Different Nut Materials and Types for Acoustic Guitars Explained – What is the Best Material for Acoustic Guitar Nuts?

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best material for acoustic guitar nuts

Acoustic guitar nuts (and no I don’t mean people who are nuts for acoustic guitars!) are an important little part of a guitar.

To the non guitarists eye this would be almost unnoticeable but without it the guitar simply could not function as an instrument.

The first part of this article will look at the important functions of the nut and the second part will look at which material is best suited for the job.

Disclosure: This article contains affiliate links, meaning I may get a commission if you make a purchase through my links, at no extra cost to you.

Choosing the right nut material is crucial for getting the best sound and playability from your acoustic guitar. Plastic, bone, graphite, brass, and other materials all impact tone, sustain, and tuning stability differently. In this article, we’ll explain the unique tonal characteristics and playing feel provided by various nut types. You’ll learn key factors to consider when selecting a nut and discover which might be the optimal choice for your specific musical needs and budget. We’ll demystify nut specs so you can make an informed decision when upgrading your acoustic guitar.

Table of Contents

The Importance of the Nut

The nut has a few very important functions.

  • String Spacing
  • Action
  • Open string tonality
  • Sustain

Spacing

The nut has the very important job of making sure that the strings remain spaced across the fret board as they should be.

Without a nut the strings would not line up properly and make playing the guitar very difficult if not impossible.

I can’t say I’ve ever tried to string a guitar without a nut but I don’t recommend it!

Action

The nuts second function is controlling how high above the fret board the strings are (the guitar’s action). If the strings are too high then the guitar will be difficult and hard work to play and it could affect the intonation.

But too low and you risk getting the dreaded fret buzz!

And if you had no nut at all? Then your guitar would be unplayable as the strings would lie against the fretboard, unable to vibrate.

Open String Tonality

Now we start to get into the importance of the material of the nut. The material of the nut on an acoustic guitar will affect the overall tonality of the guitar. The most notable effect it will have on tonality is when playing the open strings.

Sustain

The material of the nut will affect sustain – either in a good way or a bad way. Again this will be most notable when playing open strings.

Different Nut Types Explained

Standard Nut

Bone and tusq nuts are considered the best materials as they transfer string vibration well into the neck wood for optimal tone and sustain. Plastic and brass nuts are more affordable options but can lack the tonal transfer of bone or tusq. The standard nut sits in a slot at the top of the guitar neck. Its function is to space the strings properly over the fretboard and provide a termination point for the vibrating length of each string. The nut slots are cut to a specific depth and width to match the gauge of strings being used. This ensures the strings have the proper clearance over the first fret while still making full contact with the nut material for good vibration transfer.

When shopping for an acoustic guitar, pay attention to the nut material as this can impact tone and playability, especially on more affordable models where plastic nuts are common. Higher-end models generally use bone or tusq nuts. If the guitar has a plastic or brass nut, consider upgrading it later on to bone or tusq if the optimal tone is desired.

Compensated Nut

A compensated nut is a specially designed nut where each string slot is cut at a slightly different depth to improve the guitar’s intonation. On standard nuts, the slots are all cut to the same depth. However, the tapering diameter of wound strings can cause the guitar to be slightly out of tune up the neck past the 12th fret. A compensated nut counteracts this by indexing each slot precisely based on the gauge/diameter of each string. This helps the guitar stay better in tune when playing up the neck.

Compensated nuts are common on higher-end acoustic guitars focused on studio recording and precision playing. The added manufacturing complexity increases costs, so they are not always found on more affordable instruments. If your guitar is going out of tune past the 12th fret, consider upgrading the nut to a compensated version matched to your string set.

Locking Nut

A locking nut is a mechanism that clamps down firmly on the strings right behind the nut slots. Once locked, it prevents the strings from slipping in the slots – a common cause of tuning instability and string buzz. Popularized by Fender guitars, locking nut systems usually accompany tremolo bridges, sealing both ends of the string for rock-solid tuning, even with heavy use of the tremolo arm during playing.

While more common on electric guitars, high-end acoustic guitar makers like Taylor have introduced locking nut designs paired with vibrato tailpieces. This allows guitarists to perform controlled vibrato techniques without strings slipping out of tune. If your playing style demands heavy and repeated use of vibrato effects, seek out acoustic guitars featuring a locking nut and vibrato bridge system.

Roller Nut

A roller nut replaces the standard stationary nut with a series of small, freely spinning rollers in each string slot. This dramatically reduces string-binding friction as tuning instability from nut-slot string binding is eliminated. Combined with a locking tuner system, roller nuts allow exact tuning stability for recording and stage performance situations.

While complex, roller nuts have migrated from high-tech electric guitars over to premium acoustic guitar designs from top manufacturers like Taylor. The engineering and precision required increase costs but provide professional-grade tuning accuracy and reduced string friction, ideal for intricate playing techniques.

Zero Fret

A zero fret is a metal fret placed right up against the nut slots that serves as the string termination point rather than a traditional slotted nut. This transfers vibration into the fretboard material right from the start versus through a nut material like bone or tusq. The concept is borrowed from high-end bass guitar design, where optimal vibration transfer is critical to achieve the fullest tonal response across a wide frequency range.

Although relatively rare on acoustic guitars, zero frets are now offered on select high-end models focused on studio and recording use where the most nuanced tones are demanded. As materials and manufacturing methods continue improving, expect zero frets to potentially catch on more widely if guitarists seek them out for the purported tonal enhancement they can bring.

Different Nut Materials Explained

When selecting an acoustic guitar, the nut material is an important consideration that impacts tone, sustain, tuning stability, and playability. The nut transfers string vibration from the headstock into the neck and body wood, acting as the termination point for the vibrating length of each string. Harder, more resonant materials like bone, tusq or graphite promote better energy transfer versus softer options like plastic. Beyond tonal properties, the lubricity, binding resistance and stability of the nut material impacts tuning stability and potential string binding issues. Premium instrument makers select nut materials that balance tonal transfer with smooth performance tailored to discerning player expectations.

Bone

Bone has been a traditional acoustic guitar nut material prized for warm, rounded tone. Its dense structure and hardness enables crisp note articulation with balanced highs and lows. Bone has natural lubricity to prevent binding with better tuning stability than plastic. Bone is hygroscopic, meaning it absorbs moisture, which can cause swelling and shrinkage issues, leading to binding or reduced string contact over time. Appropriate climate control is required, so many guitar makers are shifting to more stable synthetic substitutes.

Plastic

Plastic is a common, affordable nut material on lower-cost imported acoustic guitars. Softer than bone, plastic nuts lack the crisp attack, note separation, and tonal depth of bone or other harder materials. Plastic also has much higher binding friction that inhibits tuning stability. The material is very inexpensive but generally regarded as inferior for discerning players focused on optimal tone. Much like bone, plastic is also prone to swelling/shrinkage issues from humidity changes, leading to potential binding and reduced sustain.

Synthetic Bone

Synthetic bone nuts provide excellent tonal transfer and articulation approaching natural bone. The man-made formulations exotic woods, minerals and binding agents create a tuned resonance approaching bone without the swelling issues. Brands like Graph Tech’s Tusq deliver modern nut performance with rock-solid tuning stability. Visually similar but tonally and structurally more balanced across climate conditions.

Urea

Urea plastic is an economical nut material that is very hard and smooth. This prevents binding while still enabling passable tonal transfer. The high density of urea yields good sustain and articulation for the price. While not as responsive as bone or tusq, urea nuts perform admirably on mid-tier instruments. Urea strikes a workable balance between cost and performance.

Ivory

Natural ivory nuts offer sublime organic resonance unmatched by other materials. Despite the gloriously smooth tone, the sparse availability and conservation concerns severely limit its modern usage. Ivory imparts unrivaled warmth and complexity tailored specifically for discerning blues players. Modern synthetic ivory substitutes mimic visuals while capturing 70% of the tonal magic at a fraction of the cost.

Micarta

Micarta nuts blend phenolic resins with paper/fabric under high temperature and pressure. This creates an extremely hard, dense product with very low friction and resistance to climate change. Micarta nuts promote excellent tuning stability and crisp fundamental tones. High-end acoustic guitar brands often select micarta for its stability and sustainability when climate control is unreliable. It lacks the tonal complexity of bone but provides reliable performance.

Corian

Corian is a molded mineral composite material known for glossy surfaces in kitchen countertops. As a nut material, Corian is harder than plastic while being softer than bone or graphite. This yields acceptable fundamental tones but less harmonic complexity that players seek. Corian is relatively stable across climate shifts, providing consistent friction. While a slight upgrade over plastic, it fails to match other premium nut materials for discerning guitarists.

Nubone

Nubone is a trademarked graphite-impregnated urea plastic formula focused on optimized friction properties. The graphite infusion enhances lubricity for exceptionally smooth tuning performance. Nubone nuts promote noticeably better stability, benefiting players who use aggressive bends and heavy vibrato techniques. While fundamentally a plastic, the high lubricity and tuning stability of Nubone nets an enthusiast following. It hits the mid-point between cost and high-end tone.

Tusq

Tusq is a synthetic bone nut material made by GraphTech and composed of resin, graphite, and exotic particulate blends. Tusq aims to capture the warmth and harmonic richness of natural bone while eliminating its moisture issues. Many boutique guitar brands select Tusq for its resonance, crisp note attack, and tuning stability. Graph Tech produces Tusq formulations for both electric and acoustic guitars, tuning the acoustic variant for balanced fundamental tones with smooth mids and strong bass. Tusq floats between plastic and bone for cost but outperforms both.

Graphite

Graphite is a relative newcomer prized for its natural lubricity and hardness. The material provides extremely smooth tuning performance and a well-balanced tone. Graphite nuts promote bright fundamentals with airy highs and tight lows – a response tailored for studio recording. The crystalline structure evenly transfers energy with reduced friction. Graphite is rapidly gaining popularity among players prioritizing precise tuning accuracy and note clarity. It can lack the mid-range complexity that other materials impart naturally.

Steel

Steel nuts deliver the ultimate in hardness for solid tonal transfer and tuning stability. Stainless steel nuts originate from bass guitars, and extended-range electric models focused on crisp fundamental tones. Besides its industrial appearance, the material resonates brightly with tight bass and sparkly highs. Stainless steel nuts won’t react to climate changes, eliminating contraction/expansion issues. The ultra-hard feel can seem oppressive for strumming rhythm players but provides fantastic articulation.

Brass

Brass nuts offer a vintage vibe with mellow warmth that wooden instruments naturally amplify. The softer metal responds well to musical dynamics, imparting sweet, singing highs rounded out by mid-range swell. Brass lacks the stone-like hardness of steel or graphite but compensates with organic resonance. Visually distinguished by the golden shine, brass nuts capture old-school intent where the optimized response takes a backseat to woody personality. The rapid tarnish requires ongoing maintenance that is unappealing to modern players.

Ebony

Ebony provides the most tonally complex nut material outside of ivory, albeit sans buttery smoothness. The ultra-dense wood transmits layers of harmonics with each note. Unyielding hardness nets precise articulation and bell-like highs balanced against round low mids. Ebony demands climate control as exposure to humidity increases binding friction that competing synthetic alternatives eliminate. Sonically divine yet maintenance-intensive, ebony nets distinguish fans craving woody vibrance over tuning stability. Visually distinguished by the stark black grain lines.

The Best Materials

O.k. now let’s see how each common nut material meets the specifications of a good nut.

Plastic: Unfortunately a lot of guitars come with cheap plastic nuts. Plastic nuts fail almost all of the specifications for a good nut material.

plastic guitar nut

The standard plastic nut will slowly grind away – which will cause your action to, without you wanting it to, lower itself – and it will do it unevenly. Eventually you will start to get fret buzz and you will need to replace the nut.

In fact, I just bought a doer-upper guitar that came with a cheap plastic nut and after just a couple of hours of play I could already see plastic flakings coming off – the sooner I replace it the better (just waiting for my new bone nut to come in the mail!)

If you get a guitar with a plastic nut I would suggest replacing it from the start. You’ll likely have to replace it at some stage anyway and if you replace it now with a better material you will also get the tonal advantages.

Plastic doesn’t produce a nice tone and the sustain is typically woeful.

You could also start to get problems with keeping the guitar in tune with a cheap plastic nut.

Flash Plastic: O.k. flash plastic is not the technical term but I guess it kind of describes the material in question here.

Tusq guitar nut

This comes in a few different types – e.g. TUSQ, Nubone and Micarta.

These ‘flash’ plastics attempt to imitate the tonal qualities of bone or ivory and at the same time attempt to be more consistent than their natural counterparts.

Bone and Ivory can have hard and soft spots – whereas the synthesized versions are supposed to take away this inconsistency.

Whether or not these materials beat the real thing is hotly debated. Some swear by bone and some swear by the synthesized versions. Personally I don’t notice a huge difference in sound but my ear may not be as attuned as some.

>> Tusq Nuts

>> Nubone Nuts

Bleached Bone: Bleaching bone for the purposes of making a nut is like white bread – it looks all clean and nice but it removes a lot of the benefits that were there in the first place.

bleached bone guitar nut

And that’s pretty much the only point of bleaching the bone – to make it look whiter. To be honest I actually prefer the look of natural bone over the bleached stuff so I don’t think it even has that advantage!

Bleaching the bone takes away some of the desired characteristics of bone. It softens it – which affects both tone and life expectancy. It also reduces the bones self-lubricating traits.

>> Bleached Bone Nuts

Natural Unbleached Bone: Apparently some luthiers (guitar makers) refuse to make their nuts and bridge saddles out of anything but bone.

unbleached bone guitar nut

Bone helps to produce a great balanced tone on acoustic guitars with a great attack into the note and better sustain. As can be the case with other nuts, open notes don’t sound shrill or too loud.

Bone is also naturally very hard and won’t wear down like plastic.

Bone is the traditional choice of material for acoustic guitar nuts.

>> Unbleached Bone Nuts

Fossil Ivory: Finally we come to fossil ivory. Some people prefer the tone of fossil ivory over bone – but again others swear by bone. Tone wise this really comes down to personal preference.

Fossil Ivory can also look fantastic – like unbleached bone – if the aesthetics are important to you.

It is worth noting here that I have included Fossil Ivory only here. Fossil Ivory is Ivory from animals that died millions of years ago naturally and has since been found. For this reason it is more expensive than bone, harder to source and more specialized.

Non-fossil ivory is illegal in most countries and immoral, in my opinion. Do you really want endangered animals to have to die just for your tone? Especially when bone and fossil ivory will be just as good if not better.

What’s Your Favorite Nut Material?

Do you rate the nut material as being important? If so, what nut material do you prefer? Feel free to leave a comment below.

Any other questions and comments also very welcome.


Photo Credits from Top

Top Photo by Roadside Guitars [CC BY 2.0], via Flikr

By Nate Pallesen

Nate is just your average (above average) guitar player. He's no Joe Satriani, Jimi Hendrix or Jimmy Page - wait this site is about acoustic guitars (sorry) He's no Django Reinhardt, Chet Atkins, or Michael Hedges, wait? who!? He's no Robert Johnson, Eric Clapton or Ben Harper - more familiar? Anyway you get the point :-)

6 comments

  1. I enjoyed your articles on nuts, Saddles and bridges. Thank you. It has concern me to read reviews of Fender guitars in the $400 range that use plastic nuts and saddles. They do not even bother to call them synthetic bone. This seems like such a cheapskate shortcut.
    If I misunderstood or misjudged Fender products in this price range?

  2. Hello liked your article on guitar nuts, That has left me with a question, Has lexon which is a bullet resistant material or carbon fibre been used?

  3. How about guitar nuts made from deer antler? Would that make a desirable material for such a purpose?

  4. Would anyone happen to know what the nut and saddle material is on a 1973 Fender F-85? Thanks to anyone who can answer. They were made in Japan.

  5. My Martin O-18 and D28 both came with a Corian nut and micarta saddle. I have changed both 0-18 and D28 to unbleached bone nut and saddle. The tonal palette is far superior than before. I am so glad I made the change to unbleached bone.

    1. Hey John.

      So great to hear from you! You genuinely sound so pleased with your choice and I am indeed very happy that you are so happy. Hopefully, those reading this can take note that such a seemingly minor change can actually have amazing repercussions for tone and subsequently for well-being.

      Thanks for stopping by, John!!

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