When someone asks us about the best “bang-for-buck” tonal upgrade to an acoustic instrument, it’s almost always the same answer: replacing the stock, usually plastic (or another type of synthetic) nut and saddle with bone. “But, why?”, asks the generalized, fictional customer. “Does this operation really that big a difference? Are you pulling my leg? Is this the shoe* store?”
Decidedly, yes. Take this small-bodied Taylor, for example. Taylor guitars come from the factory with synthetic nuts and saddles, which is at least a small portion of why these guitars have a lot of brilliance on tap. Too often, I feel that Taylor guitars suffer from a bit too much high end, and to my ears the high end can be unfocused as well.
(All of that is PURELY my own opinion. I’m the kind that looks for immense, throaty bottom end in an acoustic. I don’t mean to pick on Taylor; after all, they’re a fine guitar and a lot of people prefer them to Martin or Gibson, so they certainly have an appeal. It’s simply the most readily available example, and hey, I’ve got pictures. So there. No hard feelings?)
The shaping and polishing of a bone nut and saddle can take some time, it’s true. While bone certainly isn’t the hardest material I’ve ever worked with, it can be unforgiving depending on the animal species. I believe that this material came from a camel, and I far prefer the look of unbleached bone, which is less consistent in color and will sometimes present a grain pattern when polished. This guitar had very bright, white binding, so I chose a bleached set to blend nicely with the existing aesthetics. And, thanks to the Stewart-Macdonald “Essential Nut Making Kit”, this operation is far less time consuming. The files are precision machined, and that vice… oh, that VICE! Just look at that beauty!
I’ll start by measuring the height of the old saddle and nut, making sure to note whether the action was far too high or low, which I’ll adjust as a final step. Next comes determining the radius of the fretboard, and duplicating that for the saddle. Sometimes, depending upon the player entirely, I’ll make the saddle radius much more flat than that of the neck, which makes picking a bit more comfortable. Bluegrass players tend to like this- at least, the “grassers” that I’ve had in the shop.
A quick note on compensation: before I remove the old strings and saddle, I’ll take a moment and have the guitar tell me what it needs; oftentimes I’ll simply make a bone duplicate of the existing saddle, but there are times when intonation is just slightly off, and I’ll make the call to compensate one of more strings. Because acoustic bridges are affixed to the body, and because the rout for the saddle is static, there usually isn’t much room to move back and forth. Still, many times it’s only a small shift that makes all the difference. Usually the B string is the worst offender, but recently I’ve had to compensate entire saddles to ensure the guitar will play in tune. Then again, I’ve had at least one guitar that needed no such compensation, and actually sounded great with an entirely straight saddle.
Final shaping leads to polishing, which is about a 70/30 split between looks and tone, in my opinion. I’ve noticed that a well-polished saddle will sound just a bit brighter at first than an unpolished one, but it’s one of those options that only makes a 5% difference, which may even be imperceptible. (Perhaps that’s the 5% you’re looking for!) Initially, the player will notice a sweet, musical brilliance in the top-end of the guitars range, and a clear definition and note separation in the bass. As the guitar is played, the saddle naturally wears in as it transfers vibration to the top. Notes will deepen and bloom with age, and the trebles eventually warm up as well.
As far as this Taylor is concerned, she went from having a slightly thin voice, lacking warmth in all positions, to a nicely round, full sounding concert-style guitar. Fingerpicking was a joy, and with the action set, this guitar was dripping with tone!
*There used to be a shoe repair shop in the spot where Leading Tone now conducts its business. We get that question a lot, but we’re happy to direct customers to the new location. Who knows- maybe we’ll add shoes to our growing list of services. After all, a buck is a buck.