AH, THE OLD BONE NUT. ONCE WE’RE done smirking and making our jokes about “polishing
your nuts” and “lubing your nut slots,”
guitarists generally agree bone is the material
of choice. After all, you find original bone
nuts on vintage Fenders, Martins, and several
Gibson models and others, so it has to be the
best thing for this essential little contact point
between strings and wood, right? As with so
many parts of the guitar, there’s a lot to consider
before simply siding with tradition, and
there are several facets to the widely accepted
veracity of the bone nut.
Bone was used for the nuts on many high-end
guitars in the old days, and is still used on
many built today, because it does offer several
favorable characteristics. Hard, dense, yet
fairly light, bone is simply a very good material
out of which to make a nut. It’s relatively
durable, and offers excellent resonance and
sustain when correctly slotted and installed.
Unbleached bone, the preferred type for guitar
nuts, also has some slightly self-lubricating
properties that help it resist strings hitching in
the slots and going out of tune. Also, it simply
looks classy, with a softly elegant, off-white
gleam when polished.
As an organic material, however, bone is—
by its very nature—somewhat irregular. Different
nut blanks from different sources might, therefore,
exhibit varying densities, and the porosity
of some bone supplied for nuts can also vary
slightly. At its extreme, an irregularity can lead
to premature failure or breaking in part of the
bone nut, or in a slightly unbalanced tone across
the strings. It doesn’t happen often, but, hey, it’s
a factor worth considering.
An awareness of the downsides to bone
nuts has led several modern makers to use
other, more consistent materials. The hard yet
workable synthetic material known as Corian—which is also used for kitchen counter tops—has become popular with some manufacturers,
and even the Gibson Custom Shop uses it on
several models. Micarta—a compound of phenolic
resins—is favored by other builders, and
self-lubricating Tusq and Delrin nuts are also
extremely popular. All are dense enough to yield
good resonance, and self-lubricating models
are ideal if your playing requires a lot of vibrato
use, where the slick slots help your strings return
accurately to pitch.
We must also consider that the nuts on
some of the most revered vintage electric guitars—Gibson’s late-’50s Les Pauls, ES-335s,
Flying Vs, and Explorers—were never made from
bone, but from nylon. Seriously? For real—but
this ain’t your Aunt Vera’s nylon. This particular
formulation of nylon (originally “nylon 4/6,”
although 6/6 is often used as a replacement
today) is surprisingly hard and dense, and actually
more difficult to work with than bone. As a
bonus, it also offers its own mildly self-lubricating
properties, and is considered de rigueur for
authentic burst tone by aficionados.
Keep in mind that while the condition and
the quality of your nut remain important, it’s
only a direct link to your tone when you’re playing
open strings. Once you fret a string, the fret
takes over as the anchor point, and the key connector
between string and wood. That said, you
still want to select a nut that maximizes your
tone and your guitar’s playing condition. While
bone remains one great option, there are several
others out there worth considering.
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