Archive for the ‘Nut’ Category

Nut Job

I’d like to apologize to my loyal readers (both of you) for slacking on new posts.  My son was in the hospital and family came over for Thanksgiving dinner, so I was a little busy with family life.

I decided the first upgrade on the eBay guitar would be something relatively simple, and greatly needed.  I would replace the nut.  The old nut was obviously plastic, poorly cut, and had a nasty rattle to it.  A quick look at it and anyone could tell it was not crafted with the highest standards in mind.

Wow, what a train wreck of a nut.  First order of business is removing the old nut.  To ensure we don’t take off any of the finish when we remove the old nut, score along the edges with a razor blade.  This will cut through any glue binding the nut to the finish.  Take your time and be careful to not slice the guitar, but feel free to dig into the old nut.  It’s coming out and getting replaced anyway.

Next, lightly tap the nut to remove it from the slot.  On Les Paul style guitars, tap the nut from the fretboard side towards the headstock.  On Fender style guitars where the nut is in a groove on the fingerboard, tap it from the side and slide it out of the groove.  I like to use a flat-head screwdriver to tap a Fender nut out of the groove.  On Les Paul style axes, I use a large chisel turned upside down.  I like the wide surface area it provides, but make sure it’s upside down.  You don’t want to take any wood off the fretboard.  A couple of light taps on the chisel with a hammer and the nut should pop right out.

The original nut was worse than I thought.  It was a hollow piece of plastic, which is not good at all for transferring the sound from the strings to the guitar.  Also, it had entirely too much glue on it.  Cleaning up the slot was going to be a challenge.

To get an idea of how cheap the old nut was, here’s a side-by-side shot of the old nut and new Tusq nut.

I started by using a small chisel to remove the plastic still glued to the fingerboard.  Then, I used a small file to remove the remaining glue from the slot and fretboard edge.  It’s important to have good contact between the nut and the wood of the neck as this is one of the 2 or 3 places where the guitar gets its tone from the strings.  Make sure all the glue is out of the slot and the edge of the fretboard, and there is a good right angle between the slot and the fretboard, but try not to take any wood off the edge of the fingerboard since this will change the scale length and affect intonation.  You want it flat, for good contact between the wood and nut.

Now with the slot cleaned up, we’re ready for the new nut.  I’m using a Tusq pre-cut nut for an Epiphone Les Paul.  You can find them online for around $10.  Starting with a pre-cut nut helps speed the process along.  The eBay guitar neck has similar dimensions, so the Tusq nut was a good place to start.

I put the new nut in the slot to see how well it fits.  The new nut was a little thicker than the old nut, and much taller.  To shape the new nut to fit the slot, we sand the bottom and back (the flat sides) of the nut.  I started with 60 grit sandpaper because the nut had to be lowered quite a bit.  Once I had the nut close to the right size, I switched to 220 grit sandpaper to avoid taking too much off.  I can’t stress how important it is to make small changes and constantly recheck.  I’ll show you why in a few minutes.  Also, when sanding the nut down, it’s very easy to sand it out of square.  To avoid this, put the flat part of the nut you’re not sanding against something with a flat edge.  I use the edge of a level to keep the nut square while I’m sanding it.  Here I’m sanding the back of the nut while keeping the bottom on the level to keep everything square.

Most manufacturers give specifications of how high each string slot should be above the fretboard.  By putting the nut in the slot and using feeler gauges you can sand the nut to almost the right height.  If you don’t have feeler gauges, you can use the strings to get a close fit.  String up and tune the guitar.  Now, finger the strings individually at the first fret.  Look at the distance between the string and second fret.  This is the same distance the string should be from the first fret when the string leaves the nut.  Think of the nut as a zero fret.  Also, if the nut is too high, notes played on frets 1-5 will be very sharp.  It’s perfectly ok to play the guitar without the nut being glued in if you want to check tuning and intonation.

Once the nut is very close to the right height, each slot in the nut needs to be finished.  Pre-cut nuts are a great starting point, but the slots are not fully shaped.  For that, we need a set of small files.  I use very small wood files, or you can buy a set of files custom-made for finishing nuts from StewMac.  A few important details to keep in mind when working the slots.  First, the string should always slope from the fingerboard side down to the headstock side.  The nut should be the tallest and tightest where the string leaves the nut toward the bridge.  This keeps the string from vibrating in the nut causing unwanted buzzing and dampening the tone.  On the other hand, you don’t want to the slot to be too tight or it will bind the string.  This leads to the familiar “ping” of the string slipping while tuning, and will lead to tuning issues in general.

Now that we have the nut the right height and the slots finished, we want to sand the sides to have a nice feel and finish.  On most Les Paul style guitars, the base of the nut closer to the headstock is ever so slightly wider than the side against the fingerboard.  This is where I made my sanding mistake.  Things were getting late, and I tried to hurry up by using the 60 grit sandpaper.  I ended up taking a little too much off the low E side of the nut, and I still had to finish the sides with 220 grit.  I made the nut narrower than the neck.  It shouldn’t affect tone or playability, but it doesn’t look like a quality job.  I’ll be making a new one soon.

Even from just a few short minutes playing the guitar, I can tell it has a brighter tone and better sustain.  The sound seems fuller with more harmonics coming out with each note.  Overall, it’s well worth the $10 for the new nut.  If you’re doing your first nut job, I strongly suggest buying 2 nuts in case you mess one up.  Installing a new nut is not difficult, but having the safety net of a fallback is always nice.  I did this when I put a new nut in the Epiphone, and I’m glad I did.  I made a mistake and filed one of the string slots too much.  Fortunately, I had a second nut.  I took my time on the second one, and it come out beautifully.

Until next time, have another drink.  The more you drink, the better I sound. 🙂


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