English 101

This ten cent piece of nylon (Delrin) is a big factor in how your guitar sounds. the nut has more to do with sustain than tone but sustain is a big factor in how your guitar sounds.

I started college as a physics major. I was baffled by calculus and switched my major to English. So, when it comes to our native language, I must know what I’m talking about. Or speaking about. Or something. The lesson today is comparative adjectives. Good, better, best. All 335’s are good guitars. 59 to 64 are better guitars. 59’s are the best guitars. Lesson over.

So, if I have a good 335, how do I make it into a better 335. There are lots of factors that make a guitar sound good and play well (good and well…another English lesson for another time). Some you can change and some you can’t. I believe that the wood is a big factor and since you can’t change that that short of buying another guitar, we’ll leave that one out. I am of the opinion that 99% of the tone of a guitar occurs between the nut and the saddles. The relationship between the components that reside in this part of the guitar are key.

What do we have control over that will affect the tone. Here’s a list: 1. The strings. 2. The nut. 3. The bridge and saddles. 4. The frets. 5. The truss rod. 6 The pickups. 7. The harness. All the parts that fall outside of the area from the nut to the bridge have a slight effect on tone with the exception of thr amp. And don’t tell me how much better your guitar sounds with a vintage stop tail over the one that was on it when you bought it. It’s in your head. I’ve had at least 6 different tailpieces on my player 345 and it never makes a significant difference to the tone. Same with tuners. Grovers might work better than Klusons but they don’t sound any better. They may add some mass but I’ve never heard a difference in tone.

It’s all trial and error so, starting with strings, find a gauge that is comfortable for you (335’s seem best with 10’s or 11’s) and a brand that sounds best to your ears. I love the sound of a new set of expensive Pyramids but they lose their tone so quickly that I don’t use them. DR’s or D’Addario 10’s are my go to strings. The nut is a lot more important than most folks think. The stock nylon nut on a 335 is perfectly good but the slots are often too small. If your guitar goes out of tune when you bend strings, it’s usually the nut, not the tuners especially if it goes sharp. Have your luthier widen the slots of the strings that go sharp and see if that helps. A bone or Tusq nut will change the tone slightly

The pickups and harness are a big factor. Simply swapping out the pickups may improve your guitars tone by a lot or not at all. It’s worth noting that a great set of pickups in one guitar may just sound average in another. I don’t know why that is but I’ve experienced it enough times to simply accept it. I learned a lot about harnesses when I had an early 80’s 335 that sounded terrible. Too dark with poor sustain. 80’s 335’s had 300K pots and for reasons I don’t entirely understand (English major, remember?) lower impedance pots make for darker tone. I swapped in 500K pots and it made a significant difference. I tried other caps as well. And, contrary to popular belief and conventional wisdom (neither of which are terribly reliable) it made no difference. A higher value cap seemed to change the way the tone control functioned (it bled off the treble faster) but the tone of the guitar didn’t change. PIO, ceramic, mylar all sounded the same. That’s because an electrical signal only sees values-it doesn’t know that bumblebees are supposed to sound better than crappy little disc caps.

The big factor in sustain are the saddles. Cut them too deep and the vibration of the strings is choked and the sustain suffers. Cut them too shallow and they can be noisy and the strings will fall of the edge of the saddle on big bends. No more than half the depth of the string should be below the level of the saddle edge. The bridge itself doesn’t seem to make much difference though. Gibson thought it might in the 80’s when they switched to the Nashville bridge with bushings rather than the screwed into the wood posts from previous years. It didn’t make much difference. Changing the material of the saddles may make a difference. In the 80’s we all put brass saddles and brass nuts on our guitars thinking it would improve tone and sustain. It may have but not by much. I’ve gotten plenty of guitars that still had an 80’s brass nut and when I swapped in a stock nylon nut, it made very little, if any, difference. As far as saddles go, vintage Gibson saddles were already brass (plated with nickel or gold).

Properly maintained frets wont really change the tone but it will affect sustain especially when bending notes. Same with the truss rod. The key to sustain is the ability of the string to vibrate for longer. If the neck is dead flat or back bowed, the strings ability to vibrate can be affected by the next fret up the fingerboard. That’s why I dial in a little relief when I do a setup. As far as tone goes, changing frets won’t do anything.

Conclusions? By all means, try different strings and pickups. It can make a real difference. Make sure the nut slots aren’t too deep. Same with the saddle notches. Adjust your truss rod for slight relief (usually a quarter turn looser if it’s dead flat on a 335). If none of that works, change the harness or pots. Dress the frets. Paraphrasing Bob Fosse…”I can’t make you a good guitar but I can make you a better guitar.” If none of these things help, take some lessons. It could be you and not the guitar.

You can change the pickups and it will change the tone. They are perhaps the biggest factor in tone after the wood and you can’t change that unless you buy a different guitar.

11 Responses to “English 101”

  1. Antony says:

    Hey mister English major :), thank you for sharing this valuable information extracted from your years of wisdom on our favorite guitars

    One thing (EE major speaking here), pots.
    300k vs 500k is RESISTANCE, not impedance.
    People mix that all the time.
    Resistance is DC while impedance is the AC version of resistance.
    Furthermore, a single impedance value should ALWAYS be followed by “at xxx frequency (in Hertz)”. You know, your speaker impedance at 8 ohm is 99% of the time at 1kHz.
    Pots values are measured as resistance. End of lesson.
    Thank you again for your updates.

  2. RAB says:

    Charlie, fascinating as always! Maybe the biggest tonal factor is the “nut” playing the guitar? Ha, ha! Seriously, I agree the nut and the saddles are a big factor, along with using a good set of strings. Tailpiece height affects the “bendability” (if that’s a word) of the strings and that affects how and what you play…I’ve been experimenting a lot recently with pickup height. My ears are so used to the brightness of my Strat and Tele style guitars that humbuckers sound dark to me especially for rhythm work. As a result I’ve got my humbuckers lowered level or slightly below the pickup mounting ring, a big improvement to my ears. Have fun everyone on your tonal journey! RAB

  3. Joe Campagna says:

    Hi Charlie.Reguarding the nylon nut myth.This is something that was created by the internet ‘experts”.The original 50’s nut material was not nylon.I have a small stash left of original blanks given to me by Gibson production Mgr.Joe Campagna who worked all through the McCarty era.The material is a very hard semitranslucent plastic.When dropped on a hard surface it has the sound of glass.This is why you hardy ever see worn nuts on 50’s era Gibsons.I’ve seen a couple of folks on line who know about this but I can’t remember where.If you really want the get close, find a scrap of Dupont Corian,Glacier Ice.Mis-information is frustrating.

  4. Joe Campagna says:


  5. Joe Campagna says:


  6. Bone Idol says:

    Thanks for raising such a great subject Charlie…

    I’ve been dicking about with guitar parts since the mid 1970’s (‘dicking about’ is the correct English term, I’ve checked), and I too have succumbed to fantastic reviews claiming ‘life changing’ tonal improvements by swapping this, that and the other guitar components, only to end up with exactly the same sound and an empty wallet.

    If you take it as read that you have a decent quality guitar, pickups, wiring, pots, nut and bridge, then the only three variables are: strings, playing style and set up.

    STRINGS – As we all know, gauge and make of strings can make a huge difference to your sound. My problem is that I love the feel of a light gauge string but prefer the sound of a heavier one!

    PLAYING STYLE – Style is subjective but anyone can hear the massive tonal difference between the use of ‘fingers’ or ‘plectrum’… Not forgetting that a thicker plectrum will sound completely different to a thin one… But given that we all play with our own personal ‘style’, then most of the things we play will sound pretty much the same, regardless of whether you’re using ‘standard’ or after market pickups etc. etc.

    SET UP – I humbly suggest that ‘set up’ is where we can find the tone we are looking for.
    Once you have selected your neck relief and action height, I feel that I get most mileage out of pickup adjustment, not only pickup height (as RAB mentioned), but pickup angle. Raising and lowering the bass and treble sides of the pickup independantly of each other to find the sweet spot that I am looking for… There… I knew I’d end up saying ‘sweet spot’ somewhere in this missive!

    But my favourite small tonal modification above all others is to add a push/push pot to the volume of the neck pickup so that I can switch the neck pickup to either ‘series’ or ‘parallel’…. I absolutely love this small mod and it’s totally reversible and will not affect the value of your guitar.

    If you got this far, then thanks for reading all of it… Sorry it was so long!

  7. RAB says:

    Great tonal ideas B.I.! Yes, I also lower the bass side of the neck humbucker for a cleaner rhythm sound. Conversely I raise the bass side of the bridge pickup for a meatier lead tone…

  8. Steve Newman says:

    Charlie, you have given a great overview on how to physically improve the tone and playability of ANY guitar, no matter the type (steel string or nylon acoustic, electric solid body, semi-hollow or full hollow body, regardless of brand), and these are all basic areas any good luthier or repairman will address, when trying to optimize a guitar to its full potential. Like you mentioned, there can be very minor tonal differences when changing string nut material, saddle material, etc., but I have never experienced anywhere close to a dramatic, noticeable change in the basic tone of the instruments I have used these tweaks on. I can say that when these points are all adjusted to be working fully with each other, the guitars seem to be more stable in tuning, the individual strins seem more sympathetically influenced by each other, and the tone seems “bigger. richer. fuller” or however you want to try to describe it. Pickups and electronics is another matter altogether….great information! PS, specifically regarding Gibson / Epiphone 3×5 family guitars, in the 12 or more “vintage” era examples I have owned, (I am 70 years old)I preferred the models that had a shallower neck to body angle rather than a steeper angle….may be just all in my head, but that was my perception. Excellent post!

  9. okguitars says:

    Thank you. I appreciate the input of you science types.

  10. okguitars says:

    What kind of plastic is it? Nearly all plastics have either brand name (like Delrin) or a “scientific” name like polystyrene. I have a drawer full of 50’s and
    60’s Gibson nuts. I’ll have to drop a few and see what it sounds, like.

  11. RAB says:

    Record the sounds! Tink! Thunk! Kapow! Ha, ha!

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