” and is the historically correct material for vintage guitars. Nothing is as awesome as a polished bone nut on a one-piece maple neck! The tone is very balanced and the open strings are never too loud or shrill, and it will last a long time. It is important to use unbleached bone, because it naturally self-lubricates, which helps you stay in tune when using a tremolo. Plus, cosmetically, unbleached bone can be polished to a higher shine than bleached bone. I prefer unbleached camel bone. It is comparable to ivory in tone and appearance, and has a very even density.
Ivory is said to be the premium material for guitar nuts, providing the best tone. However the material is questionable from an ecological and legal point of view, and buying ivory puts an animal such as an elephant or walrus to be killed 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 and has been found throughout the planet. To my ears, it sounds warmer, mellower and more defined than bone. The difference is very subtle, but still audible. Another bonus is the range of colors, from creamy white to yellowish to dark brown. When polished, it can be breathtaking. Fossil ivory is not cheap, so you’ll have to decide whether it is worth it for you.
While real ivory offers a superb tone and appearance, I highly recommend not buying this stuff at all. It is illegal in most parts of the world, but like most illicit substances, it is available through Black Market sources. Ivory is on this list, but I strongly advise you not to buy or use it. Endangered animals will have to die for your tone and is highly illegal with some pretty severe consequences.
The maximum penalty for violating the Endangered Species Act is minimum one year in prison and a $100,000 fine for an individual, $200,000 for an organization. Those who engage in illegal wildlife trade under this act may also face prosecution under the Lacey Act’s anti-trafficking provisions (maximum penalty of 5 years in prison and fines of $250,000 for an individual or $500,000 for an organization).
There is a wide range of materials to choose from so be sure to try many materials. There is no right or wrong. Just good tone or great tone or bad tone (if that’s what you are looking for). Personally, nothing beats the tone of Bone, but again it is purely preference. We hope that you learned something today. As always play well, and play on!