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Although most people are so used to seeing them that they are taken for granted, in reality an electric guitar is a complex mechanical instrument which relies on the interplay between a surprising number of parts to produce an electrical impulse which is then converted into sound.
Many, if not the majority, of guitarists will spend a fortune on hi-tech, expensive bridge upgrades, and the swapping of pickups in an attempt to improve the feel and sound of a guitar sometimes seems to be compulsory. Yet one small part of this complex system is usually either discounted as being unimportant or simply forgotten about completely. A guitar's nut is one of the most important parts of a guitar.
There are almost as many differing materials used in guitar nuts as there are opinions as to which material is the best. The sole general agreement regards the use of plastic nuts. Almost without exception, plastic is regarded as the least beneficial choice of material. It is soft, absorbs vibration, and allegedly shortens sustain. Plastic can usually be found in cheap guitars from the Far East, which may add to their poor reputation amongst guitarists.
Possibly the most common upgrade for guitars is the change to a nut made of bone. Bone is hard and dense, offering both resistance to wear from metal guitar strings - although it should be noted that bone nuts will still need replacing after they have become worn. A further bonus with bone is that it absorbs lubricating liquid, ensuring that the strings can move freely through the slots.
Another material that is often used is metal. Brass, and less commonly steel, nuts are very durable and, when the slots are properly cut, the strings can pass through the nut without snagging or excess noise. The only reported down-side of these nuts is that they tend to emphasise the treble aspects of the guitar's tone, although as the frets are also metal this can be assessed as giving a more even response - plus they are harder to cut and shape properly, meaning that they can be expensive to have fitted.
One of the more recent materials that has gained popularity is Graphite. Graphite is an excellent choice, as it is effectively self-lubricating, meaning that it is perhaps the best choice for those guitarists whose technique involves a lot of string-bending and vibrato as it allows excellent movement across the nut for the strings. Due to these factors, Graphite has become the preferred choice of many guitarists.
Turning to more expensive and harder to obtain materials, another substance now being used in guitar nuts is 'fossil ivory'. Almost the same as bone in most ways, in some - such as hardness - it is actually superior. On the other hand, it is much harder to work than bone and obtaining ethically-sourced fossil ivory can be a challenge. Given that the current law in most of the world bans trade in ivory objects worked after 1947 but allows trade in ivory obtained prior to 1947 - hence the use of 'fossil ivory' - obtaining dated ivory is extremely difficult and care must be taken that more recent ivory is not acquired, as this is illegal.
A final material which, although less common than those above but which is still used, is Ebony. Ebony offers excellent acoustic qualities, but a major down-side is that it is softer than bone and so needs replacing more often. In addition, recent legislation on the use of Ebony has ensured that the price remains high in comparison to the other materials outlined here.