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One of the easiest upgrades anyone can do to a project guitar kit is replace the nut.
In the following article (and videos) we’re going to run through why you might want to replace the nut on your guitar and how to go about removing and installing a replacement.
For those unaware, a guitar’s nut is the plastic/bone/graphite/Tusq (man made ivory) component that sits at the end of your fretboard, closest to the headstock.
While it may appear insignificant it actually plays an important role. Along with the bridge saddles. It is one of two points of contact for the vibrating length of the guitar’s strings. And, as the nut comprises slots for each individual string it plays an important role in terms of the guitar’s string spacing.
The depth of each individual slot, along with the height at the bridge also determines the guitar’s action e.g. the distance between the strings and the fretboard which affects intonation and potential for fret buzz along with playability e.g. the higher your action the more effort required to fret notes.
So, as we can see the nut plays an outsized role in terms of the playability of your guitar. But, do you necessarily need to change it? And, are there any benefits in terms of guitar tone?
Tone is subjective, many may claim their guitar’s tone improves if replacing a plastic nut with a denser bone nut for example, especially on the acoustic guitar, while others may not hear any difference at all, which likely comes down to the listener’s hearing sensitivity. Also keep in mind, if a difference is heard it’s really only going to be involving the open strings as fretted notes negate any tone benefits a new nut may provide.
Increased sustain, at least in my opinion, is a little easier to prove. As bone or graphite has greater density and hardness it absorbs less of the vibrations from the strings, and makes sense that sustain would improve when a plastic nut is replaced, which soaks up just a little more of the energy of the strings. But, that’s not to say you will hear a dramatic difference.
The other, and perhaps greatest, advantage of a nut upgrade is tuning stability. If the slots on your current nut are a poor fit the strings can grab in the slots when changing the tension through tuning. A new nut with correctly filed nut slots will allow the strings to glide more easily through their respective slots when tuning or bending a note, ensuring greater tuning stability.
If improved playability, tuning stability, sustain and perhaps even benefits to your guitar’s tone aren’t reason enough, there are two additional benefits to upgrading the nut on your guitar.
For example your the slots in your nut may be poorly cut resulting in uneven string-spacing e.g. the high E string sits closer to the edge of the fretboard than the low E, the angle of the nut may also be off, or the slots may be filed too wide or too deep (resulting in fret buzz and tuning instability), or too shallow resulting in the action being too high at the first fret.
Other times, the plastic nut your guitar came with may simply have become worn over time and develop small cracks which also reduce the transfer of energy from the strings. Generally speaking an upgraded bone or graphite nut will also tend to last considerably longer than plastic.
The video below shows how a standard plastic nut was removed on a 335 kit guitar. As you can see, a great deal of force is not required. Instead focus on breaking the seal between the nut and glue using a razor blade.
In most cases only a small amount of glue is used, and while it may feel like nothing is happening, if you continue to work at the seal with the blade, the seal will break, resulting in a popping sound and the nut coming loose.
If you are removing the nut on a Fender© style guitar, you will notice the nut sits within a channel. It’s also common practice for the nut to be installed before the finish has been applied, especially on maple fretboards, which in most cases will be lacquer.
While inlaid nuts can take a little more time, and require a little more care to be taken to avoid damaging the end of the fretboard the process itself is fairly simple.
First, score the finish by running a razor blade (carefully) down each side of the nut. Start with shallow passes gradually increasing with each pass.
Next, using a carpenters pincer plier if available, otherwise regular pliers, grip the nut near the center and gently work it back and forth until the glue seal breaks and the nut can be removed safely without damaging the neck or removing splinters from the channel.
In most cases this is all you will need to do, however, If this doesn’t work you can also try tapping the nut out of the channel sideways using a lightweight hammer. Just ensure you use something between the hammer and the nut to protect the headstock and neck e.g. a section of dowel or scrap piece of timber. If the nut isn’t working loose after repeated taps, you can also try heating up the area using a hair dryer, taking care not to damage the finish on the neck.
Generally speaking you will have four options for nut replacement material:
Plastic: Generally seen on entry level and mid-range guitars only.
Bone: A denser material than plastic offering better sustain and tuning stability.
Graphite: Self-lubricating, providing greater tuning stability. Less dense than bone however)
Tusq: Man-made ivory, credited with improved sustain.
Nuts also come in metals e.g. copper but are less common. A guitar with a zero fret neck uses a metallic nut in a sense as the nut is cut to a shallower depth than the fret wire, meaning the string rests on the zero fret before running over the nut, which in this capacity is only used to space the strings and plays no other role.
There are also locking nuts which are used on guitars that feature Floyd Rose© style tremolo systems, however these are for the most part screwed into place and rarely if ever require replacing.
It’s important that you order in the correct type e.g. standard or inlaid and also get the correct width nut for your guitar.
The most common nut width on 6 string electric guitars is 43mm (1 11/16”) but 41mm (1 ⅝”) is also common, along with wider nut widths for greater string spacing including sizes up to 48mm (1 ⅞”).
In any case always measure the nut width on your guitar first before ordering a replacement. Usually you can source bone or graphite nuts from companies such as Graph Tec on amazon.com or ebay.com.au easily.
If you are left-handed, make sure you are buying a left-handed nut. These are usually more difficult to source so you may need to spend more time searching online to find the correct size and material you prefer.
You can also order a blank nut, but the task of shaping and filing a nut is beyond the scope of this article and isn’t something I’d recommend unless you have prior experience or have spares you can work on first to hone your technique.
Gluing a replacement nut into place is fairly straightforward. Just be sure to clean out the channel the nut is seated within first to ensure a level surface. Sandpaper will usually suffice, but be careful to only remove the residue and not alter the surface or widen the channel by overdoing things.
Next, clear any dust and debris from the channel using a brush and place the nut (without glue).
Unless you know in advance the nut is the same height I’d recommend dry-fitting the nut and installing the strings before then testing/measuring the action at the first fret. You may also want to adjust the truss rod first to ensure the neck has just a slight amount of relief under tension of the strings.
Once the strings are installed and you are tuned up measure the distance between the underside of the strings and the top of the first fret wire, while fretting the 3rd fret of the guitar. In most cases, approx. .010" clearance on the high E string and .024 on the low E string is a good starting point. Use feeler gauges to measure this, or simply go by feel when the guitar is in tune, ensuring the guitar plays well and you don’t detect any signs of fret buzz. Test this by playing each individual note on the guitar’s neck up and down the fretboard and keep in mind unless you have levelled the frets this may also mean your neck requires fret leveling or may be a combination of both.
If you find the action is too high at the first fret and isn’t to your liking you will need to remove material from the underside of the nut. Use sandpaper to do this and continue to check your work to prevent removing too much material.
On Fender© style guitars, the nut may also be radiused. The replacement nut will need to match, and in most cases will, but check just in case you need to carefully remove some material to match the radius of your guitar as it’s important for the transfer of energy from the strings that the nut sits flush against the channel.
Some advise against using superglue when replacing the nut on a guitar. The main reason for this is it makes the nut difficult to replace later on and is also very quick-drying, meaning you won’t have a lot of time up your sleeve to work with.
I prefer to use superglue, for the same reasons mentioned above. As superglue is very strong, only a small amount is required and this makes the nut easy to remove as needed.
It also dries faster meaning there’s no requirement to complicate things by fastening the nut while it dries. I also prefer the fact that superglue dries hard, unlike many timber glues which are less rigid and potentially also absorb energy from the strings. The only downside is you will need to take care to ensure the nut sits level and is centered within the limited time super glue provides before drying.
First you will need to clean the underside of the nut. Once done apply just a small amount of glue to the channel e.g. a couple of drops. As you may be using superglue, quickly place the nut and ensure it sits level within the channel without any excess protruding from either side of the fretboard.
In the following video I demonstrate how this is done.
If you are concerned about how quick superglue dries you can also try using a thicker variety as this will allow a little more time when drying.
Once the nut is in place I’d suggest leaving in place for the drying time recommended on the product you are using before installing strings and playing the guitar.
And that’s really all there is to it.
Replacing the nut on your guitar can offer a lot of potential bang for buck, considering an upgrade may cost between $10 (bone) and $25 (graphite) and will help ensure correct string spacing, action and improve tuning stability at a minimum, along with sustain and tone, depending on your ears.
If you followed the steps outlined above you should now have replaced the plastic nut your guitar kit may have come with or at least understand the steps involved. Just follow the steps outlined above and stay tuned for more articles on upgrades you can make to your kit guitar.