Thread: nuts
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Old 09-12-2019, 09:24 AM
charles Tauber charles Tauber is offline
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Default nuts

I've been making and repairing guitars for about four decades. One of the things that I've learned in doing that is that many, many guitar players have little idea of what a well setup guitar feels like.

Most guitars, with some exceptions, are poorly setup as purchased. Many guitar players just accept that and play them that way, not knowing the difference. (Some inquire what the "factory specification" is, to justify that the instrument is setup okay.) Another issue, altogether, is whether or not a particular guitar is setup to be optimized for an individual player's preferences.

One of the potential consequences of long-term playing of a poorly setup instrument is pain and injury, particularly as one ages. (Technique is also a large contributing factor, but isn't the subject of this discussion.)

Many guitar players like to buy guitars and "make them their own", often by changing the nut, saddle and/or bridge pins. Of the nut, saddle and bridge pins, the easiest to not get horribly wrong is the saddle. (Many players aren't aware or don't care that the intonation isn't very accurate before or after the replacement.) Bridge pins, to be fitted properly, require a tapered reamer, something that most replacing their pins don't have. That brings us to nuts.

On guitars without a zero fret, the nut serves three functions. First, it defines at one end of the string, the vibrating string length of that string. This has significant implications on the intonation. Second, it defines the string spacing at the nut-end of the fingerboard. Third, it defines the height of the the strings at the nut-end of the strings. This has significant influence on the playability of the instrument.

Many who replace a nut simply buy a pre-slotted, "drop-in" nut, remove the old one and install the new replacement. Since nuts are often sold based on their length, the string spacing can vary considerably from one nut to the next even though they are of the same overall length. That can be a good thing, or a bad thing, depending upon whether or not one was purposely wanting to change the string spacing. Last, however, is addressing the individual depths of the slots. Since the depth of the slot - actually the height of remaining saddle below the slot - defines the string height at the nut - it is critical to a well setup guitar that the slots be "just so". This is an adjustment with a tolerance of a few thousandths of an inch. Many guitar players forego that adjustment altogether and just play the "drop-in" nut as purchased, with the result that within the first few frets - the most commonly played by many guitar players - intonation is poor and the guitar is difficult to play.

There are two reasons that many guitar players do not adjust the string height at the nut. First, it requires tools that most don't have. In the 1990's, commercially manufactured "nut files" were brought to market. Nut files are gauged files, each with a specific width slot it produces. Nut files are relatively expensive - often up to $100 per set. For many, who will only slot one or two nuts, it is an expense that can't be justified: it is less expensive to take the one or two guitars to a professional, though many don't do that.

For centuries prior to the 1990's instrument makers used readily available needle files - an adequate set is available for about $10. While gauged nut files are easier for a novice to use, perfectly adequate results can - and have been for centuries - produced using inexpensive needle files. The current mindset is that to do a good job, one must have nut files, which isn't true. The alternative, that many use, is to buy inexpensive welding torch tip cleaners, a poor alternative. One of the potential downsides to using a flexible tip cleaner is that the flexibility of the cleaner makes it more difficult to control the contour of the slot: slots must have the string break at the fingerboard edge of the nut. If the string slot peaks within the width of the nut, the intonation will be compromised as well as introducing the possibility of buzzing or muting of the string.

The second reason that many do not address string height at the nut is many don't have the knowledge of how to do it and are afraid to make a mistake. Rather than take it to a professional for adjustment, many live with strings that play out of tune and are too hard to play.

My point in all of this is simply to inform anyone wanting to replace the nut on one's guitar that there is no such thing as a "drop-in" replacement. Even if one buys a "replacement", it will still require having the depth of the slots setup for one's particular instrument. If one choses not to, it is likely that the instrument will in the first few frets have poor intonation and be more difficult to play. Being more difficult to play might not be an issue now, but might well be later, as you age.

Most guitars, with some exceptions, are poorly setup as purchased. If you haven't already, do yourself a favour and educate yourself on what a well setup guitar entails and feels like. You'll thank yourself later in life that you did.
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