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What is the Nut?

The term Nut comes up frequently when reading about guitar specs. Every guitar has a nut, otherwise, it won’t play! The nut is that small piece of bone, plastic, graphite, etc, that keeps the strings in line on their way to the headstock. The nut is small, unassuming, definitely NOT glamorous, but is absolutely crucial to playability, tuning stability, and tone. Since the nut is crucial to the performance of any stringed instrument, replacing or fixing a nut is one of those things best left to professionals. Why is that? A poorly dressed nut affects performance negatively on every level possible. From buzzing to uneven action, to poor intonation, and horrendous pitch return (after bends or tremolo action), when the nut ain’t right, you know it!

Now even though the nut is crucial to a great performing guitar, its functionality is quite simple (despite what this lengthy blog post would indicate). But, at this point, y’all know I can talk about the smallest part of a guitar for a couple of thousand words so Here We Go!

Just a few nuts for guitar

Something important to get out the way before we begin is that the nut will only affect the sound of an open, unfretted string. Once a note is fretted, the nut is taken out of the equation and no longer has any bearing on the tone! Although the nut only affects the tone of open strings, it absolutely affects playability at every fret. This is why the proper installation, slotting, and dressing of a nut is more important than the material chosen.

The nut on a Gibson Les Paul Custom
There it is! Not glamorous or exciting but that headstock inlay sure is!

Common Nut Specifications:
Most often, width and materials are the 2 specs mentioned by manufacturers when discussing the nut. Honestly, those really are the only two things I keep in mind when considering a guitar. Nut width refers to the distance from the bass side of the fretboard to the treble side. Simple! And the material refers to what the nut is manufactured from. Even more simpler-est! 

Nut Width:
Every guitar has a Nut Width. That little piece of plastic or bone right before you hit the headstock can easily be measured from bass-side to treble-side and that’s how we measure nut width. Nut Width is one of those specs that makes or breaks the playing experience for many players. If the strings are too far apart or too close together for our fingers, then we find ourselves landing on the wrong strings quite often. Us electric players transitioning over to a 2” nylon string classical nut width know a thing (or 2) about this!

This is how we measure nut width
Measuring nut width is simple!

Here are some notable Guitar nut widths…

  • Vintage Fender: 1.650” (41.9mm)
  • Modern Fender: 1.6875” (42.8625mm)
  • Some Vintage and Oddball Fenders: 1.625” (41.28mm)
  • Gibson 1.69” - 1.72”
  • Late 60s, Early 70s Gibsons: 1.5625”
  • Martin Acoustics: 1.75” and 1 and 7/8”
  • Taylor Acoustics: 1.6875” on more affordable guitars, 1.75” on 300 Series and above. 1 and 7/8” on Nylon and their 12 String Guitars.
  • Classical Guitars: 2”

This is far from an exhaustive list, however, most manufacturers use one of the numbers/measurements listed above. I always google the manufacturer and specific model to discover the exact number as this information has become critical to selling guitars so most builders have it at the ready. Let’s put it this way, having some unique, outlandish nut width is a sure-fire way to NOT sell an instrument. This tends to be one of those specs in which familiarity is preferred.

These days, most companies have landed in the neighborhood of 1 and 11/16” (or 1.6875” or 43 mm) as the most comfortable nut width. In both the acoustic and electric world, it’s quite common to see something close to this number. Some steel-string acoustics will have wider nuts at 1 and 3/4” or 1 7/8” which a lot of fingerpickers prefer because of the extra space between strings (known as string spacing). 1 and 7/8” is often too wide for those who prefer 1 and 11/16”. Less than a 1/4” may not seem like that much space, but your fretting hand will absolutely notice the difference!

Classical or Flamenco Guitars tend to feature 2” nut width. This is to accommodate for the extra-wide Nylon Strings and the more chordal approach those styles of guitar demand from its player. Some more modern Nylon String guitars feature slightly slimmer nut widths like 1 and 7/8”. Companies like Taylor and Godin have realized this slimmer nut makes them much more palatable for the steel-string player as the full 2” is easily the most cumbersome neck most of us will ever play.

The Tusq Nut of a Nylon String Taylor Guitar
The 1 7/8" Nut on a Taylor with Nylon Strings

Basses certainly deserve some love here but things get a bit confusing since they are also built with a wealth of string options. 4 string basses come as slim as 1.437” on an original Jazz Bass up to 1.75” on many current models from many manufactures. That's a full 1/4” difference which your fretting hand will 100% be able to feel! Obviously, when we start adding strings, we add nut width. For example, a Jazz V String would come in at 1.85 or 1.875”. However, some manufacturers (especially ESP) have attempted to keep the nut widths on their V Strings slim for a bit of cross-over appeal. Bottom Line (get it?), when bass shopping, be aware of the nut width and make sure to feel it out when it's in hand!

The Bakelite Nut on a Rickenbacker 4003 Bass
The Bakelite Nut on a Rickenbacker 4003 Bass

While nut width can’t be changed, the nut material can be changed to suit your preferences. In other words, don’t walk away from an otherwise awesome guitar because the nut material is not what you prefer!

A Wide Variety of Nut Materials:
Over the years, many different materials were used. And while the nut width does NOT influence tone, the material absolutely, unequivocally does affect the tone of any open string. Early on Brass, Steel, and Aluminum were the materials of choice and while they never wore out, they don’t produce the best tones (IMHO). Bone crept into the mix and quickly became the material of choice due to its good tone, solid sustain, durability, and workability. The most common materials today would still be bone with the addition of high-tech plastics like Corian, Micarta, or Tusq which have become very popular.

Often Import Manufacturers will report 'Plastic' as the material used for the nut and leave it at that. The type of plastic can vary greatly though so I’ll always replace a plastic nut with an organic material. Below you can see the nut on a Squier that is rather rudimentary. It isn't dressed very well and is a bit bulky and sharp compared to what you'll find on a USA Made or Custom Shop Fender

The plastic nut on a Squier Classic Vibe Stratocaster
The stark white plastic nut on a Squier Classic Vibe Strat

Bone has long been considered the best for tone though that is subjective. Maybe it is considered best by many because that's what they are used to hearing…? Bottom-line if your ears tell you some material is ‘best’, then you are right, if only for yourself! No one else HAS to play your guitar, right? So don’t sacrifice the playability and tone of your guitar for how someone else thinks it should perform! Check out the well-dressed, low-profile, and perfectly smoothed out Bone Nut on the Custom Shop Strat below!

The bone nut on a Fender Custom Shop Stratocaster
The bone nut on a Fender Custom Shop Strat Relic

While bone has long been the go-to choice and it does sound great, or “vintage”, whatever that means, it does have some shortcomings. The biggest one in my book is inconsistent density. Bone can vary in density and has harder and softer spots. This does not translate to maximum or even transfer of resonance. Any organic material will most likely vary in density at least a bit. That doesn’t mean it will sound worse or perform poorly or that you’ll ever be presented with any evidence that your nut has harder and softer spots. One other knock against bone is that cutting it results in one of the most disgusting smells you’ll ever encounter. Imagine burning a massive pile of hair in your house. That’s about the closest comparison I have been able to come up with and it ain’t pleasant!

Enter substitute materials! Tusq Nuts from Graph-Tech are well-marketed as a more consistent product in terms of density. Tusq combines organic materials with a manufacturing process that ensures a uniformly dense product, engineered to transfer tone. Taylor Guitars has proudly been using Tusq Nuts for quite some time, and, as one of the best-selling Acoustic Guitar lines of the last 20 years, it’s safe to say this material is tried, true, and well-tested. Corian (an engineered stone close to quartz) and Micarta (layers of fabric glued together with phenolic resin that is heated and compressed to increase hardness)) are two other high tech, engineered materials commonly used for nuts. Gibson used both these materials in recent years but have switched over to Graph-Tech/Tusq on the USA Production pieces. 

The Tusq Nut on a PRS
A Tusq Nut from GraphTech on a PRS

Other nut materials I have experienced are Brass (2014 Gibson's), Steel (Floyd's and the LSR and Wilkinson nuts found on the Jeff Beck Strat), Nylon (Custom Shop Les Pauls), Ebony (yep, the wood on a Martin Repro), Fossilized Ivory, Fossilized Walrus Tusk, and Black Buffalo Horn. These materials range in hardness quite drastically and they do affect the tone of the open strings on an instrument in fairly obvious ways. For me, brass and the steel nuts are at the bottom when it comes to ranking tone with nylon in the middle and bone and fossilized Ivory sitting atop of the heap. There are plenty of other resources available online that discuss the different tonal properties of nut materials and I'd encourage you to head down that rabbit-hole when you are done here. Just remember, the nut only affects the tone of un-fretted or open strings!

A steel nut on a Vintage Vox 12 String
A steel nut on this Vintage Vox 12 String

Food For Thought:
I find it VERY interesting that the 1959 Les Paul, revered as the greatest Les Paul (maybe even guitar) of all time, comes with a nylon nut but practically NO ONE replaces the nuts on their Gibson’s with Nylon! What the heck, people! Get wise! Actually, please don’t as our tech’s HATE working with Nylon as it is considerably more difficult than cutting a bone nut. Nylon IS a perfectly slippery and darn toneful material though, so when it is slotted just right, it’s another phenomenal choice!

A Nylon Nut on a 59 Les Paul Reissue
The Nylon Nut on a 59 Les Paul Reissue

Other Things to Consider, Ponder, and Pontificate:

New Frets, New Nut?:
When you refret a guitar, you should also consider a new nut as part of the process. Any good luthier will lower the nut slot heights as they lower the frets, otherwise, the distance between the fret crown and the string is greater. In other words, your action is higher. So, let’s say you had 2 level and crown jobs performed on your guitar over the last 20 years. Ideally, each time, the nut slot height was adjusted (lowered) to meet the height of the newly crowned fret. When it comes time to refret, you’ll more than likely want a taller fret than the now haggard and worn-out frets you are replacing. By using your old nut that is now cut very deep, it would require being filled and re-slotted. While this certainly works, you now have multiple materials (like baking soda and super glue for instance) making up the nut. We will almost always suggest replacing the nut when getting a guitar refretted.

Dressing a Nut for a Specific Gauge String Set:
As a young metalhead, I learned that you could not just ‘throw on a set of 13’s”, tune a guitar to C Standard, and be done with it. I learned because I tried it and failed miserably! I was taught (by George MacPhail, himself actually!) that the slots on the nut need to be filed to the proper width and at the proper angle for the guitar to perform correctly. Using nut slotting files (like these from StewMac) makes this easy for someone equipped with the right technique and skills but even the right tool in the hands of an “Imma-Watch-a-Video-and-do-this” type is a recipe for poor performance!

Let’s use a Fender Player Strat as an example. The nut will be factory slotted to accommodate the strings the guitar ships with: a 9-42 gauge set. So you get the guitar and put 11 gauge strings on it. The 11s will sit atop the nut rather than in the slots. This guitar will no longer stay in tune especially if you are bending or using the tremolo. The nut slots need to be widened to accommodate the larger gauge strings but snug enough so that they don’t slip back and forth when played vigorously.

On the opposite end of the conversation, if you ever had the nut slots widened and now want lighter or thinner strings, then the process of filling the slots and recutting them that I mentioned earlier in this post would be an option as would replacing the nut entirely. These days, I have a neck with the nut slotted for 12 gauge strings with a wound G. It offers stability and performance on par with my other guitars that saw the same treatment… which is ALL OF THEM!

What's a compensated nut?:
Some companies have figured out how to compensate the nut to increase its intonation. Music Man Guitars and Earvana come to mind, along with the Buzz Feiten tuning system, of course! Compensating the nut is similar to compensating a saddle in that you make slight shifts in the point of contact on the nut/saddle which allows it to sound more in tune. On an electric, you’ll easily see the bridge saddles are not all set at an even distance. These subtle shifts back and forth make the notes sound more in tune as you work your way up the fingerboard. In my mind, a Compensated Nut is the further extension and complimentary counter-part of compensated saddles. Does it help? Yes. Will everyone will be able to hear the difference? No. The guitar, as we have known it, is an imperfect instrument by design. Enter ‘fan-fret’ and true temperament fret designs. Neither of these fret styles has anything to do with the nut, so we will save any further discussion for another post! Or if you are intrigued, please head to my post about frets to dip your proverbial toes into that pool.

The compensated nut on a Music Man guitar
The compensated nut on a Music Man Guitar

How Nut Width and String Spacing are Related:
As mentioned above, String Spacing is linked to Nut Width. A guitar's string spacing is limited by its nut width but there is typically enough room to move the strings towards the inside or outside of the nut if need be. If you have a low e string that always seems to slip off the fingerboard, its nut slot could be cut a little further in, making it less likely to pull off the board. Reminder, the string spacing at the bridge will (almost) always be greater than the string spacing at the nut. If an instrument featured the same string spacing at the bridge and the nut, it would feel very awkward. The strings need to taper inward as we head to the lower frets for a positive playing experience.

When Slim was in:
A particularly notable period in Nut History would be the late 1960s and the early 1970s, as Gibson was making guitars with very thin nut widths at 1 and 9/16” Some folks love them and some folks hate them. They provide an extremely skinny feeling neck in which the strings are very close to one another (because again, string spacing is limited by nut width). Those with thin or pointy fingers may prefer this width but players with even medium-sized fingers tend to have a hard(er) time with skinnier nut widths. I have experienced similarly skinny nut widths on some other vintage guitars but they have practically vanished unless a manufacturer is reproducing something from the era.

I Was in the Pool!
Over the decades, a fingerboard can shrink. This is due to the wood losing moisture and becoming dehydrated. Have you ever had the fret ends pop out of the side of a fingerboard and make contact with your fretting hand? Well, that means your fingerboard shrank and you’ve lost a little width. The metal frets DON’T shrink, they can’t! Wood does shrink though, especially when it's stuck in a dry climate for extended periods. The shrinkage is typically a very small amount (a 64th to 32nd of an inch, perhaps a little more in really extreme cases) something you would need a great micrometer to measure. Fingerboards that are bound can also experience shrinkage as many of the plastics dry out and shrink as well. If your fretboard experienced a fair amount of shrinkage, you may want to have a new nut cut to match your now slightly reduced nut width and to sort out your string spacing.

Shrinkage happens to the best of us
Apparently, I love dating myself through pop-culture references

Alright, let's wrap this up, Chatty Matty...

Well, as I am one to do, I have taken a seemingly simple subject and squeezed every keyword I possibly can out of it! I hope you found this post educational, entertaining, and not too long-winded. I do find it crazy that there is this much to discuss regarding a part that is so easily and often overlooked! I guess being obsessed with every aspect of the guitar has its pros… and cons!

This blog post was penned by Mathew Jenkins who is clearly absolutely nuts.

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