When upgrading a guitar, the nut is often the first place people look, particularly when attempting to improve tuning stability. While bone has long been the favored material for nut upgrades, more and more people are opting to go for a Tusq nut.
The main difference between a Tusq nut (or saddle) saddle and a bone nut (or saddle) is that Tusq is a synthetic material that will create a brighter and cleaner tone, whereas natural bone nuts or saddles will create a warmer and fuller tone. Tusq XL is also naturally lubricated, which can help with tuning stability, and will not have soft pockets in it like bone.
Let’s look at the differences in more depth.
What is Tusq?
Created by Dave Dunwoodie of Graphtech in the 80s, Tusq is a synthetic material (a high-quality polymer) that attempts to not only emulate but improve on bone and ivory for not only nuts in guitars but also saddles, and bridge pins. Tusq nuts have gone on to become standard in high quality guitars from manufacturers such as Taylor, Gibson and Tacoma.
Why not bone?
While bone and ivory both have a reputation for big open lows and clear bell like highs, they are both natural materials, and as such are quite inconsistent. This plays out in several ways – they can have uneven sustain through the nut (so different strings ring in different ways), and they also will have soft spots within the material.
It is that last issue that makes bone and ivory nuts most difficult to work with. Many luthiers say they will be slotting a nut and then run into a soft spot in the material that will means you can’t always get to the exact depth you want, and the slot might naturally deepen over time.
There’s also the fact that bone nuts need to be lubricated, either with graphite or a product such as nut sauce, otherwise strings can catch in the slots. Tusq XL nuts on the other hand are self lubricating, so offer improved tuning stability without having any maintenance.
While the difference between the two isn’t as pronounced as going from a cheap plastic nut to a bone or Tusq nut, there are definitely some advantages with Tusq. Tusq tends to produce notes that have more sustain and many find the tone much clearer and sharper.
One quick way to hear the pronounced difference between a bone nut and a Tusq nut is by dropping the blanks on a hard tile floor. Drop a plastic nut and you’ll hear just about nothing. A bone nut will produce something of a ring, while Tusq has a pronounced ring, almost musical on it’s own.
Something else to consider is that all Tusq nuts will sound the same, whereas you’ll find great variance between bone nuts. One forum user shared an experience they had during a class with renowned master luthier Dan Erlewine.
Even with bone blanks they will often sound different. I took a class with Dan Erlewine years ago and the first thing he said when cutting nuts is “first you gotta pick the blank”. He pulled out a handfull of various blanks and had me listen to the various sounds when dropped on a hard surface. The higher the pitch, the higher the density and the closer to fret density you’ll be. Every material sounds different, and bone is probably the most inconsistent between various blanks, but a good well-cut bone nut is hard to beat.
One thing to bear in mind when discussing the tonal differences of a nut is that it only applies to open strings. Once a note is fretted, the nut is no longer part of the tonal equation.
Something else that users mentioned is that bone and ivory will typically stay white, whereas Tusq will darken over time – one person even said they took in a guitar for repair where they couldn’t distinguish between the nut and the rosewood fingerboard.
Differences between Tusq Nuts and Bone Nuts
Now that we’ve gone over everything, let’s have a quick recap.
- Bone and ivory nuts are natural, and thus inconsistent – they will have soft spots within that will effect how they can be slotted. They will also be different from blank to blank, and you’ll need to try several to find the best one.
- Tusq on the other hand is a synthetic material, and as such will be consistent not only within the nut, but from one to the other. You can buy one off the shelf and get exactly what you expect.
- As bone and ivory will have soft spots, you may find they are hard to slot to the exact depth you want, and you may also find that they’ll wear unevenly over time. This means some strings may sound good while others will buzz or have less sustain.
- Tusq will slot consistently and wear concisely, which means consistent tone and sustain.
- You also need to lubricate bone or ivory nuts, whereas Tusq XL nuts are self lubricating.
- Really this is down to the user, but at the end of the day, the consensus is that Tusq sustains longer, has more volume, and has an overall more brilliant sound.
- That said, moving from bone to Tusq or Tusq to bone is generally considered a bad use of money when done for it’s own sake. The real improvement is going from plastic to either bone or Tusq.
If it were me, I would pick a Tusq nut every time. Bone nuts seem to be a relic of a time with less choice. I want consistency in tuning, and I don’t want my strings to start ringing in different ways because they’ve hit a soft spot in the material. I also don’t want to buy expensive lubricating sauce, I want the nut to deal with it.
Which one would you choose?