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Understanding the Nut: The Unsung Hero of Your Stringed Instrument

What’s the best technique for measuring Nut height?

One of the most common repairs we do (aside from either an output jack of a Gibson headstock break is checking the nut slot action on a customers guitar. It's one job that most guitar repair people over look, but for such a small job, the difference to comfort at the headstock end of the neck is huge.

Most stringed instruments have a nut, usually a piece of bone or synthetic material, that functions similarly to a fret. While some instruments feature a "zero" fret positioned right next to the nut, this design is relatively rare (think pre-1960's), so we won't delve into that here.

What Does the Nut Actually Do?

The nut has two main jobs:

  1. It maintains the spacing of the strings.

  2. It holds the strings at the proper height above the fretboard.

  3. If the nut is set too low, the strings may buzz against the first fret when played.

If the nut is too high, playing chords or notes on the first fret becomes unnecessarily difficult. We see a lot of new instruments that suffer from poorly adjusted nuts because they often receive only a very basic setup at the factory. This issue is especially common in lower-priced instruments, but even some high-end models aren't immune (ahem, Fender Custom Shop).

Finding the Ideal Nut Height

In theory, the perfect nut height matches the height of the first fret. However, some musicians with a vigorous playing style may require a slightly higher nut to prevent string buzz.

How to Check Your Nut Action

Wondering if your nut is at the right height? Here's a simple method to check:

  1. Tune your instrument to pitch.

  2. Grab the neck and press down on a string right in front of the nut. Your thumb should act like a capo, but don't squeeze too hard. The goal is to avoid artificially elevating the string, which can happen when it's first installed.

This preliminary step is just a minor precaution. Now, onto the main test:

  1. Press the string between the second and third frets. The string should form a straight line from the nut to the second fret, eliminating the need for a straightedge.

  2. Examine the gap between the string and the first fret. If the nut is at the ideal height, you should see a very tiny space—about the thickness of a hair. If the string touches the first fret, the nut is too low.

If you struggle to see the gap, try this: while pressing the string between the second and third frets, tap on the string close to the first fret. If there’s an unseen gap, you’ll hear a slight click as the string hits the fret.

Remember, instrument setup is about tailoring the instrument to the player's needs, and the nut's action is one of the most critical yet often overlooked aspects. By ensuring your nut is properly adjusted, you can significantly enhance your playing experience.

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