Those of you who have been following my ramblings with dedication, know about my pet peeve: plastic parts masquerading as nuts and saddles.
To give the devil his due, it’s not that plastic nuts and saddles don’t do the job, but then there is a huge difference between doing the job and doing it well – wouldn’t you say?
Plastic is cheap, easily available and so, nuts and saddles can be manufactured a dime a dozen, and in a jiffy. Why shouldn’t the guitar manufacturer – Gibson, Givson or Gibtone – use it and increase his profit margin? Bone, on the other hand, is certainly more expensive.
With plastic, the drawback is just one: the sound – the most important function of your instrument – gets hit. How do you know that? All you need to do is play some random stuff on your guitar and record it. Now swap your plastic nut and saddle for bone elements (yes, you’ll have to take the strings off for the switch), play the guitar while recording it.
When you play back the two recordings, I am sure your ears (trained or untrained), will be able to pick up the big difference in the sound of your guitar. The bone nut and saddle will make each note ring out clear as a bell, while the sustain of the note will also be appreciably longer.
Why? How? Bone is a natural, denser material (in comparison to plastic) and thus, the transfer of sound, first from the strings to the nut/saddle, and then from the nut/saddle to the wood, is maximised (again, in comparison to plastic).
So, even if you were to buy a low-priced guitar – say, Rs4,000 – Rs 5,000 – and put in bone elements into it, you should be able to see a marked change in the sound of the instrument.
When people ask me how they can upgrade their already existing guitar, the first thing I tell them is to swap the plastic elements in it for bone nuts and saddles.
(Buffalo) horn is a variation of bone and is also used to make nuts and saddles. Certainly rarer than bone, users of horn swear by the material, though, personally speaking, I am not qualified to speak on the issue, for I have never used it.
How to differentiate between plastic and bone?
Simple examination of plastic nuts and saddles should reveal a lot, for eg, if you look at the underside of the elements you will see holes on the surface like these.
Bone elements will never have these holes.
A second, surer test is what I refer to as the ‘drop test’. Take a plastic saddle (or nut) and take a bone one. Drop each from the same height onto a cemented (hard) surface. While the plastic will have a dull ring to it, bone will have almost a ‘clinky’ ring to it because of its higher density.
Does bone last longer than plastic?
All things considered (how much and how often you play, HOW you play, what strings you use, how often you change strings?), YES!
The flip side of using bone: it is more expensive than plastic. For the price of just a bone nut or just a saddle, you may get a plastic nut and saddle both!
But we are after the sound right?