How Nut Material Impacts the Tone of an Acoustic Guitar

Guitar players debate everything. We like to hear ourselves talk just as much as we like to hear ourselves play, and no piece of the guitar is safe from scrutiny. For acoustic players specifically, the nut is no exception, and players often debate the best materials and setup. But how much do these things actually matter?

As with every aspect of guitar, it matters quite a lot if you care enough to pay attention to subtleties. And we care about the subtleties.

I have heard two pickers, both supporting bone nuts, with one saying that the bone nut gave them a bright tone and the other choosing bone for its darker, warm tone. So take that as you will.

May this article serve as a subjective guide or at least something to pick apart piece by piece with your buds at the guitar store.

Why is the nut important?

The nut only directly affects the tonal quality of open strings. The density of the material will affect sustain and resonance — harder, more even densities mean preferable sustain. The texture and the material’s ability to self–lubricate will affect the strings’ ease of movement when tuning, bending, or using a capo.

Nut on a 1959 Airline/Valco Town and Country

Zero frets — which are seen less frequently now on acoustic guitars — make contact with the string post–nut prior to the saddle and bridge, removing some aspects of the nut’s importance.

It’s equally important to understand that the influence of nut material on tone can be undermined by poor setup. Proper angling and string–slot depth are just as integral as nut material when it comes to great sound and playability.

Ironically, while the setup is important to consider, the material you choose for your nut directly affects your ability to set up the guitar. It’s a double–edged sword, really. When possible, I suggest finding a trusted luthier to help you make and actualize these decisions.

For our purposes, we will consider three nut materials: plastic, fossilized ivory, and bone. I have seen nuts made out of brass, steel, ebony, and petrified wood. I've even seen a saddle made out of aluminum. But these materials are, for the most part, the exceptions to the rule.

Plastic

Cheap guitars are a wonderful thing. I would have never started playing guitar if these budget–friendly instruments weren’t available. That being said, there are often glaring issues with an instrument that's made prioritizing low costs over quality.

Graph Tech TUSQ Slotted 1/4" Epiphone Nut

Cheap, plastic nuts plague these instruments. They’re brittle and hard to work with, leading to weak open string sounds and setup issues that normally demand an entirely new nut to rectify.

However, there are high–quality, dense plastic materials that boast durability and tonal advantage. Graph Tech’s TUSQ nuts, for example.

Preachers of this gospel claim that the inconsistencies in density that are often found in ivory and bone nuts are not an issue for these juiced–up plastic nuts. TUSQ nuts boast “permanent lubrication” and definitely deliver in the self–lubrication category, being easy to shape.

I have found that the tone — when compared to bone and synthetic bone — is thinner using TUSQ nuts, even though they market a better bass response.

Graph Tech also makes a “TUSQ derivative” they call NuBone. NuBone is marketed as a lower cost, high–grade plastic alternative to bone. It’s less expensive than TUSQ and is often less favored for being more brittle and generally harder to work.

In my opinion, TUSQ is the way to go if you’re sold on a plastic nut.

Fossilized Ivory

Ivory is illegal to harvest and immoral to use as a means of achieving tone and playability. It is simply not worth it.

Fossilized Mammoth Ivory Pre-Finished Nut

Fossilized ivory, on the other hand, is the legal alternative to ivory and is comparable to bone in open–string tonal quality. This ivory is legal to use because it comes from an already extinct animal. Most of the fossilized ivory on the market is either Walrus or Wooly Mammoth.

As a whole, however, fossilized ivory can be harder to come by than more common materials like bone and high–grade plastic.

My Gibson J-60 Plus has seen both a bone nut and a fossil ivory nut. The difference to me, however subtle, was more sustain and a more pronounced tone when using the fossil ivory nut. The pre–war style bracing of that Gibson provides great bass control, so I liked the ivory nut in that it added to the clarity.

I actually preferred the fossil ivory to bone in almost every capacity, except when it came to setup. Fossilized ivory was harder for me to work with compared to bone, especially when dealing with string slots (I was switching to a heavier gauge). Friends suggested that I resurface the fossil ivory with bone, but I ended up deciding to go with a bone nut altogether.

However hard to work with, the fossil ivory is the best–looking nut around.

Bone

There’s a lot of sensationalism surrounding bone nuts, and that’s because they’re great. They’re probably the best, in fact. Bone has a good level of consistency, provides great tone, and is easier than fossilized ivory to work with.

Slotted Bone Nut for Gibsons

Every guitar is different, though, and tonally, there are times when I prefer TUSQ or fossil ivory.

But bone does have the clear advantage in the ease–of–use category. Working with a bone nut for angling, string relief, and slotting is decidedly easier than doing so with fossil ivory, in my opinion. Bone has a more even density than fossil ivory, though high–grade plastics are the most even.

Bone also self–lubricates, meaning it pairs better with that annoying B–string. Additionally, bone allows the guitar to stay in tune by allowing the string to return to the correct pitch after a bend or movement.

Bleached bone, however, is a waste of time and looks lame. I don’t get it.

Remember that if you are working with the nut yourself, you’re going want to take some time to think about what material is going to work best for what you want to achieve. If you are experiencing problems that lead you to look at the saddle or the tuners (intonation with the B–string is a common one), you may want to take a look at that nut.

Buying Guide: Acoustic Guitars
Everything you need to know about body shapes, styles, and other considerations
Learn More
comments powered by Disqus

Reverb Gives

Your purchases help youth music programs get the gear they need to make music.

Carbon-Offset Shipping

Your purchases also help protect forests, including trees traditionally used to make instruments.

iOS app store button
Android play store button