Many players give little thought to that thin, slotted strip of organic or synthetic material that lies across the end of the fingerboard and guides your strings on their way to the tuners, but the stuff your nut is made from plays a big part in shaping your tone. In partnership with the bridge saddles, the nut is one of the two “anchor points” that determine the speaking length of your string — the components that denote the break between the section of the strings that vibrates and makes all the sound and the “dead” portions — and it greatly affects both the way in which the strings ring, and the amount of vibrational energy that is transferred into the neck and body of the guitar.
Early quality acoustic guitars usually had bone nuts, and often still do, and this traditional material contributes to a warm, rich tone. Players are frequently surprised to learn, however, that Gibson electric guitars from the golden age of the solidbody — the 1950s and early ’60s — had nylon nuts. There are many formulations of this plastic, but the one commonly used was known as nylon 6/6. Although it sounds counter-intuitive and not at all a tone-inducing material, it actually did the job very well, and was a small but significant ingredient in some of the best sounding guitars of all time, and now the most expensive on the vintage market! A nut made from this hard, dense form of nylon is sturdy enough to be long wearing, and contributes to a surprisingly full, resonant tone.
At the lower end of the synthetic spectrum, some more affordable guitars carry nuts of solid or even hollow plastic. These aren’t generally considered to be tone-enhancing components, although they might be necessities of a certain price point. A well-cut plastic nut can still provide a decent sound and function, but in order to get the most out of the guitars they come on, many players choose to upgrade them to a nut made from bone, or one of the other synthetic materials that are popular today.
There’s a wide range of excellent replacement nuts available, many of which have been inspired by players who make heavy string bending or vibrato use a part of their playing styles. Graphite-based nuts provided an early form of self-lubricating nut that offered excellent return-to-pitch capabilities along with good wear and tone. The Graph-Tech company’s black Tusq XL nuts carry on this tradition, while their white Tusq nuts offer a more traditional-looking alternative. Super-slippery Delrin nuts have also become popular lately, and these are all good alternatives for players who either ask a lot from their whammy bars, or simply want nut slots to remain slick and snag-free.
Other modern synthetic materials that are not in the self-lubricating camp, but which still offer popular alternatives to bone, are Corian and Micarta. The former is the same material used for many kitchen counter tops, and is a hard yet workable substance that provides good sustain and pleasant all-round tone. Mikarta, a compound of phenolic resins, is a little softer and easier to work than bone, but still dense enough to provide a tonal upgrade on cheaper plastic nuts.
Whatever material you use to upgrade or replace your nut, if such is necessary, it’s important to get the job done right. This might look like a simple part that you could knock into shape with a hacksaw and a file, and in theory you can, but a poorly cut and slotted nut will impede both your tone and your intonation, so this is a job for a professional. Nut slots need to be not only spaced correctly, but cut to precise depths and at accurate angles too, so that all strings have the same break point at the front edge of the nut. The bottom of the nut needs to be seated firmly and tightly into the slot at the end of the fingerboard, too, or you will loose a lot of sustain and resonance. Look after your nuts, and get them done right when repair or replacement is required, and they’ll reward you with years of toneful and in-tune service.