Category Archives: Music

Guitar Nuts

Thought you might like my interview on why we started Tone Ninja and why we manufacture guitar nuts:

Most serious guitarists invest lots of time searching for that magical, and sometimes elusive tone they hear in their heads.  During this process, they often enjoy testing everything from different guitar models, amps, effects pedals, strings and even cables. They don’t however, give much thought to the nut that is the main support for the strings they play on daily. This tiny yet critical piece of the instrument is what allows the strings resonate properly. Let’s be honest, most guitarists don’t really consider this to be of primary importance until something goes wrong with the guitar!

When tuning issues, sustain or buzzing arise, the nut can be the culprit. An improperly shaped or slotted nut can make a great guitar sound or play poorly, while a properly cut and installed nut can often make an average guitar much more playable and resonant.

I don’t pretend to be an expert when it comes to guitar nuts, but I have installed several nuts on my guitars over the years. I can therefore appreciate how difficult it can be to get a nut shaped and filed and slotted properly. It also requires quite a bit of time to get it right.

There are quite a few different materials one can choose when selecting a nut for an installation. Typical materials include, bone, brass, Corian, graphite, plastic and a host of other materials. The question often asked is whether or not the material used when fabricating a nut makes a real difference in tone? Sure there is a lot of Voodoo theories floating around the internet these days, but what is the honest truth?

To answer this question, I decided to contact Andrew Marshall from Tone Ninja who understands the technology behind guitar nuts intimately. Andrew is the founder of the Tone Ninja brand that fabricates a wide variety of guitar nuts for easy installation and great tone.  I asked Andrew to help shed some light on a few common questions relating to guitar nuts in the hopes of getting a better understanding of what makes a great nut.

Andrew, first off, why did you decide to start a company based on guitar nuts?
It’s an idea we’ve been kicking around for a couple of years, and as with most of these things there were several influencing factors. Firstly, up to now there’s only been one company producing nuts for the replacement and upgrade market, and there’s definitely room for another. Secondly, there’s no line of nuts available for the broader market that are made in the USA, and a majority of our customers both domestically and abroad have a strong preference for US manufactured products. Third, we thought we could definitely build a technically superior product at a lower end-user cost. Fourth, as with almost everything in the music industry, it was a lot of fun and a very gratifying experience. You get to work with great people and produce something people love. Finally, nobody’s really done anything new with nuts for thirty years so we thought it was about time.

Over the years guitar nuts have been made from everything from bone, Corian, various plastic materials, graphite and even brass. What material are your guitar nuts made from and why did you choose this material specifically?
Ah, the voodoo question. As you probably know, many people have strong opinions on this, and I’ve learned a lot in the process listening to guitarists and trying to parse those opinions into a material specification. We engaged materials engineers in the process and went through several iterations before we arrived at the current material, which is a high performance engineering copolymer. The trick was to find a material that was wear resistant and had a great (i.e. low) coefficient of friction and was easy to work if needed. Then, it had to produce reliable results to very high engineering tolerances when fabricated and on top of all that have consistent density for tone transmission. It was quite a task, but we’re very pleased with the result.

Guitarists often think bone is the best material to use when making a guitar nut. What are your thoughts on this?
Bone is a fantastic material, and if you have the time, skills and tools to fabricate your own nut it’s a great choice. For most guitarists, that’s not really a viable option, so that’s where we come in. We think our nuts are as close as you can get to a luthier fabricated bone nut as you can get with a prefabricated product. As an aside, bone only comes in one color, which is, well, bone color, and that can be incongruous on many instruments.

What are some benefits I can expect to notice after installing a Tone Ninja nut?
Every instrument is different, of course, but the immediate benefits are playability and tuning stability.  Open string resonance should improve too. In most playability problems we see, the nut is contributing to the problem – either too high or too low, or with one or more slots too deep or too shallow, or the wrong shape, or too wide or too narrow – you get the idea.

What are the main points I should think about when considering a nut upgrade for my guitar?
How hard will it be to change the nut, and will it make a difference should be the top two. We’ve tried to make the replacement process as easy as we can, and in most cases the slots should work as is. Will it make a difference? The nut is often overlooked as ‘too hard to fix’ when doing a setup, but in many cases it’s the problem that needs solving.

I have a slipping G string on one of my more expensive guitars. Why is this happening, and can a good quality nut fix this issue? If so, why don’t guitar manufacturers install better nuts on their guitars?
Binding on the G or B string is a common problem – the dreaded ‘ping’ when tuning. It can be caused by a couple of things, commonly a malformed slot or a sticky material. Using a nut with well-engineered slots and a high material lubricity will overcome most if not all of those issues.

Even with more expensive instruments, they’re built to a price. This is reflected not only in the nut material but also in the labor hours that can be spent at the factory getting the nut set up exactly right. The slots on most mass produced nuts are not that well engineered, which doesn’t help. Also remember the factory setup is very generic and may not suit what you need.

I have occasionally seen people using a brass nut in place of a plastic or bone nut. Are there any advantages to brass over the other materials?
Brass was pretty popular in the late 70’s, but apart from Yngwie’s brass strat nut which is available from Fender as a separate part, it isn’t used much today. It obviously wears well but it’s also pretty hard to work and relatively expensive. It sounds quite bright. It’s actually one of the materials we compared against when developing Tone Ninja nuts.

There are some people that believe a guitar nut if properly slotted has little impact on guitar tone. Fretted notes leave the nut out of the equation so nut material has little if any impact on tone. They often point to locking tremolo systems that do not actually use a nut yet still achieve good tone. What do you think about this argument?
It’s much more about how the nut, its fit, and its slot engineering affect playability and tuning than the actual vibration transmission, and you hit the nail on the head in the question with ‘properly slotted’. Some people in the industry are definitely guilty of over-stating the nut’s contribution to tone, and you’re quite correct that when a note is fretted the nut isn’t in play. Let’s not ignore open strings though, and there the material can make a significant difference.

However, let’s explore a different factor of tone: What we really mean by tone is how a guitar sounds when played. You’re probably familiar with two effects: one, when you pick up a guitar that just plays really well, you feel more connected to what you’re playing and the overall result is just somehow better, and two, when what you play sounds really good, it lifts your opinion of your tone? A properly set up guitar that stays in tune, and has great playability will start that positive feedback loop that improves your opinion of your tone, your own opinion of how you sound.

It’s not a panacea, it has to be in conjunction with many other factors – but if your nut is wrong, it will be hard to achieve good playability and hence ‘tone’, and that’s how our nuts really affect your tone.

Do you think someone can pick out a guitar with a bone nut or a plastic nut just by listening to them being played side by side?
Same guitar, same strings, open strings, acoustically? Possibly. I’m sure you could measure it with a spectrum analyzer. The reality is though, that bone is not practical or accessible to most guitarists and the acoustic difference between the material we use for Tone Ninja nuts and bone is small. Most people wouldn’t hear it. Cheaper plastic nuts? The difference would be more obvious.

Andrew, thank you very much for taking the time to answer some of our questions. I am looking forward to installing a Tone Ninja nut on a guitar that I am in the process of doing some mods to. Where can our visitors get some Tone Ninja nuts if they wish to purchase some?
They can simply visit us at www.sporthitech.com/ninjanut and place an order online. We have many models and sizes available for most any type of guitar.

Full details at www.toneninja.com as well.

First Live VG show …

So, the first live gig – last Saturday – with the VG. I fretted about taking a backup guitar but didn’t. I switched to all NIMh batteries, the AA’s in the VG lasted the whole gig (aout 8:15pm to 1am including soundchecks) but the 9v NIMh failed after 2 mins and I fell back to a Duracell. That needs some investation.

Main lesson – It worked really well live, but I MUST MUST MUST spend a day or two tweaking the settings on the Bose to get the acoustic and clean sounds in sync with the way the VG works. I’ve settled on couple of default settings (one 12, one six) and they don’t sound ‘right’ mainly because the Bose tonematch isn’t set up right.

Dirty sounds are the best I’ve ever had, especially the VG Humbucker + Womanizer combo.

Not too heavy for 4+ hours work. It’s a keeper.

Jefferson Wheelchair at the D’Ascenzo’s

The first outing

The first outing was at practice today: here’s the rig – VG Strat, Sennheiser wireless, A/B switch – one side going into a Damage Control Womanizer and the other straight through (the reasons to become apparent shortly) the straight through and the Womanizer outputs go to channels 1 & 2 of my Bose Tonematch which fronts a Bose L1 Mk2 with dual subs. The point of the straight through to channel 2 is that I can have that channel optimized for the acoustic sounds and Ch1 optimized for electric. The Tonematch takes care of all the delay, reverb, tuner and all that stuff.

After a bit of fooling around I set the electric channel up as a Strat (it was a Les Paul with the Parker), and the acoustic channel as steel string piezo (it was Taylor L5 before), and took off the reverb on the acoustic channel as it is already onboard on the acoustic sounds of the VG.

A few suprises: the ‘real’ strat (i.e. mag pickups) and the modeled strat are so close I used modeled all the time, that way I have immediate access to the tunings without fiddling with the guitar type control. Secondly, after reading other peoples blogs I went to practice (typricaly 4-5 hours) with a charged set of batteries in the guitar, and two sets of fully charged spares. It’s still going strong on the first set of batteries, so I don’t really understand what people are complaining about. I’m using NiMH 2600mAH batteries, maybe other people use smaller ones.

Next surprise – I didn’t notice the extra weight.

Other observations –

  1. The tuning stayed in from the first chord to the last, 5 hours straight. Probably the blocked trem and the locking tuners helps there. I’ve read a couple of reports that the modeling settings ‘fine tune’ your tunings in flight but I don’t know if that’s true. I’m not sure how the processor could tell the difference between a 440Hz A slighly mistuned to 445Hz and a bend.
  2. The 12 string is great. In our line up (2 guitars, bass, drums) using 12-string when I’d normally use 6 string piezo for acoustic sounds very full and rich – I’m sure the Bose L1 helps a lot, but the acoustic sounds outperform the Parker.
  3. There are 5 different acoustic models, they have names (no idea what) but they are 2 good 1 mediocre and 2 awful. That’s OK, 2 good is 1 more than a piezo bridge gives you.
  4. No loss of expression, and no feeling at all that you’re not playing a ‘real’ guitar
  5. Switching settings are fiddly, there are a lot of knobs and they do different things at different times (the tone control, for instance, controls reverb in acoustic mode and is a tone control everywhere else). Add that to pedals and a/b switches and the Tonematch, I suspect being in the dark on stage is going to lead to a few mistakes. I understand why they stuck with ‘conventional’ controls, but programmable patches would be a godsend for live use.
  6. Electric sound – the strat tail and middle, modeled, regular tuning, vol & tone at 10, and the Womanizer set correctly – this is the closest sound I’ve ever come to the ‘brown’ sound I’m always looking for. Why the VG should be better than the plus is anyone’s guess but it is. Humbucker sound is pretty usable too, and the Tele works really well for CCR. We play Born on the Bayou in D and the dropped D and Tele was just right. Alright, I have to admit that it sounds better than any other guitar I own. And I own a lot, including some ‘gold standard’ vintage pieces such as a 59 LP ‘burst.
  7. The only downside – what happens if it fails on stage – doesn’t bear thinking about. Oh, also the neck is going to take some work getting used to. It’s the section, it’s fatter around the 10th fret than I’m used to, so playing a lot of barre chords in C or D for long periods hurts. I imagine I’ll get used to that, the other option is swap the Strat plus neck onto it which was the original intent anyway.

OK, enough for now.

VG Strat and guitar weights

I’ve been obsessing a little about guitar weight as we tend to play for long periods, and I’ve been a bit concerned that the VG Strat willbe to heavy to use as a main guitar.

What I really need to do is weigh them all, but I did some Googling around and came up with a factory spec weight on the VG of 8lbs 1oz. By comparison the Parker I use now is a Mahogany bodied Nitefly-M which weighs in at 6lbs 8oz and the Strat Plus (see other posts) is in the 8lb range. By the way, an average Les Paul is 9lbs.

What this means is that the VG isn’t actually any/much heavier than the Plus, and only 25oz heavier than the Parker, if the specs are right, so I can’t see this making much difference. I will actually weigh the actual guitars (as they can vary), as soon as I figure out gow to do it as I don’t think bathroom scales are accurate enough.

VG Strat – phase one

My first thought was to block the trem on the VG and switch the neck from the Plus. I think I prefer the VG neck though, so I bought a set of locking Sperzels, a set of straploks, two sets of Duracell 2650mAH AA’s, and a decent Lacrosse charger.

Fitted the Sperzels, which involves a little headstock drilling, blocked the trem, restrung with Ernie 9’s, setup the action and intonation. Fitted the Straploks. Next will be the first practice next week and a practical outing.

By the way, the trem cover on a VG is metal. If you block the trem you either have to leave it off (which I did), modify it, or remove it every time you break a string – not happening.

VG Strat – first impressions

First impressions – Firstly it’s a bit heavy. I’m used to playing the Parker so I guess it’s going to seem that way. Next, it’s really well built. I don’t know why that should be a surprise but most new strats I’ve played have seemed, well, not quite up to the price tag.

The modeling is really pretty good. I tested it through the Boogie head and Marshall 4×12 – it’s tough to tell the difference between the real strat pickups and the modeled strat. Jury is out on the Tele sound, I need to play it some more. Humbucker is pretty good, acoustic (as far as I can tell with this amp rig) is probably pretty good, although you pick 5 different acoustic models using the Strat pickup selector and only two of them sound good. It should be better through the Bose L1.

Tunings – I’ll probably use 12 string more than any of the others, maybe drop D. The others are fun but I probably won’t use them in reality. Shame there’s no open E.

Problems I can see – I keep reading posts about battery life, we normally play four sets of 45 mins, so plus sound checks and encores etc, I guess about 4 hours. Two sets of 2600mAh rechargeables should deal with that.

Next problem – the controls might be a bit fiddly (and hard to see) on stage; I’m going to have to learn them by feel.

Next – I *thought* the model modes alighed your tuning for you. I’m not sure that’s true.. with the nasty (well, I don’t like it) strat trem and no locking tuners staying in tune could be an issue.

No straploks, at least that part s an easy fix.

Fender VG Strat

I bought this VG Strat, in excellent condition, on eBay for $901 in late March 2009. It looks like it’s hardly been played, and came with all the paperwork, hang tags, etc. I’ve been tempted by the VG as a live guitar for a while, but couldn’t bring myself to pay the new price. After working with the Strat Plus (see other post) it seemed more sense to go for the VG rather than put a Fishman bridge in the Plus (although I might still do that in the future). Here’s how it looked as I received it.

After the first outing

After the first real usage (3 hours) of it – a few thoughts;

Firstly it needs to get a set of straploks so I can use a wider strap, I’d forgotten how light the Parker was compared to almost any other guitar. I’m guessing the Strat is 2+ lbs more. Next, I need to do more EQ tweaking with my standard rig (by the way, this is a Damage Control Womanizer pedal with two 12AX7 tubes feeding a Bose L1 Mark 2 with Tonematch). The sound definitely cuts through the mix top end, but (as usual) I have trouble with the sound being a little too thin, and not ‘live’ enough with distortion.

The neck will take a little getting used to, but is generally more comfortable than the Parker. Oddly, the guitar seems to be a bit neck-heavy. The string setup will work fine for now.

Next steps: Straploks, a Fishman bridge and the associated gubbins for the acoustic parts, and maybe, just  maybe, a humbucker for the bridge pickup to make it HSS. It’ll mean doing some routing under the pickguard, and some creativity in where to put the 9v battery so you don’t have to take the pickguard off every time you change the battery. Look, this was never intended to be a collectors piece.

I’ve also just acquired a Strat VG which of course will theoretically do all this anyway, but has alot of on board electonics and may not prove reliable. If I do go all strat then this Plus will end up being either primary or backup so it’s important to get it right.

Initial thoughts

This is the story of a USA made 1987 Fender Stratocaster Plus, Serial E471618, which I acquired in late March 2009 on eBay for $799. It’s supposed to be 1987, and the serial number kind of bears that out. The rear trem spring cover was missing, it had one or two minor dings (nothing serious) and an awful setup.

Although some people tip the Strat Plus to be a future collectible, that wasn’t the reason for getting it. I’m trying to build/integrate a replacement, or maybe an alternative to the Parker Nitefly that I’ve been playing almost exclusively for the last couple of years, and this will almost definitely mean some, er, modifications. I’m still undecided as to exactly what those will be, but they’ll include some kind of piezo/acoustic capability at the very least.

First step is to use it for a practice session, which I’m doing tonight. I’ve just blocked the trem and removed the lever, thrown a new set of Ernie Ball 9’s on there and given it a quck setup. While I was doing that I noticed it has some fret wear (well, it is 22 years old) but in my opinon that a *good* thing – it means it plays well as someone  has been playing it. There’s also a crack in the fingerboard around the 18th fret on the treble side but that’s purely cosmetic. Stringing with the needle roller nut is a bit weird but at least I was used to the locking Sperzels.

Addendum – May 28th 2012

OK, so since writing the original post three years ago, I’ve had an adventure with a VG Strat … which ended  up being replaced by a Variax 700 and a Pod X3 Live, and then a custom Variax, then briefly a Gibson Dusk Tiger, the Parker again, then an Ovation GP Ultra. Why? Because I spent ages chasing my tail to avoid having to change guitars to play acoustic songs, and I was compromising on everything just for that reason, which is ridiculous. I bought a better acoustic (a Martin OMC) and went to a non-Piezo guitar – the Ultra GP and switched the Pod X3 Live for a Zoom 9.2tt because I wanted the tubes to ‘warm up’ the Bose L1.

Anyhow, the point is that I’ve dropped the whole Piezo/modeling guitar thing, it just doesn’t sound right. So where does the Strat Plus fit in?

Although I love the GP Ultra, it has three design problems – firstly it’s heavy (not much to be done about that) second it has a wrap around bridge, which I’ve never liked, and third it has regular tuning keys, not locking Sperzels. I almost bit the bullet and took a drill to the GP .. which would slaughter it’s value. Instead, I got the Strat plus out. It has the Sperzels, it’s light, it has the roller nut (not everyone’s taste, but it avoids my usual Strat problem of the high E jumping out of the nut). The lace sensors though .. too weedy.

Of course with a Strat, you can do a whole electronics transplant really easily. Looking around, I found the Seymour Duncan Everything Axe pickguard replacement, with all humbuckers. That should do the trick. I also ordered some Graphtec saddles – the trem is already blocked.

Hopefully it won’t be another three years before I post on this again!

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