By Ed Malaker
Graphite vs plastic vs bone nuts: one of the best ways of improving your guitar’s tone is by changing its nut. The cheap nut that is used in so many guitars will rob you of your sparkling high-end and sustain. But, when it comes to deciding on a replacement, you’ll find that there are quite a few different types, and making a choice can sometimes be difficult.
So, we’ll narrow our discussion down to a comparison of three of the most popular types: graphite, plastic, and bone nuts, and we’ll talk about a few other materials as well. We’ll cover the pros and cons of each kind, and hopefully, when you finish reading, you will have a good idea of what type of nut is right for you.
There are a few things to look for in any guitar nut.
Some people will pay any price, but most of us want to find something that sounds good but isn’t too expensive. The more common it is, the more likely you can get it at a reasonable price, if you look around hard enough.
Hardness is probably the single most important quality a nut can have. The harder a material is, the less high-end frequency loss you’ll get. Hardness is not just crucial for sound quality — it’s also responsible for the longevity of the nut.
DIY or Prefab
Another critical decision you need to make is whether you are going to create the slots for the strings, or purchase a nut with them already cut. We recommend prefab nuts so your slots will be consistent. Just remember to do your research and buy one that fits your guitar.
If you are going to file your slots, you will need the tools to do it and some skill with the saw. You can do it, but it’s just a little harder, and you might ruin a few nuts getting it right.
Once we start talking about density and weight, we are talking about a much more subjective trait that a nut might exhibit. The thinking is that if you take two nuts of equal hardness but different weights, they will sound different. Density will affect durability.
Let’s look at the some of the differences between graphite, plastic, and bone nuts.
Plastic nuts are the most common, by far. They are cheap to make, cheap to buy, and almost every guitar has them pre-installed. Although there are different kinds of plastics, it is generally too soft to use as a nut material. Plastic will absorb your high-end and dull your tone. It will also wear down quickly from the friction with the strings.
Bone is one of the most popular replacement nut materials and is the favorite among many discriminating guitarists. Bone is very hard, yet it is easy to shape. It’s resistant to wear and produces a bright tone, without it becoming too harsh-sounding.
Graphite is another very popular material used to make guitar nuts, and is also a favorite among guitarists. Graphite nuts might not sound as good as bone, but it’s still a vast improvement over plastic. Graphite is self-lubricating and is a perfect solution for guitar players who use a lot of the tremolo bar in their playing or have a hard time keeping the guitar in tune. The self-lubricating feature will allow the strings to slide over the nut with less friction, reducing tuning issues and hang-ups.
Micarta is a synthetic bone. It produces a similar tone, but it does wear down faster. Gibson uses a lot of Micarta for their nuts and bridge saddles.
Tusq is a brand name of synthetic ivory that is rapidly growing in popularity due to its clean, bright tones. Only a plastic nut is cheaper. Tusk is a very hard polymer that produces a sound that some say rivals bone, while others say it is harsh and brittle. Tusk is unlikely to wear out.
A steel nut is what you get when you use a locking tremolo. The downside of these nuts is that due to the enormous popularity of the Floyd Rose locking tremolo system, there are a lot of knock-offs that use weaker metals to save on cost. Budget steel is soft and will wear out quickly. It will also rob you of your high end and sustain.
The upside is that if you have good steel, you’ll get a great sound that will last a long time. These nuts are often screwed in, so they are effortless to change.
Brass nuts can replace a steel locking tremolo or any type. Brass is similar to steel, but it is softer and caters to a niche guitar population that likes the warmer tones that brass provides. The downside to brass is that it’s soft and can wear out faster than plastic. It also tarnishes and requires upkeep.
Ivory is outlawed. If you have an antique ivory nut and are crazy enough to install it, it would sound bright and rival bone.
Fossilized ivory nuts is a newer growing trend that uses fossilized tusks as a nut material. It is very hard and very dense, producing a bright, shimmery sound, but the fossilized ivory is challenging to craft and challenging to obtain, meaning these guitar nuts can get quite pricey.
Fossilized ivory is from tusks buried underground for thousands of years. They’re commonly walrus tusks, but we’ve seen wooly-mammoth ones as well.
The final type of nut we’ll talk about is ebony. Many guitarists favor ebony because it has a beautiful look and produces warm, smooth tones. It’s much more common to find an ebony nut on a non-steel string guitar. An ebony nut will need a lot of care and will wear faster than any other material.
So who wins when it comes to graphite, plastic, or bone nuts? If those are our only three choices, we recommend going with bone. Bone will last a long time and produce great tones. There’s nothing wrong with graphite if you like it, but most people go for it based solely on its lubricating qualities. If you have problems with string hang-ups, it could be a sign that something’s not lining up correctly. People who use a lot of whammy-bar usually use a locking system to prevent the strings from going out of tune.
If we could choose from any of the options, we might go with the Tusq nut. To or ears, it sounded just as good as the bone if not better and is much more durable. We hope that you choose with your ears and not the hype. Experiment as much as you can — even the woolly mammoth nut isn’t going to break the bank, so try a few out. We would love to hear about your experiments and which one you think sounds the best!
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