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  #1  
Old 09-12-2019, 08:24 AM
charles Tauber charles Tauber is offline
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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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  #2  
Old 09-12-2019, 08:36 AM
zmf zmf is offline
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Originally Posted by charles Tauber View Post
..... as well as introducing the possibility of buzzing or muting of the string.
This feature of the nut is one that I've had to deal with more than I expected, even when done by someone a lot more experienced than me.

How do you feel about zero frets, Charles? Are they likely to eliminate some of the problems with less-than-optimal nuts?
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Old 09-12-2019, 08:45 AM
charles Tauber charles Tauber is offline
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How do you feel about zero frets, Charles? Are they likely to eliminate some of the problems with less-than-optimal nuts?
I don't have strong feelings one way or the other about zero frets. Nuts can work, zero frets can work.

Zero frets, perhaps, reduce some problems while introducing others. For example, IF one wants to have strings individually compensated at the nut, a straight-across zero fret prevents that. A zero fret assumes the function of defining string height while leaving to the nut the function of string spacing. That makes nut replacement easier, though, with a zero fret, I'm not sure what value there would be in changing the nut from one material to another.
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Old 09-12-2019, 08:54 AM
redir redir is offline
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Here here! Very well stated. While I have not been at it quite that long I am going on close to 30 years now building and repairing. Almost every time a customer received a guitar with a well tuned up nut, and over all set up but in particular the nut, they are amazed at what they put up with for years before finally getting a professional set up. Most players spend most of the time playing close to the nut so it's got to be right.

The height of the nut slots should be the height of the fret in front of it. You just treat it like it's another fret. I sometimes push the bass stings a hair higher for players who like to beat on open chords.

There's nothing wrong with zero frets imho but they are also not really necessary if you get the nut slots to equal the fret height. Zero frets will even wear out faster then a bone nut will.
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  #5  
Old 09-12-2019, 11:21 AM
Knives&Guitars Knives&Guitars is offline
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Absolutely a great point Charles.
I believe the nut height to be extremely important. Just recently I had two nuts replaced and adjusted by a famous guitar tech. It made all the difference in play- ability. Night & Day difference.
So much so, that I decided I wanted to learn how to do it myself. So I just bought all the files and a nut tool by Stewmac called "Safe Slot." For a complete novice like myself, who has not yet had the experience to acquire "The Touch", The safe slot really helps. Of course I have a long ways to go.
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Old 09-12-2019, 11:36 AM
maxtheaxe maxtheaxe is offline
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Originally Posted by Knives&Guitars View Post
Absolutely a great point Charles.
I believe the nut height to be extremely important. Just recently I had two nuts replaced and adjusted by a famous guitar tech. It made all the difference in play- ability. Night & Day difference.
So much so, that I decided I wanted to learn how to do it myself. So I just bought all the files and a nut tool by Stewmac called "Safe Slot." For a complete novice like myself, who has not yet had the experience to acquire "The Touch", The safe slot really helps. Of course I have a long ways to go.
I also got one of those 'Safe Slot' tools and it really does simplify the process of getting the slots to the correct height. The only caveat here is that they're not so straightforward working with a guitar that has a headstock "volute". I think the solution to that is to use the feeler gauges with heavy rubber bands or a hair 'scrunchie', being careful not to over-or-under-tension the gauges such that they don't sit perfectly flat on the fingerboard.

I see from the picture that you're slotting a 12-string nut...you're a brave soul, sir! I did the one on my Yamaha LL16-12 and it took me four tries to get the string spacing right! It was worth it, though.
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  #7  
Old 09-12-2019, 11:53 AM
Knives&Guitars Knives&Guitars is offline
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Originally Posted by maxtheaxe View Post
I also got one of those 'Safe Slot' tools and it really does simplify the process of getting the slots to the correct height. The only caveat here is that they're not so straightforward working with a guitar that has a headstock "volute". I think the solution to that is to use the feeler gauges with heavy rubber bands or a hair 'scrunchie', being careful not to over-or-under-tension the gauges such that they don't sit perfectly flat on the fingerboard.

I see from the picture that you're slotting a 12-string nut...you're a brave soul, sir! I did the one on my Yamaha LL16-12 and it took me four tries to get the string spacing right! It was worth it, though.
No, No, No...I am not that brave yet!..LOL...That is just a stock picture I took from a Safe Slot video.
Good information about "Headstock volute." Luckily my Larrivee's are void of that.
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  #8  
Old 09-12-2019, 12:07 PM
charles Tauber charles Tauber is offline
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Quote:
Originally Posted by maxtheaxe View Post
The only caveat here is that they're not so straightforward working with a guitar that has a headstock "volute". I think the solution to that is to use the feeler gauges with heavy rubber bands or a hair 'scrunchie', being careful not to over-or-under-tension the gauges such that they don't sit perfectly flat on the fingerboard.
The "Safe Slot" is a relatively new invention. For decades prior to that, Mr. Erlewine just used a stack of feeler gauges. I continue to do that: it works fine.

The "Safe Slot" makes an interesting addition to their nut-slotting "system". Seems like a good idea, but not really necessary.


I have an LMI string height gauge for measuring distance from top of first fret to bottom of string. I've used it a few times but think it isn't useful to me. Other experienced setup guys use "qualitative" - rather than "quantitative" - methods for determining suitable distance from top of first fret to bottom of strings. This is a different approach to the stacked feeler gauges that measure height from the surface of the fingerboard to the bottom of the string at the nut.
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Old 09-12-2019, 05:38 PM
mirwa mirwa is offline
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The safe slot is a nice device, however I feel (yes I own one), its a roughing tool, it is designed to get the slots to rough height.

The design of the tool by clamping on the back of the neck makes the feeler gauges arc over the fretboard and in many places not actually touch the fretboard, you also have to guestimate when to stop, when you file until you hit the feeler gauge a difference of 4-5 thou can occur subjective to your hearing of it touching. I used it for say 40 odd nuts and then placed it into one of my - nice tool drawers but I will do it another way.

I personally like the LMII gauge, it is my go to device.

My current process takes me approx 15 minutes to make a nut from scratch

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Old 09-12-2019, 05:52 PM
redir redir is offline
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I never could use feeler gauges. I find them cumbersome and awkward and I feel that for all the accuracy of the gauges themselves human factors renders that accuracy mute... Or at least for this human factor anyway... I use a pencil cut in half that is used as a straight edge across the first several frets to mark a line on the nut at fret height. I find that the line works real well to very quickly get the fret slots to a point where they then need delicate and delibrate file strokes to go slightly below the line till every thing is perfect.

Last edited by Kerbie; 09-13-2019 at 05:18 PM. Reason: Comment on moderator action
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Old 09-12-2019, 06:04 PM
charles Tauber charles Tauber is offline
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Originally Posted by redir View Post
I never could use feeler gauges. I find them cumbersome and awkward and I feel that for all the accuracy of the gauges themselves human factors renders that accuracy mute... Or at least for this human factor anyway... I use a pencil cut in half that is used as a straight edge across the first several frets to mark a line on the nut at fret height. I find that the line works real well to very quickly get the fret slots to a point where they then need delicate and delibrate file strokes to go slightly below the line till every thing is perfect.
I've tried a bunch of things including the half-pencil trick: that was the way I was initially taught. It works ok but, as you said is for roughing the slots: they still need fine tuning. I tried pin gauges but found them too stiff to conform to fretboard contours, the lack of which introduced errors. I find stacked feeler gauges easy to use and control. Lots of possible methods.

Last edited by Kerbie; 09-13-2019 at 07:34 PM. Reason: Deleted quote; Adjusted accordingly
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Old 09-13-2019, 10:08 AM
hess hess is offline
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Originally Posted by mirwa View Post

I personally like the LMII gauge, it is my go to device.
Steve, is this the gauge you are referring to?

https://www.lmii.com/measuring-tools...ght-gauge.html

Thanks!
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Old 09-13-2019, 10:33 AM
charles Tauber charles Tauber is offline
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Originally Posted by hess View Post
Steve, is this the gauge you are referring to?

https://www.lmii.com/measuring-tools...ght-gauge.html

Thanks!
That's the device.

It was originally marketed for measuring string height between the first fret and the bottom of the strings - something not demonstrated by Mr. O'Brien in the video.

One method of determine the correct string height at the nut is to measure the distance that a string is above the first fret. As an example, let's say we use the device, above, and measure a distance of .020" that the string can be depressed before it touches the first fret. If the target distance is, say, .005", we need to reduce that height by .015". To reduce that distance by .015", one then removes material from the nut slot by some unknown amount, an amount that will result in the target .005 height of string above first fret. Frequently, the slot height is reduced by trial and error until the .005" target is reached.

The reason that I don't like this method is the trial and error part of it. One stroke of the file too much and the slot is too low.


The reason that I prefer the stacked feeler gauges is that it is a direct process. That is, what one files is what one measures. One keeps filing until one just touches the top of the feeler gauges with the file - a tactile feedback of when to stop. There is no trial and error and no cutting a slot too deep. No back and forth of removing a bit from the slot, measuring, removing a bit more from the slot, measuring...

Both methods work. I just prefer the direct measurement (feeler gauge) approach. Steve prefers the indirect measurement approach.
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Old 09-13-2019, 11:22 AM
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rick-slo rick-slo is offline
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The goal of some companies is ease of play as shipped from the factory (I would put Taylor and Martin in that camp).
Other companies such as Collings ship with a higher action to accomodate a wider variety of players (easier to lower
nut slots than the reverse).

The times I have changed action at the nut I usually lower the tuning a half step or so then play an open string harder
than I would likely do normally and check for buzzing on fret one. Lower the slot a stroke or two and check again. End
up with about the lowest action at the nut I can get for how I play.
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Old 09-13-2019, 12:09 PM
Knives&Guitars Knives&Guitars is offline
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Originally Posted by charles Tauber View Post
If the target distance is, say, .005"
A few questions if you don't mind sharing:
* Do you believe that all the strings 1st to 6th should have a target of .005 to .007 above the first fret?
Or should the bottom Base Strings(6,5 & 4th) be slightly More?
This area is slightly confusing as if I were to measure the fret height( say .040) then I would place feeling gauges on my fret board to .046 or .048.
Where I get confused is with the bass strings. It seems that the bottom of the bass strings are a bit higher above the fret board? Have not done any intensive measuring as of yet. But I can not seem to find exacting answers on this particular question.
** What kind of glue do you use for the nut? One source recommends a water downed Titebond original. 50/50 formula of water to glue.
*** Do you glue both surfaces of the nut? Bottom and side?
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