Nuts come in a large variety of materials, all with slightly different effects on your tone. Working at a guitar shop, I decided to revisit the sound of different nuts, paying close attention to the variations in tone and sustain. I also sat down with our pro guitar techs to find out what they thought about different nut materials. Here is what I learned:
This is widely regarded as the best material for guitar nuts. As I play guitars with these nuts, I have to agree that bone has a dark, rich tone. Most vintage instruments use bone for the nut, which is aesthetically pleasing. It just looks so good. Bone is also very durable, another reason for its popularity among luthiers. While bone is used in all guitar types, I couldn’t resist an opportunity to play Guild’s special limited edition X-180, a perfect example of how a bone nut can contribute to the beautiful tone of a well made jazz box.
Fake Bone (High Quality Plastic)
TUSQ, Corian, and Micarta are all technically plastics that mimic the properties of bone. After trying several acoustics with bone and fake bone, I found it hard to tell the difference. I have a fake bone nut on my Martin 0000, one of my favorite guitars and my go-to axe for recording. Some luthiers argue that fake bone is better than real bone because of its consistent density. I can’t really tell the difference, and I think they’re both good choices.
Brass and Steel
Metal nuts are very bright and offer quite a contrast to bone. Brass is the most commonly used, though steel and even titanium nuts can be found. Metal nuts became popular in the early 80’s and are still popular among players who like a very clear tone while also using distortion.
I spent some time with the Jeff Beck Artist Series Strat, and didn’t find the tone to be overly bright. The steel rolling nuts allow the guitar to stay perfectly in tune even when aggressively using the tremolo.
Cheaper plastic nuts are very common and offer a bright tone. If you have a plastic nut and are looking for a different sound, you may be surprised at how much different your guitar sounds after making a simple switch to bone, fake bone, or something else. Durability can be an issue with plastic nuts, as they tend to crack around the high and low E strings if the guitar takes a hit.
Graphite nuts are a popular choice for luthiers because they produce very little string friction, making them ideal for guitars with tremolo. I picked up the Reverend Warkhawk III 390, a favorite guitar of mine with a graphite nut. As expected, I found nothing to complain about with regard to tone, as it seemed well balanced and remained in tune after using the tremolo. The only downside of graphite is that it is not as durable as bone or high quality plastic. It can sometimes squeak with a tremolo, but any well cut and sanded nut shouldn’t produce squeaks or have problems with friction. You can also add powdered graphite to the slots of any type of nut to improve the friction.
Recently switched the nut on your guitar? Share your experience in the comments section. We’d love to hear about it. For info about nut widths, check out this post.