Word has been going around the internet recently about a cheap alternative to gauged nut files for guitar and bass. Since a proper set of nut files isn’t cheap, this is tempting. But is this alternative any good?
Installing a pre-cut/pre-shaped nut starts with measuring your existing nut to ensure you choose one that’s right for the job. Most of the measurements are obvious and are those that the nut manufacturers recommend in their own documentation. But… There’s one they rarely mention. And it’s important.
Check it out…
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.
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.
Bone for tone, goes the saying (well, in certain circles, at least).
And it's right. Bone's my favourite substance for nuts and acoustic saddles. It looks great, lasts well and works nicely. And, of course, the tone's all there.
Except when it's not.
The problem is that bone's a natural substance. Sometimes there are bits that are less hard or dense than others and it's important to keep an eye out for this when you're making a nut or saddle.
The less dense area of the piece in the photo is easy to see. A hefty semi-circle that allows more light though gives it away. It's not always so obvious and it's not always so big. If I'd cut a string slot in this part, there's a good chance that string would have a different tone to the others. The slot would certainly have worn more quickly than the others, too.
By the way, bone (especially unbleached bone) has many small differences in colour here and there. If you spot small specks and streaks in your own nut, it doesn't necessarily mean you've anything to worry about. When you're making a nut or saddle, though, it's not a bad idea to examine the blank bone first.
This one? This one went in the bin.
I'm used to seeing rough and ready shims under nuts. Sometimes they're a makeshift repair to get a player through a gig or recording session but I've even seen these on guitars that seem fresh from the factory.
Like this one.
The nut is sitting on a 'ledge' of sorts. I can see that there's lacquer over the binding and it seems the guitar left the factory like this. It's a bit strange. It looks like the bound fingerboard was machined down for the nut slot but something went awry.
Whatever the cause, it's not ideal. The best tone comes from good coupling of strings and guitar. Anywhere that a vibrating string can lose energy is a potential tone-suck. A nut sitting on a narrow ledge like this qualifies as something to address.
Out with the old nut and a little slot clean-up. Remove that precipice and cut a nice, new, bone nut.
Ahh, that's better.
Nuts start like this:
And end like this:
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.
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: 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.
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 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.
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).