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Your Guitar’s Nuts — A Small Part With A Big Influence

01.28.2014 Gibson Guitar nut

The nut is one of the smaller parts of the guitar, but it has a big impact on how an instrument sounds and plays. That’s why Gibson has begun using TekToid™ graphite nuts on all of the guitars it builds. Graphite is the best high-tech cure for friction within the nut, which can cause tuning problems, and the substance has excellent conductive qualities, which benefit a guitar’s tone and sustain.

But this is an overview, so for the purpose of understanding exactly what a nut is and how it functions, it is important to mention that nuts in general are made of a variety of materials, and each one effects tone differently. A poorly maintained or improperly cut nut can cause major tuning problems.

A nut is the strip of material that sits at the top of the neck of your guitar and has valleys that cradle the strings as they travel to the tuning pegs. What makes the nut so important? As the link between the strings and your guitar’s neck, it transfers the vibrations of the stings to the neck’s tone woods. Along with the bridge, the nut also guides the strings along the fretboard of the guitar. It is also partly responsible for a guitar’s action. Worn-out nuts can make strings buzz.

Understanding the materials used to make nuts and how those materials perform unlocks some of the secrets of tone. Plastic is the most common, but there are different types of plastics employed in nut making. The best are high-tech materials — like Corian or Micarta —which mimic bone and resist wear. In some ways, these may be better than bone, because Corian and Micarta have a more consistent density, which contributes to sustain and evenness of tone.

Cheaper plastic nuts need to be replaced more often and also tend to gather more environmental gunk — airborne sludge from smoky club environments to sweat build-up — and need more frequent cleaning. Dirt within the valleys of the nut cause big-time tuning issues. Especially on guitars with whammy bars. Cheap plastic nuts also wear faster. The strings literally saw down the nut slots, contributing to fret noise and tuning issues. They also have the least sustain of any other kind of nut material.

Graphite nuts, like the TekToid™ models that Gibson Brands began building into all guitars this year, are an excellent and popular alternative, and they especially promise advantages for guitars with whammy bars, because graphite has natural lubricating qualities. The more easily the strings slide back and forth in the valleys of the nut, the more stable a guitar’s tuning. Some players also prefer their look, since graphite nuts are black, versus the typical white or off-white color on plastic nuts. As with plastic nuts, high-end graphite nuts are best. Cheap nuts suck up tone. Investigate price and quality options before installing any kind of replacement nut on your guitar or commissioning a luthier to do the same.

A digression about installation: installing a new nut isn’t brain surgery and doesn’t even involve soldering, an Achilles heel for some of us.

Brass nuts were very popular during the hair-metal heyday of the ’80s, as were brass bridges. Brass is a very durable material and resistant to wear, but tends to brighten up a guitar’s tone. That’s a plus for clarity when using a lot of distortion, but brass can simply be piercing tone-wise and needs to be controlled. Some believe the added weight of brass improves sustain, and it may do so, but just fractionally.

Guitar building history dictates that bone is the best material for a guitar’s nut. Bone was predominant in the first half of the previous century and has a bunch of positive qualities. Bone creates a balanced tone and is highly durable. Bone also self-lubricates, like graphite, which makes it highly compatible with a whammy arm. Don’t use bleached bone, however, because that robs the material of its lubricating qualities.

Then things start to get a crazy, with ivory. Although ivory was used in many historic instruments starting in the Renaissance, the use of ivory is contemptible today regardless of its tonal qualities, which are said to be extraordinary. Elephants, whales, walruses and other endangered animals die for ivory products. The only way around this is to purchase fossil ivory, but that’s extraordinary expensive and encourages the harvesting of more ivory, which still equals the murder of animals. So don’t be the gear-addled meathead who needs an ivory nut.

The best way to decide which type of nut you prefer is to try a bunch of them out. A trip to your local dealer to test guitars with various nuts will be illuminating. Try to select instruments with pickups and construction that are familiar to you, so you know what you’re listening for — which is sustain, even tone and harmonically pleasing chords and notes when the guitar is in tune and especially when it is unplugged.

Regardless of the type of nut on your guitar, take a few minutes every month, or more frequently — depending how often you gig and how much you sweat — to clean the nut with lemon oil or some other non-abrasive or non-caustic cleaner to get the build up of gunk out of its valleys and off its top. And for a cheap ‘n’ easy lubricant, take a slim, sharpened pencil point and use that tip to apply some of the pencil’s graphite to the floor of each valley in the nut. If you’ve got a tube of graphite handy, applying a moderate amount to each valley is even better.

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