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.