Well, what is the guitar nut? Is it so important as people say? If so, why?
All this and more today as we explore the ins and outs of guitar nuts and their relative importance.
Introduction to the Guitar Nut
The nut is that small piece of bone, plastic, graphite, etc, that keeps the strings in line on their way to the headstock. The nut is small, unassuming, and definitely not all that glamorous, but it is absolutely crucial to playability, tuning stability, and tone. Since the nut is crucial to the performance of any stringed instrument, replacing or fixing a nut is one of those things best left to professionals.
Why is that? A poorly dressed nut affects performance negatively on every level possible. From buzzing to uneven action, to poor intonation, and horrendous pitch return (after bends or tremolo action), when the nut ain’t right, you know it!
Now even though the nut is crucial to a great performing guitar, its functionality is quite simple.
Interestingly enough, the nut will only affect the sound of an open, unfretted string. Once a note is fretted, the nut is taken out of the equation and no longer has any bearing on the tone! Although the nut only affects the tone of open strings, it absolutely affects playability at every fret. This is why the proper installation, slotting, and dressing of a nut is more important than the material chosen.
Types of Guitar Nuts
Guitar nuts can be divided into the types of materials that they are constructed from:
- Plastic: the most common type of nut – there are two different types of plastic nuts, the cheap plastic nuts that come on low-end guitars, and the high-end plastic nuts such as TUSQ that are used on higher-end guitars.
- Bone: considered by many to be the best nut material out there. These are commonly seen on vintage Martins, Gibsons, and Fenders—and for good reason. Bone nuts are very hard, durable, and provide a great, bright tone. They are also self-lubricating for better tuning stability.
- Fossilized ivory: very similar to bone, though they are a little bit harder, hence why they’re very durable. Their big advantage is tone though, as they provide a very pronounced tone that many swear by.
- Ebony: a classic nut material, though it is less common now than in the past. Ebony nuts provide a warmer tone than a lot of other nuts, which is why jazz players tend to like them so much.
- Graphite: a more modern thing, mainly designed to improve tuning issues – particularly on guitars with tremolos or vibratos.
- Metal: very popular in the 70s, but they have since become much less common, providing a very specific and unique tone that isn’t for everyone – very bright and clear with glistening harmonics.
They can also be delineated by nut width. Here are some common options by brand:
- Vintage Fender: 1.650” (41.9mm)
- Modern Fender: 1.6875” (42.8625mm)
- Some Vintage and Oddball Fenders: 1.625” (41.28mm)
- Gibson 1.69” – 1.72”
- Late 60s, Early 70s Gibsons: 1.5625”
- Martin Acoustics: 1.75” and 1 and 7/8”
- Taylor Acoustics: 1.6875” on more affordable guitars, 1.75” on 300 Series and above. 1 and 7/8” on Nylon and their 12 String Guitars.
- Classical Guitars: 2”
The Function of Guitar Nut
Outside of its impact on the tone of open strings, the nut also plays an important role in tuning. Your strings will move across the nut as you tune and play, especially if you have a vibrato or tremolo of any kind. A slick nut can allow the strings to move more freely, decreasing tuning issues, while other nuts can make that more difficult and make staying in tune a pain.
Depending on your guitar and style of play, the nut can be hugely important. For example, Floyd Rose users can run into incredibly annoying tuning problems if they’re not using a nut that makes string movement easier (such as graphite). Changing to the nut that best suits your style and guitar can have a huge impact on your tone and tuning.
Guitar Nut Maintenance
When you refret a guitar, you should also consider a new nut as part of the process.
Any good luthier will lower the nut slot heights as they lower the frets, otherwise, the distance between the fret crown and the string is greater. In other words, your action is higher.
So, let’s say you had 2 level and crown jobs performed on your guitar over the last 20 years. Ideally, each time, the nut slot height was adjusted (lowered) to meet the height of the newly crowned fret. When it comes time to refret, you’ll more than likely want a taller fret than the now haggard and worn-out frets you are replacing.
Using your old nut that is now cut very deep would require being filled and re-slotted. While this certainly works, you now have multiple materials (like baking soda and super glue for instance) making up the nut. We will almost always suggest replacing the nut when getting a guitar refretted.
Don’t be afraid to use some graphite or lubrication on the nut from time to time to keep things smooth up there.
Installing and Replacing a Guitar Nut
Replacing can be a pretty involved process, so what follows below is merely a brief overview:
- Remove all the guitar strings so you can access the guitar nut.
- Use a craft knife with a fresh, sharp blade to score around the guitar nut.
- Place a small wooden block against the long back edge of the nut.
- Tap the back edge of the block lightly with a hammer to knock the nut loose.
- Use a ruler to measure the nut’s exact height, width, and length.
- Test how your new guitar nut fits where the old nut was.
- Sand down the new guitar nut with 800- or 1000-grit sandpaper until it fits.
- Secure the new nut in place with wood glue when you are happy with the fit.
- Restring the guitar with the old strings or new ones once the glue dries.
Common Issues with Guitar Nuts
When correctly cut, a nut slot should have a U-shaped profile – straight walls and a half-rounded bottom. A common problem, in contrast, is slots with a V shape – in these cases, downward pressure causes the string to wedge itself into the narrowing bottom of the V, and inevitably the string will pinch and bind as a result.
Nut-slot depth is another parameter that has a big impact. If the slots are filed too deeply, the open strings will buzz and the nut will require replacement or repair.
However, the much more common scenario is that the slots are too shallow – in this case, the strings will be too far above the frets. As a result, simply pressing the strings to the frets will bend them sharp. This effect will be most noticeable in the first few positions – and since that is where one usually includes open strings alongside fretted ones, it can be very noticeable indeed.
Customizing Guitar Nuts
Not all string instruments have nuts as described above. The nuts on some instruments, for example, are notched deeply enough that they are just string spacers. These instruments use a zero fret – a fret at the beginning of the scale where a normal nut would be that provides the correct string clearance.
The zero fret is often found on less expensive instruments, as it is easier to set up an instrument this way. However, a zero fret also makes the sound of the open string similar to fretted notes. A conventional nut can make open strings sound slightly different, and for this reason, some high-end instruments use a zero fret, something that alters the overall number of frets on a guitar by one.
Some fretted instruments, on the other hand, have a compensated nut that provides better average theoretical intonation across the instrument, although this improved accuracy may be below the threshold of human ability to hear it.
Another type is a locking nut. This nut – usually used in conjunction with a locking vibrato system such as a Floyd Rose or Kahler – clamps the strings against the nut. This improves tuning stability when using the vibrato bar. A drawback, however, is that the locking nut must be loosened using an Allen wrench to tune outside the range of the fine tuners on the bridge.
Some guitars also have a rolling nut. In this design, made popular by Fender, the strings sit on roller bearings instead of nut slots. The rollers let the string freely slide or roll through the nut. The roller nut helps keep the guitar in tune by preventing the strings from getting stuck in the nut.
Impact of the Nut on Guitar Tone
Since the nut is one of the two points that transfer the vibrations of the string to the wood, its density greatly contributes to tone. Although the best type of material is a matter of personal preference in most cases, each has its own benefits regarding price, durability, aesthetics, and friction.
Some, however, believe that the nut material will have a minimal impact on tone unless you shift to a metallic material such as brass, or install a zero fret, such as with the ZeroGlide system.
Whether it has a great bearing on the tone or not is for you to decide yourself, by testing out all the different types to see if you can tell the differences.
Conclusion: Summarizing the Importance of the Guitar Nut
No matter what kind of guitarist you are, you should take the time to figure out what nut works best for you. If you’re a jazz player, maybe it’s ebony. If you’re a shredder with a Floyd Rose, graphite is a safe bet.
Either way, think about your playing style and which nut would get the best results for you. As always, don’t be afraid to head to the guitar store and try out some different options.
No matter how important a guitar’s nut might be, the most important thing is that you should be using the right one for you based on your own personal preferences and feelings on the subject.
FAQs Guitar Nut
The nut is that small piece of bone, plastic, graphite, etc, that keeps the strings in line on their way to the headstock.
Indeed it can and, though the process is a little involved, it can be done by anyone at home.
Bone is often considered by many to be the best nut material out there. These are commonly seen on vintage Martins, Gibsons, and Fenders. Bone nuts are very hard and durable and provide a great, bright tone. They are also self-lubricating for better tuning stability.
A nut doesn’t “have” to be glued down, and on some guitars (especially classical guitars) they’re not. They’re fitted into a slot, held in place by string tension, and they can come loose if you take off all the strings at once.
Nut work prices vary depending on the amount of work required for nut slot cleaning, width adjustment, re-attaching a loose nut, and similar tasks. The average labor price to replace a basic synthetic guitar nut is around $25.