Need to repair a really screwed-up nut slot? Can’t replace the original and have to work with what you have? Slot too damaged for the baking-soda-and-superglue trick? Well, I may have just the thing for you… Bone grafts.
A nut with a low slot (or slots) is a pain. It buzzes when you play the open string and sounds generally awful. You could replace it with a nice new nut but, sometimes you’re in a hurry or on a budget.
Enter the shim…
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.