Ever wonder what is a guitar nut made of? Perhaps you’ve even wondered why this long-shaped piece at the top of the fretboard is called a nut at all, as this name is not very descriptive of its function. Be that as it may, this small and unassuming piece of your guitar’s anatomy has a very important role to play when it comes to imparting the purest possible tone for your instrument. This will be true, whether you play an acoustic, bass, classical or electric guitar and it’s true for other stringed instruments as well. Sometimes the nut is also called the zero fret.
The Most Common Materials For Guitar Nuts
- Plastic: Not all plastics are created equal for nut material. In mid-range instruments a plastic nut is more often a type of metal that has been covered with plastic. Some examples of plastic are polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and polypropylene. Because of the plastic covering, a small amount of moisture will remain on the surface of the metal nut, which makes it easier for the string to slide.
- Brass: Brass is an alloy of two different metals – copper and zinc. It is the properties of both strength and purity of the metals that make brass a material of choice for musical instruments. The performance of the instrument will depend on how sound vibrates through the materials used, so even at a molecular level there will be a quality difference. Metals other than brass can also be used for guitar nuts, but the suitability and the good looks of brass are hard to beat.
- Other metals: Sometimes other metals are used for the nut and saddle bridge, and these can be alloys or a nickel or silver plating over a base metal like brass or steel. Plating with a pure, elemental metal gives pure sound qualities, but the plating wears away and needs to be replaced sooner.
- Bone Nut: In traditional handmade instruments, especially in native cultures that have a musical heritage of lute-type instruments, polished bone or ivory are used for the nut piece. These impart a smooth, pleasant and less ‘metallic’ edge to the string tone. They are also very malleable materials and are therefor easier to work to shape in a soft-technology culture. Great for resonance and sustains.
- Graphite Nut: Finally, a high-tech material that is becoming more prominent for an ever-widening array of applications, graphite material also turns up as a material from which guitar nuts are made. Rather than being one single compound, graphite is actually a family of manufactured space-age materials that can be purpose-modified to suit the application. The regular molecular structure of graphite is the key to both its strength and its resonance. Graphite can also be a more cost-effective material in terms of the guitar manufacturing process. The best quality graphite guitar nuts can be precision engineered and should not need adjustment or replacing over the life of the instrument. One well known company that provides these is Graph Tech
Another one that used to be used a long time ago was fossilized ivory and tusq nut.
What Materials Can Guitar Nuts Be Made From?
The next biggest factor affecting your tone will be the material itself from which the nut is made. What make up guitar nuts? They vary with the quality of the instrument itself, the least expensive ones usually being fitted with cheap plastic nuts and saddles bridges. Traditionally, in the most ancient versions of guitar-like instruments, these pieces were made of polished bone or ivory, and in imitation of this the plastic nuts are often creamy white in color.
Because the material from which the nut is made has a profound effect on tone quality, it is worth going into the different materials here. We’ll discuss the most commons ones, and they are described below.
The Nut Quality Affects Tonal Quality
The nut’s influence on tone becomes clear when you understand that any part of your instrument that touches the vibrating strings themselves will unavoidably affect clarity. Professional artists know this, and for this reason they are much more likely to entrust the mending of their guitar, even if it only involves a ‘simple’ part such as the nut, to an expert repairer. If you are a novice or have no access to a qualified repairer, you should at least educate yourself and try to learn all there is to know about guitar nuts before attempting to repair your own instrument.
Accomplished guitarists become very demanding of their instruments, and if you find yourself frustrated that simply tuning up correctly is still not giving you purity of sound, it may be the nut that is the source of your problem. It is vital to understand, in this context, that your string length, and therefore the integrity of the pitch, is going to depend on what it happening between the nut at one end of the fretboard, and the saddle or bridge piece at the other end of the guitar body. Between these two points the strings are spaced apart from each other by the nut, and lifted from the fretboard by a gap sufficient to give the right amount of ‘action’ on the strings as the player’s fingers depress them. So, while the nut and saddle pieces are usually made from the same material as each other on any given instrument, the nut in particular needs to have certain properties.
The Effect of The Physical Properties of The Nut
For example, the grooves of the nut through which each string passes must be smooth enough not to impede the tiny movement and stretch of the string as it is played. This needs attention because each string is a different gauge, or thickness, compared to its fellows, and must slide well through its own groove. This is why, in an instrument with a well-crafted nut piece, it does not work to replace a string with the wrong type, even if it’s tuned to the correct note. It is also why you cannot just reverse the string order to create a left-handed guitar — you will need to change to a matching nut for this to work.
Apart from spacing and smoothness, if the nut grooves are too narrow, they will pinch, and if too wide, the strings will over-vibrate. The result in each case will be a less pleasant sound — the strings sound like they are being pulled against something; they don’t sound ‘free’. As you experiment with adjusting the type and quality of the nut, check by listening hard to the difference each material makes to the sound output.
So there you have it – when you ask what guitar nuts are made of, you should now have an idea of the materials and properties that will affect the performance of your instrument — and all at the nut level.
Related reading – guitar neck twist issues