There is quite a selection of guitar nut materials that are available to the guitar maker nowadays. Here are some of the more popular choices, along with the qualities you can expect from each material:
Ivory is really becoming very scarce. New production of ivory blanks is banned due to the restrictions that were placed on slaughter of elephants and other animals with tusks, which is a good thing. If you look hard enough you can find pre-ban ivory at quite a steep price, but for a quality classical guitar or an incredible handmade acoustic guitar, it is worth the money because the tone from ivory is, in my opinion unmatched.
Most of the available Ivory is more accurately termed aged or fossilized Ivory. You will see this material used on the highest quality guitars like the vintage remake Martins and the $5,000 + class of guitars.
Bone is traditionally preferred for making nuts and saddles on median to upper quality instruments. Most bone is bleached, in that it is soaked in a bleach solution to give it a nice white consistent look. Its hardness and density contributes to good tone, it polishes well, and it allows more precise slot filing.
With the dwindling supply of Ivory, bone has taken over as the nut material of choice. I would say that the tone quality between good quality hard bone is almost indistinguishable from that of Ivory – of course the only way to possibly know this is to fit the same instrument with the same strings with ivory and then with bone nuts. A good experiment? Maybe so.
Want to make your own bone nuts? Read my article on Making Your Own Bone Nuts and Saddles:
Aged or Vintage Bone Nuts:
Ubleached Bone is just like traditional bone as indicated above except it is a super-hard version with a mottled cream color that often resembles fossilized ivory.
Its hardness and density contributes to good tone, it polishes well, and it allows more precise slot filing. Occasionly you will find fossil that is very old and aged. This is often a prized commodity and is saved for the very top end instruments. Now every handmade guitar is prized – Right?
From Graph Tech. An advanced polymer material made with high levels of heat and pressure, to transfer string energy and sustain more consistently and efficiently. Popular with many guitar makers for rich tone. These are a favorite of some of the production guitars and they boast of the tone qualities.
Taylor uses Tusq on most of their instruments, including top end guitars like the GS Koa and GS 8. I have used them and must admit, they do impress me with their tone production. I’m still a dyed in the wood bone or fossilized Ivory guy though.
An excellent synthetic bone substitute, tan in color; specified by Martin for nuts and saddles since the 1960s on mostly their low to middle priced lines. Micarta is ivory in color and a bit softer than bone, it files and sands easily and gives a uniform tone. Again, I would classify this as a lower to median product.
But, guess what Martin uses for their very top end lines? Bone for the middle of the line class like the D18s, D28s and D45s. Anything in the $4,000 and up class and their Vintage Remakes, and you get into Fossilized Ivory. That tells you what the experts at Martin think of nut their materials.
Cheap plastic nuts? Two words – Forget it. These are junk and will make a poor guitar sound even worse. Don’t waste your valuable time messing around with plastic.