One of the smallest parts of the guitar is the nut that sits near the top of the guitar.
Along with the bridge and frets, the nut makes up ‘the holy trinity’ of tone. This little thing is a critical, but often overlooked, part of a guitar’s action and ultimately it’s overall sound.
The shape and material of the nut can actually affect the entire tone and performance of your guitar, not to mention the impact it has on playability.
Needless to say, its worth having a think about which one is best for you. In this article, we’re going to discuss the many types of guitar nuts and what makes each nut material so unique in terms of sound properties.
What is the Nut and Why is it Important?
It ensures that all of the strings are properly spaced and are just the right height above the fingerboard. The slots or ridges that are carved into the nut help to hold all of the guitar strings firmly in place. In other words, the nut works as an anchor point for the strings.
But it doesn’t stop there. Interestingly, the type you use impacts the sound of the guitar too, and the density of the material it’s made of will have an impact on both the sustain and resonance of the guitar’s tone.
Also, the ability of the material to self-lubricate to ensure better movement is also going to make a difference in the overall tone of the guitar.
Types of Guitar Nut
There are broadly five types of nut. Let’s take a look at each.
The most common type is the standard nut that’s found on the majority of guitars at every price point. Materials used to make them can vary from bone or brass all the way to ‘high tech’ plastics such as corian, micarta, and TUSQ.
If you look at a standard nut, you’ll see all the strings come off the nut at the same distance from the first fret, on the leading edge. The compensated nut, also known as a staggered nut, alters the distance between the nut and first fret depending on the string (see the pic above). This provides superior intonation, especially for the few first frets.
If you use a Floyd Rose tremolo system (or similar), you’ll be familiar with locking nuts. They’re little clamps ‘pinch’ the strings at the place where the nut normally is. The tuners are rendered useless, and you make fine adjustments to the tuning at the bridge end.
In direct contrast to the roller nut, these have little ball bearings in them that roll with the strings, eliminating resistance at the nut almost completely.
Popularised by the Fender company, the strings sit on little roller bearings rather than nut slots that lets them freely slide or roll through the nut.
This innovative design can be found on many of their flagship products and helps keep not only keep the guitar in tune but also stops the strings from getting stuck in the nut. It’s a good idea to use them with locking tuners though.
Some nuts are just string spacers and the point of contact is actually a fret, also known as ‘the zero fret’. This slightly higher fret allows open strings to sound like they’re being fretted. This style is often found on Selmer-Maccaferri style guitars used in the gypsy jazz genre.
The material of the nut is going to have a great influence on the playability of the guitar too. So, while the setup is important, it all boils down to the type of material used to make the nut. We’ve grouped them into six types below.
Bone is often hailed as the gold standard for nuts. They are found on a lot of old vintage Martins, Gibsons, and Fenders. Bone is very hard and will give you a nice bright tone. The drawback with bone is that it can often be inconsistent, having soft pockets within any given chunk of bone.
Generally considered the gold standard for nuts, bone nuts are found on a lot of old Martins, Gibsons, and the like. It’s hard-wearing with a shimmering, bright tone but it can be a touch inconsistent (bone often has ‘soft pockets’ within it).
However bone is often the preferred choice, as it offers a great level of consistency which results in an overall improved tonal quality.
It is also easy to work with. When it comes to ease of use, the bone nut has a significant edge over the other options, especially when it comes to angling, slotting, or string relief, all of which are important factors to consider when choosing the material of the nut.
Since bone has the ability to self-lubricate, it’s able to pair better with the B-string specifically (often a problem string). Furthermore, using a bone nut ensures that the guitar is able to stay in tune for longer.
This is possible since bone allows the strings to return back to its correct pitch after every movement or bend.
The closest synthetic material that resembles bone (in terms of sound and density) is TUSQ/Graphtech, a polymer made substance pressed at high temperatures.
- Solid, dense and light material
- Offers desired resonance
- Protection against mechanical shock
- Superior durability
- Makes it easier to fine-tune
- Used with high-end models
- Soft spots might make the sound vary
- Possible tuning issues
Fossil ivory is considered to be the next best option. While it is illegal to use ivory, the legal alternative is fossilized ivory which offers the same string tonal quality as nuts made from bone.
Fossilized ivory that’s legal to purchase in the market comes from two major sources – the ancient wooly mammoth that roamed the earth thousands of years ago and the walrus.
However, for obvious reasons, fossilized ivory is difficult to come by compared to bone and other materials. While the difference between using bone or fossilized ivory is subtle, the latter is able to produce a tone that is more pronounced.
Apart from delivering an equal tonal range, nuts made from fossilized ivory are also harder and brighter, which gives it amazing acoustic properties. While a fossil ivory guitar nut is a great choice when it comes to pleasing aesthetics and sound properties, the only downside is that they are hard to craft, due to the hardness of the material.
- Similar to bone
- Great sound resonance
- Offers an equal sound and tonal range
- Amazing acoustic properties
- Difficult to craft due to its hardness
- Tricky to install
- Hard to find
A plastic nut is often found on budget guitars. While these inferior quality nuts serve their purpose for the person on a budget, once you decide to get yourself an upgrade, the first change you will notice is that the plastic nuts get replaced with bone or fossilized ivory options.
One of the reasons why plastic nuts are frowned upon is because they offer poor sound quality. They are also known to be brittle. This means they can easily break while under pressure.
However, there are high-end options which are very good. ‘High tech’ plastics such as those made of TUSQ are designed to mimic bone but without the inconsistencies (see above). It’s also self-lubricating which helps with tuning stability and makes it easier to shape the nut.
Other common plastic materials used include micarta (which resonates really well but accentuates the mids) and corian. Both offer high-quality design and premium sound.
- Cheap alternative to bone
- Used with budget models
- Lacks in sound quality due to its flimsy material
Metal is another option, and the two main options are steel and brass, both considered to be sturdy and long-lasting, popular on Danelectro guitars to name one (played by an early Jimi Hendrix). The downside to using them is that metal is considered to be an average sounding material as compared to bone or fossilized ivory.
While this might not be a problem for many who are just starting out, for the more experienced players, this can be a deal-breaker. While metal nuts are considered to be far superior in quality, tone, and longevity as compared to plastic, they do not fare well when put against their bone or fossilized ivory counterparts.
The brass guitar nut is also extremely difficult to cut. This is the reason that, while they were all the rage during the 70s, their popularity soon died out once easier materials came into vogue.
Since nuts made of brass give off a unique tone (a bright sound with shimmering harmonics), you will first have to try them out before you make a commitment. For electric guitars, using a metal nut could be a great idea for getting a clearer and more defined tone when paired with heavy overdrive.
- Unique sound
- Best for country music
- Not smooth or soft
- Harder to shape
- More expensive
Playing hard and power bending? Then graphite is the one to go for and is known for helping with tuning stability, as well as having self-lubricating properties (which cause less friction on the strings).
It allows for better tuning stability and is great for bending on guitars fitted with tremolos, as the graphite lubricates the string slot meaning the strings return to their slots better post-bend.
If you find yourself doing plenty of dive bombs with the whammy bar, then the graphite is the way to go as they offer smooth sound quality and are relatively easy to shape and work with.
- Self-lubricating properties
- Causes low friction
- Better tuning stability
- Variety of tremolo effects
- Easy to work with
- Benefits not available in cheap graphite nuts
- Only available in black color
When it comes to guitar nut construction, ebony is considered to be a great option since it offers the best in both aesthetics and sound quality.
The only downside is that it tends to soften up quickly. But as the material is affordable, it allows you to enjoy an exceptional tonal sound and pleasing aesthetics at the same time.
Ebony nuts are considered a better and more affordable option as compared to bone, fossilized ivory, or metal ones. It doesn’t sound as good, but you get an affordable option that gets you close to getting the best of both worlds.
- Great aesthetics
- Easy to work with
- Sound doesn’t resonate as well as bone or fossil ivory
As we’ve seen, the nut plays a surprisingly big role in the overall sound quality of a guitar.
Since they can be constructed with a variety of materials, it pays to make sure that you choose the most suitable nut material to match your playing style and the sound quality you’re going after.
Have a second thought about the type of nut next time you’re ready to purchase, it might just make you revisit your plans!