Guitar Hardware

The First Things To Upgrade

If you've hung around here for a while, you probably know I’m not a guy that’s big on guitar snobbery. I’ve worked on enough guitars to know that, in many cases, what it says on the headstock doesn’t matter. If a guitar or a bass speaks to you—if it feels right—that’s hugely important.

Of course, I’m not deluded. I realise the components that might go into a three-grand guitar may be of better quality than one that costs three hundred.

I know a lot of players are crazy to get started with upgrades but, with some parts or components, this isn’t as big a deal as popular opinion might lead you to believe. Often, however, it is useful to consider whether there’s something to be gained by an upgrade.

I’m going to leave pickups to another day. They’re the heart and soul of an electric instrument and changing pickups can definitely change the instrument’s voice. Let’s take that as a given and we’ll circle back in the future.

I want to look at a couple of things that I feel are really worth upgrading on almost any ‘budget’ instrument (and even on some less-budget ones). These items are often not as high on a player’s list as they should be.

First up might be a surprise to some:

Output Jack and Pickup Switch

Really. They’ll almost certainly be rubbish. Electronics are an easy area where a manufacturer can save a few pennies. With pots, I’d say don’t worry about them unless they give you trouble. Capacitors? Don’t get me started—they’re fine.

Jacks and switches, though…

A cheapie output jack is much more likely to cause grief. It gets a lot of wear and tear every time you plug in or out. Lower quality alloys and poor manufacturing tolerances make cheap jacks very prone to becoming loose and NOISY.

Nobody likes that nasty crackling racket from a loose jack, much less your audience. Even worse, what if your sound cuts out halfway through that intense solo?

Same goes for switches. Dodgy switches can make your signal cut in and out and can send loud cracks through you amp every time you touch them, never mind switch positions.

Upgrade them! I’d put this right at the top of my list of any upgrades on a budget electric instrument.

Very. First. Thing.

Switchcraft are the go-to manufacturer for good quality jacks (I’m sure there are others but they’re what I use and I’ve found no reason to look elsewhere). They’re not hard to find, they’re not expensive, and they’re pretty easy to install.

Switchcraft also do switches (the clues in the name). Those, CRL, or Oak Grigsby make switches that will see you right. Good quality parts will work well and last ages.

Do it before you have hassle.

Nut

Next up, nuts.

Odds are good a budget instrument won’t come with the best nut in the world. There was a time when almost every non-high-end instrument came with an awful plastic nut. Things aren’t so bad any more and many of the newer, synthetic, nut materials are certainly better than plastic.

That said, plastic nuts are still out there and, even the newer and better materials will often be pre-molded, without well-cut slots.

Most guitars and basses will benefit from a well-cut, and well-installed, nut. There are many choices for materials (I’m partial to a traditional bone nut or saddle) but, in my view, the execution really matters. For any nut to be ‘good’ it must be properly slotted and installed.

This is a difficult thing to do well without some slightly specialist tools so I do recommend seeing a trusted tech/luthier for this one. I feel it’s worth it for this particular job.

Of course, if you’ve a nasty plastic nut, any upgrade, even to a pre-cut nut that you can buy off-the-shelf is well worth it.

By the way, all of this goes (perhaps even more so) for saddles on acoustic instruments. A good saddle will do wonders for your tone.

Personally, I’ll consider the jack, switch, and nut pretty early in my time with an instrument. Both my ears, and my sense of anxiety will thank me for it.

Guitar Hardware School: Frets III - Zero Frets

Back to school time.

Is it a fret or should we consider it a nut? 

It's a fret. But it does the job of a nut. Sort of. Just to round off the sections on nuts and frets, let's have a chat about…

Zero Frets

In some guitars and basses, a zero fret is installed. The zero fret sits where the nut would have been and the nut itself gets shifted, slightly, towards the headstock. The zero fret takes over the job of being the 'bearing point'. More or less by default, it handles the job of setting string height while the nut's job is relegated to just controlling side-to-side spacing. 

UPDATE: 

Just to (try) clear up confusion I may have caused, moving the nut, in this case, isn't the same as what might happen with a Buzz Feiten or another compensated nut. The zero fret sits at the same place a regular nut would have been. Since the strings sit on that zero fret, compensation is unaffected. On a zero-fret guitar, the nut gets moved towards the headstock and it's job is now to align the strings before they pass over that zero fret. Clear as mud? Please feel free to shout up in the comments if I haven't explained this well. 

Why would I want a Zero Fret?

Zero fret on guitar (note: the nut here is a 'captive' nut and holds the strings in holes rather than slots—this is relatively unusual and for a particular application)

Well, there is a pretty good argument around tonal consistency. Consider that most of the notes you play on your guitar have the string bearing against a metal fret as it sounds. On an instrument with a conventional nut, the open note doesn't bear against a fret but against one of those materials we've talked about before. Even with a great nut, that certainly has the potential to produce a slightly different tone. 

From a luthier's point of view, a zero fret makes for a perfect setup as it pretty much takes care of itself for string height. No mucking about, trying to file nut-slots until they're the right height for optimal playability and intonation—just level all the frets and there you go. The nut part behind the zero fret doesn't need the same finicky height adjustment. 

It's worth calling attention to a weird perception that zero frets are a mark of a cheap instrument. That's not the case at all. A number of cheap (and awful) instruments from the distant past had zero frets but that's not what made those instruments awful. 

If your guitar or bass has a zero fret, you can disregard the worry about nut-materials and tone and just get on with things.

Bottom Line: Is It Worth Upgrading?

Hmmm. It's not really something that people worry about. While it's technically possible (with some caveats) to move from a regular nut to a zero fret or vice-versa, I'm not aware of anyone feeling strongly enough to want to do so. I wouldn't loose sleep about it.


If you've found this useful, you can check out others in the same series of Guitar Hardware School. Feel free to share these on and shout up in the comments if you've questions. 

Guitar Hardware School: Frets II - Materials

Moving on from fret size considerations, now we’ll take a look at the materials fret wire is typically made from. While some companies like Rickenbacker use a proprietary fret material, what follows is what you'll typically encounter.

Small selection of fret wires

Brass Frets

Good, old-fashioned brass was—and still is—used for frets. Many vintage instruments will come with brass frets and, even today makers like Warwick sometimes use brass frets in their instruments. 

Brass is an alloy of copper and zinc and, as you’d expect, these frets have a ‘brassy’ colour. Brass frets are not the hardest in the world and do tend to wear more quickly than other wires.

Nickel Silver Frets

The first sentence of every thing ever written about nickel silver will always remind you that it actually contains no silver. Nickel silver is a copper alloy—effectively it’s brass (copper and zinc) with nickel added for hardness. This nickel is sufficient to shift the brass colour towards the silver coloured frets we’re familiar with. The amount of nickel determines how hard the fret will be. Most guitars are fitted with 18% nickel frets although it’s possible to get 12% nickel wire too. The latter is used relatively rarely.

Nickel silver frets are so ubiquitous that I probably don’t need to say much about them. Pick up your guitar or bass and that’s almost certainly what’s installed in it.

Stainless Steel Frets

Hard. Really, really hard. Stainless steel frets are really, bloody hard.

While not exactly common, I’m seeing a bit of an increase in stainless frets and in requests for them. Because they’re so hard, they wear really well and last for ages. If you’re an aggressive player, who’s hard on frets, stainless steel frets might see you visiting me for a refret less often.

That said, stainless frets are incredibly difficult to work with. They’re tough to install well and are massively punishing on tools. A stainless refret will typically see me replacing tools that the wire has ruined. For these reasons, stainless refrets are quite a bit more expensive than a ‘standard’ refret.

Evo Frets

Bling. Evo frets are gold. All the way through—it’s not just a plating. Evo wire, like the brass and nickel silver is a copper alloy. If you’ve got one of those periodic table shower curtains, you’ll easily parse its composition: CuSnFe1Ti. For those who failed to pay attention in science class, that’s copper, tin, iron and titanium.

On the hardness scale, Evo comes in slap-bang in the middle between nickel silver and stainless. It can be a good compromise as it’s a little easier to work with and therefore a little less expensive than a stainless refret. Its gold colour isn’t to everyone’s taste, however (although it can look great on the right guitar).

Fret Material Impact on Tone

Blah, blah, blah… Tone is subjective…  Blah, blah.

Now, with that out of the way, here is the conventional wisdom:

Brass frets tend to have a solid, warmish tone while stainless steel frets can add a little brightness and, maybe, some slight sustain increase. Nickel silver, you’ll know and it tends to be the middle-of-the-road between the brass/stainless extremes. EVO fret wire sits somewhere between nickel silver and stainless in the tone spectrum.

My own opinion? I've come to believe that any alteration to your tone from different fret materials—if it exists at all—is massively subtle (a splendid oxymoron). I've swapped out a lot of frets and, personally, I don't think I could tell the difference in sound.

If you can, great but I have to emphasise subtle on this. Do not expect huge shifts in tone. 

Bottom Line: Is it worth upgrading?

As I mention in the Fret Size article, if your frets are sufficiently worn to warrant a refret, you might want to have a think about materials.

Personally, I wouldn’t recommend a change in fret material purely to change your tone as the changes won’t be very marked. Realistically, an increase in hardness/lifespan is the main reason to consider a change.

And that said, in my opinion, stainless steel is overkill for most players (and the increase in installation cost must be considered). If you wear through frets really quickly, it can be justified but there’s a reason nickel silver is the default on pretty much every guitar made—for most people it’s perfectly fine.

Evo wire can provide a middle-ground that’s hard-wearing and not quite so expensive as stainless but some don’t like the colour (although that’s exactly the reason others choose Evo).

The bottom line on this one is: Unless you’ve got a particular reason to change materials, it’s just fine to stick with nickel silver.


If you've found this useful, you can check out others in the same series of Guitar Hardware School. Feel free to share these on and shout up in the comments if you've questions. 

Guitar Hardware School: Frets I - Size

Frets are frets, right?

Well, sort of. For the most part, the frets we use in our instruments are made to essentially the same style: A rounded crown (the bit you see on the fretboard) and a tang protruding from it (the bit that gets jammed into the slot in the fingerboard). See Hastily Drawn Diagram™ below.

Where things can get a little different, however, is in sizes and materials.

Guitar Frets - Parts and Sizes

Fret Sizes

For all intents and purposes, when most people think about fret-sizes, they’re thinking about the width and height of the crown. Frets can be sourced with different sized tangs but these are generally the realm of people like me who have to worry about fitting them to hacked-up slots or for ‘corrective refretting’ where the tangs are used to help control neck relief.

The crown width and height can make a difference to the average player, though.

In the context of this discussion, I don’t want to get into listing sizes—in thousands of an inch (yes, still imperial measurements)—of various fret wires. I’m going to stick with tall, medium and low descriptions for height and narrow, medium and wide for width. If you’ve questions about particular specifications, shout up in the comments and I’ll try to answer them.

Fret wire: Tall

Taller frets make string bends nice and easy as there’s plenty of ‘air’ beneath the string to let your finger get a good grip. Hammer-ons, pull-offs and the like are also easy. Think of a taller fret as a less extreme version of a scalloped fingerboard.

On the downside, taller frets can lead to intonation issues from players pushing too hard (with no fingerboard to stop them) and pulling the note sharp. Also, if you’re not used to them, they can feel like ‘steps’ as you slide along the neck. Moving to taller frets can be a learning curve for many players.

Obviously, though, you’ll generally get longer wear out of a taller fret and can have it levelled/dressed more often (although this latter benefit does mean your tall fret gets slightly shorter each time so that must be considered).

Fret Wire: Low

You’ve probably heard of the Gibson ‘Fretless Wonders’. This was a nickname given to some Les Pauls and SGs that came with really low frets. While these guitars often had very low action and little resistance in the way of that ‘stepped’ feeling you can get when you slide up and down the board, the downside was that they were more difficult to bend or pull-off as it was difficult to get under the string.

It’s relatively unusual to install really low frets these days (unless matching an existing fret) and, in my experience, most guitarists don’t actually get on with lower frets. Of course, the lifetime of a lower fret is going to be much shorter and it often won’t be possible to level more than once (if that).

Fret wire: Medium

The Goldilocks zone in my opinion. Think of this as a best of both worlds scenario. The majority of guitars come with medium frets installed and most of us are quite happy to play on them. If properly installed, they can usually be dressed a few times before a refret is required. If you’re unsure about fret height, medium is the way to go.

Fret Wire: Wide

Jumbo. Gotta go jumbo. Wide and (relatively) tall wire is often installed on guitars at the rockier end of the spectrum. A chunky, wide, wire can give a little more sustain and, if you’ve got a wide and tall wire, this can lend itself nicely to a rocky or a shreddy playing experience.

Wider frets wear a little more slowly so have more longevity. However, as they wear, they flatten on top and this can mean intonation problems creep in (effectively, the string begins to bear off a point closer to the bridge as the fret flattens).

Wide frets are almost exclusively the domain of the electric guitarist. It would be very unusual to see (or to fit) wide frets on an acoustic.

Fret Wire: Narrow

Narrow frets are relatively rare too, these days. You’ll see them on vintage acoustics a lot but even modern acoustics tend to err towards medium frets. Other instruments, like banjos and mandolins and the like often come with narrow frets (frequently very narrow). They can give a good clean tone but have slightly shorter lifespans.

Fret Wire: Medium

See above on Medium Height. Same goes for width. It’s a great place to be for most of us and, again, if you don’t know, you won’t go wrong.

Fret Size Impact on Tone

Different sized frets can have an impact on tone although I’ll give the usual caveat that tone is subjective and will remind you that you shouldn’t expect night-and-day differences. The changes you’ll get from different fret wire are typically very subtle.

Taller and/or wider frets have a bit more mass and this tends to translate as a tiny more sustain and a bit of an increase in ‘oomph’ (technical term). Narrower frets can sound cleaner or a little more well-defined. Remember, though: subtle.

Bottom Line: Is it worth upgrading?

If your current frets are worn and you’re in the market for a refret, it might be worth considering a different sized fret. As far as tonal changes go, don’t expect massive shifts. The real difference will be ‘feel’ and if a change is something you’re thinking about, it’s definitely a good idea to try out an instrument that already has your desired frets. You might love it and it’ll cement your decision or you might decide it’s not really for you.

Not sure if it helps, but I’d guess that more than 90% of the refrets I perform match the new wire to the old for completely understandable reasons. Sometimes, that comfortable pair of slippers is worth hanging on to.


If you've found this useful, you can check out others in the same series of Guitar Hardware School. Feel free to share these on and shout up in the comments if you've questions. 

Guitar Hardware School: Nuts III - Fitting

If you've managed to get through the last couple of Hardware Schools on Nut Materials, well done. Hope your stamina holds out to take a look at fitting a nut. 

Materials are only part of the picture. For a nut to do a good job, it must be properly fitted and well slotted.

A Good Tight Nut Fit

Proper fitting is really important. Apart from the aesthetics and feel, a nut must make good, solid contact with the neck and fingerboard if it's to work well. 

You don't want the nut to impede a string's vibration and a less-than-solid contact between nut and neck is a recipe for sucking out string energy. In the same way that soft plastic nuts can soak up vibration, a badly fitted nut can also kill your tone. 

You're looking for a solid, even contact along the bottom of the nut and along the front surface (that butts against the fingerboard). In an ideal world, we don't want to see shims under nuts and any softer shims are definitely out. It's worth mentioning that I occasionally use bone shims. While the first choice would be to replace the nut, a bone shim can do a decent job if that's not an option. 

Slotting guitar nut

Nut slots

Lots to consider with slotting:

Nut Slots: Spacing

Each string slot in a nut must first be properly spaced. Generally, this spacing isn't the same across the fingerboard but increases very slightly as it moves from 1st string to the bottom—as the strings' get thicker, the spacing gets bigger. We're not talking about very much of a difference but you'd be surprised at how unpleasant things feel if the spacing is incorrect. 

Nut Slots: Height

After spacing, the next job is string height. Each string-slot in the nut must be correctly cut to give the optimal setting for that string. If the slot is too low, the string will probably buzz off the first fret when it's played. If the slot is too high, playability will suffer, as will intonation. A too-high slot means you'll need to stretch the string farther when fretting, especially in the lower positions. This can definitely kick out your intonation and make for nastiness. 

Nut Slots: Size

Finally, the string slots need to be the right size for each string. I have a lot of gauged nut-files. Each is a slightly different size. I can pick the right file for each string-slot, matching it to the string that it will hold. 

Too big a slot—say a .042" slot holding a .016" string—will allow a string some sideways movement which isn't ideal. Worse, however, is too small a slot. This can bind and pinch the string, often causing tuning issues. If you've ever had a string 'ping' as you tuned it, you might have too tight a slot (or the string has begun to wear the slot, basically cutting its only slot and catching in that). 

Nut slots are too deep - excess above the strings should be removed

Nut Slots: Depth

You might think this is the same thing as height but there's an extra component to think about. After the slots are cut, the excess nut material above the slots should be removed. While there's an argument that this is (at least partly) for reasons of tone, in my view, it's mostly because it's ugly. Big deep slots and a quarter-inch of nut above the strings just looks a bit rubbish. 

Ideally, your wound strings should have about half to two-thirds of their diameter in their slots and the unwound strings should sit just below the surface. 

Pre-Cut and Pre-Slotted Nuts

For the most part, any nut I make (whether bone or one of the alternatives) is cut from a blank. This is just a hunk of that material that I cut to size and shape before slotting. This allows me to get the best fit and look for my nuts. 

However, many nuts are available as pre-cut and pre-slotted pieces. Personally, I don't really like these but I have the luxury of having the correct tools and a bit of experience. I realise that pre-cut nuts from Tusq, or similar material, can still be an excellent home-fit upgrade from a guitar with a cheapie plastic nut. 

If you're doing one yourself, remember that it's not usually a case of just dropping it in. They'll usually require a little sanding and shaping to fit properly. In the absence of gauged nut-files, height adjustment on these is done by removing material from the bottom. This can make for an awkward balancing act to get things right across the bass and treble sides of your neck so go slooooooooow. It's a pain, but do a tiny bit at a time and keep putting the nut back on and retuning (always check when tuned to pitch) to see where your string height is. 


If you've found this useful, you can check out others in the same series of Guitar Hardware School. Feel free to share these on and shout up in the comments if you've questions. 

Guitar Hardware School: Nuts II - Compensated Nuts

Most nuts have a pretty simple design. The strings sit in slots and 'take off' from the front edge of the nut. This marks what is effectively the 'zero-fret' position and each string 'starts' at that same zero location. 

It doesn't have to, though.  

It's possible to move the starting point for each string slightly back towards the headstock or forwards towards the bridge.  

Why would you do such a thing? 

Well, in a similar way to that in which your bridge saddles are compensated to intonate the guitar and help provide some tuning consistency all over the neck, the nut can also be compensated to help a guitar play more in tune. 

I should note that, when talking about playing in tune or tuning consistency here, I'm not discussing the way a guitar slip out of tune. I'm talking about the way each note (open and fretted) should be neither too sharp or too flat compared to what it should be. For instance, if I play fret the third fret of the fifth string, I want to hear an in-tune C note. 

Compensation

Compensation is the adjustment of a string's length so that it plays as closely as possible in tune at each fret position. Generally, on a guitar, we compensate (or intonate) by moving the position of the bridge saddles. On an acoustic guitar, you'll have noticed the saddle is generally installed at a slight angle—so the sixth string is a little longer than the first. It's possible to further compensate the acoustic saddle itself.

Even the best setup guitar can still have some fret positions where a sensitive ear can hear some inconsistencies. In many cases, this hangs around the first few positions.  

How to address this? 

The Compensated Nut

A compensated nut on your guitar or bass moves the 'take-off' point for the string back or forwards in an effort to improve overall tuning consistency. It's essentially the same process as for the bridge.

Music Man compensated nuts at back. Buzz Feiten shelf-nut blanks in front

Some manufacturers, such as Music Man, fit compensated nuts to their instruments as standard. Each string slot has a shifted 'edge' or take-off point.

It's also possible to have a compensated nut retro-fitted to your guitar or bass.  

The big players on the retro-fit scene are mostly Buzz Feiten and Earvana. These take slightly different approaches to address similar problems. Earvana's nut is similar to the Music Man nuts pictured above (and, in fact, I seem to recall a lawsuit between those two companies on the subject). Earvana adjusts each string by a different amount and the instrument is then set-up and tuned as normal. 

The Buzz Feiten system uses a 'shelf' nut that moves the string's take-off point closer to the bridge by a particular distance (calculated based on a number of factors including string-gauge, scale-length and fret-width). Each string is moved by the same amount but the instrument is intonated differently to 'sweeten' the tunings. When tuning the guitar, you tune to the 'E' note on each string rather than tuning the open strings (or just simply use a Feiten-approved tuner). 

Both approaches can make for very good results. Personally, I prefer the Buzz Feiten as I think it looks and sounds better (it's a bone nut) and more 'musically correct'. Full disclosure: I do have a dog in this race, though, as I'm an authorised Buzz Feiten fitter

The Bottom Line: Is It Worth Upgrading?

It depends. Most of us are happily hammering away on our guitars without being bugged too badly by intonation and tuning issues and, even with a standard nut, a good setup can go a long way towards addressing most problems for most people. 

However, if you're constantly on edge that some of your chords just refuse to sound right; if you're playing with a pianist/keyboardist and are plagued by tuning issues on certain notes, it might be worth considering.  

Don't be surprised, though, if a good tech advises you to consider a fret level/re-crown at the same time though. Worn frets can bring their own intonation issues and it's generally a good idea to address these at the same time so you'll get the full benefit.  

Also, remember that these aren't magic. While a compensated nut can improve things, there are limitations inherent in any fretted instrument with equal temperament. That's probably a discussion for another day but keep in mind that we can never achieve perfection (we can get close, though).  


Guitar Hardware School: Nuts I - Materials

A word of caution: This  Hardware School is a relatively long article so you might want to go grab a tea.

Guitar nut

Guitar nut

The Nut

The nut's job is to hold the strings, properly spaced, as they pass from the tuners along the fretboard. The string-slots set the height of the strings (at that end of the neck) and the nut essentially makes up one 'anchor-point' of a string's 'sounding length' (with the other being the bridge/saddle).

If we just consider 'conventional' nuts (leaving locking and roller nuts out of the picture for now), the main thing to focus on is what it's made of. 

Through most of the 20th, bone (generally cattle bone) was the most common nut material used on guitars and similar stringed instruments. Ivory nuts were sometimes used too but, for obvious reasons, these become much less common as we get closer to the present-day (not that ivory was widely used anyway—it was a little bit of a luxury item). 

Plastic Nuts

More modern guitars see a much wider range of materials being pressed into service for nuts. Budget instruments will frequently be fitted with a moulded, plastic nut. In many cases these are pretty nasty and don't tend to wear well. Cheaper plastics don't tend to sound very good either. 

The next step up the plastics chain is the harder, composite materials. These wear and sound a little better and are relatively serviceable. There are a bundle of different materials that fall into this category and, these days, all but the cheapest instruments will generally have a reasonably hard material used for its nut. 

Micarta, Corian and Tusq

Synthetic materials with brand names you'll probably know (Micarta, Corian, Tusq) are becoming much more popular and widespread. Corian (used by Gibson for pretty much everything these days) and Micarta are actually products developed for use as kitchen counters. 

These are pretty good sounding materials and certainly a hefty step up from the usual plastics. I find that they tend to wear a little more quickly than a bone nut and, on a purely personal note, I find them a pain to work with (not that you should worry about that). 

Tusq nuts - older at bottom, starting to change colour

On the aesthetic side, these materials 'age' differently too. Gibson still finish most instruments with a nitrocellulose lacquer which, as it gets older, fades and yellows. It's a great look in an older instrument. Corian nuts don't fade or yellow. They stay WHITE. A Corian nut on an ageing guitar will look like a septuagenarian Hollywood actor with a brand new set of false-teeth. 

Tusq, on the other hand, has the opposite problem. Tusq darkens pretty quickly and keeps going. I've had guitars where I'd have trouble telling the Tusq nut from the rosewood fingerboard. That said, I find Tusq to have the best tone of the synthetic nuts (mainly as it's the closest-sounding to bone). 

Graphite, PTFE, and Lubricated Nuts

Getting all high-tech now. There have been a few different types of 'lubricated' nuts. These are materials similar to those mentioned above which have been impregnated with a lubricant like graphite or Teflon/PTFE. A material, marketed as Slipstone (actually Delrin), has also been used as guitar nuts although this is harder to find in guitar-friendly forms at the moment. There are other materials too but these are the more common you'll hear about. 

Clockwise from bottom: Tusq and Micarta, Brass nuts and blanks, Graphite nuts, Corian, Tefzel

The idea of a lubricated nut is obviously to cut down friction so you'll often find them installed or retro-fitted on trem-equipped instruments to help with the tuning. 

Bear in mind, though, that the nut's setup has a massive impact on tuning stability. A poorly fitted and slotted graphite nut will do little to improve tuning just as a well cut and installed non-lubed nut can do wonders for tuning stability. 

Fossilised Ivory

Ivory was once considered a snazzy and great-sounding alternative to a common bone nut. Wouldn't it be great if we could get this little piece of luxury without having to go around hacking the tusks off elephants?

Enter fossilised ivory. This stuff died thousands of years ago. Apparently. 

You can buy nuts (and saddles) of fossilised walrus ivory. If you're more adventurous, you can buy fossilised mammoth ivory too. 

Now, the sceptic in me wonders at the number of places on the internet that sell mammoth ivory and tries to imagine how many mammoth tusks have been found and put aside for the sole use of the guitar parts trade. I imagine museums, desperate for money, reluctantly sawing up tusks to be shipped to AllParts. 

Still, if nothing else, it's certainly a talking point to say you've a chunk of wooly mammoth in your guitar. As far as looks and tone goes, it tends to be quite similar to bone—maybe a little harder and more ivory coloured (obviously).

Mother of Pearl

Still in the luxury category with this one. To be honest, I'm mentioning this for the sake of completeness as it's not something that you'll often see. Mother of pearl was occasionally used in super-high-end instruments, mainly from the early end of the 20th century. It's pretty damn rare to see a MOP nut but it's so damned hard that the 100-year old originals are probably wearing just fine. 

Brass

I blame the seventies. That's when the brass nut craze really got going. Not to say it's gone—I still get an occasional request for a brass nut. They're absolute hell to cut and slot but they can look well when properly polished up and some swear by their tone. 

Bone nut blanks - bleached and unbleached

Not me, though. I prefer: 

Bone

Yes, I'm a traditionalist. I like to have a hunk of cow's leg sitting at the end of my neck. Pound for pound, I think bone tends to be one of the best looking, best sounding and best wearing materials for a nut. 

As it's a natural material, there can be inconsistencies—a softer spot, for instance—but, if you're careful you can usually tell that before you start working. And, talking of that, it's much easier to work with than pretty much all of the materials already mentioned. 

Guitar/Bass Nuts and Tone

Here's the thing: All of these materials will have subtly different tones. The key word is subtle. While you'll certainly see an improvement moving from a budget, plastic nut to a nicely fitted bone nut, the difference between, say, a Tusq nut and a Corian or a bone nut is much less marked. 

Here's the other thing: Any discussion about a nut's tonal benefits applies only to the open string. Once you fret a note, that's the nut out of the picture.

The Bottom Line: Is It Worth Upgrading?

Yep. Especially if you've got an instrument with a plastic nut.  

A well-cut nut of suitable material can improve tuning stability and can make for a better tone from your open strings. 

What sort of material? Take your pick, really. While there's tons of choice, it's probably worth remembering that, unless you have a particular necessity or deep desire for some other material, you unlikely to go far wrong with a bone nut. 

 


If you've found this useful, you can check out others in the same series of Guitar Hardware School. Feel free to share these on and shout up in the comments if you've questions. 

Guitar Hardware School: Introduction

Understanding the basic workings of various bits of your guitar—and the effect they have on playability and tone—can be useful. It can give you an appreciation of an instrument's limitations and can inform when you're considering any upgrades. 

With this in mind, I thought it might be useful to take a look at some of the individual elements of a guitar and delve a little into the reasons they're there and the reasons they are the way they are. 

So, over the next while, I'm going to do a series of Guitar Hardware School articles looking a little more closely at some of your guitar's bits. Some of these are probably going to be pretty 'deep dives' so be warned: It's gonna get geeky. 

Guitar Hardware

Guitar Hardware