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Update

I had a bone nut put on by a respected local luthier. That nut is the slipperiest thing since... since slippers, so slippery it's hard to get graphite on it because the pencil slips. Still the same problem.

I don't think it's the nut. I think it's a balky tension roller, at a bad angle, on the Bigsby (B5):

Even with a Vibramate, my angle from roller to bridge saddles is steep. I'll try string-over-roller and see what I get.

But when I lower the pitch with the Bigsby and release, after I release the strings go flat. If the string is hung up in the nut and won't come back, I would expect it to go sharp when full tension comes back on. But if it's hanging up at the tension roller, I would expect it to stay flat.

The replacement tension roller he's got is out of stock at the moment, but an email elicited a prompt reply that they'll be back in a month or so.

Since the Bigsby hasn't always behaved quite so badly, I wonder if it didn't just happen to get rotated to a spot where it hangs up more. The best hope may be polishing and lubrication (UPDATE: Polished bearing surfaces with jeweler's rouge, hosed down with silicone lube, little or no improvement).

Or a Jazzmaster.


Is it possible to do something to the nut of an electric guitar so that the strings begin to stick when they never stuck before?

I recently took a Gibson SG to an extremely reputable local independent shop for a set up. They did a good job, except the strings have been sticking in the nut since I got it back. I've owned the guitar for 11 years and it never had this problem.

I added a Bigsby to it a few weeks before the setup, and had no trouble. I was using the Bigsby regularly in three or four hour rehearsals and just checking the tuning every couple songs. When I got it back it literally could not be tuned. I carefully cleaned the nut, polished the slots with jeweler's rouge, cleaned the slots again, put in a little graphite, replaced the strings, and now it's basically playable until put anything more than very delicate, gentle pressure on the Bigsby. Then wham, it's flat. The Bigsby is no longer usable.

I've been using the same brand and guage of strings with the guitar since I bought it. After I got it back, I replaced them out of a box of ten sets that I bought a couple of years ago.

When I called, the guy I talked to told me it wasn't happening, and if it was, it wasn't their fault, but I should put some 3-in-1 oil in the slots anyway. If it kept happening, even though it wasn't happening, I could take it in and they'd file the nut slots. I asked how the nut slots were too tight now when they were OK a week earlier, and he didn't have an answer to that one.

I didn't get sarcastic on the phone because you can't do that, and besides, it's a small city and they're the local independent shop. I don't want to be That Guy. I'm not taking it back to that shop because I've been on both ends of interactions with unhappy customers, and I've had painful experience with the kind of people who automatically assume that the customer is delusional. That's not the guy you want sawing on your guitar with a file because that's the first theory that popped into his head.

But am I delusional? They think I'm delusional, and I'd like to think that this is a curable delusion. But I'm not deaf. This guitar has a problem now and it didn't before. I took it home, sat down to play it, and it was untunable.

Could it be the changing temperature and humidity this time of year?

I figure I'll just find a local luthier who does repair work and get a Delrin or bone nut put on. But I'm a little jumpy now about letting strangers touch it.

  • Why did you bring it in? Was the neck possibly backbowed causing the strings to fret out? The fix for that may have contributed to what you are experiencing. – user6591 Feb 28 '17 at 0:41
  • @user6591 The neck was ok. I had put a roller bridge on it, and took the pickups out to cut the scratch plate for a Vibramate for the Bigsby. Also the pole pieces were all over. So everything was adjusted to my DIY guesswork and I wanted it done right by a competent pro. Still do, in fact; the A and D strings buzz a bit with a capo in the third fret now. But overall it's better than it was. Except the nut. – Ed Plunkett Feb 28 '17 at 1:05
  • @user6591 The neck was ok. I had put a roller bridge on it, and took the pickups out to cut the scratch plate for a Vibramate for the Bigsby. Also the pole pieces were all over. So everything was adjusted to my DIY guesswork and I wanted it done right by a competent pro. Still do, in fact; the A and D strings buzz a bit with a capo in the third fret now. But overall it's better than it was. Except the nut. – Ed Plunkett Feb 28 '17 at 1:09
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    Hmmm. Is the string spacing in the roller bridge the same exact spacing as the old bridge? – user6591 Feb 28 '17 at 2:07
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    A reputable technician would NEVER tell you to put 3-in-1 oil in nut slots. Check the slots and see if they are rounded, or V shaped. It is possible that the hack retouched your slots with a triangle file instead of a nut file. V cut slots will cause sticking. – Alphonso Balvenie Feb 28 '17 at 5:45
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Tremolos can cause tuning and intonation issues all on their own, and I suspect that the tremolo combined with something that happened during the setup is the cause. Is it possible that the shop replaced the nut, or changed the string gauge? Either of those things might be related to a tuning problem. Since you're specifically asking about the nut, I'm not going to address tremolo issues specifically, but I highly recommend looking into those as well.

Can the nut affect tuning stability?

Yes it's possible that the nut binding to the strings can affect tuning stability, and it can't hurt to eliminate it as a cause before moving on to the tremolo.

The nut slots need to be wide enough to allow the strings to move freely. I know of three possible causes:

  • The nut is dirty
    if this is the case, cleaning the nut can help. Putting oil in the nut slots may or may not help, but filing the nut slots to be wider is the best solution. You really need a set of nut files to do this properly, but I've done it with very thin, fine sandpaper. You just want to be careful not to deepen the nut slot.
  • The nut has been changed
    Whether the nut was modified by the shop or replaced with another, this could affect the tuning stability. If this is the case replacing the nut with a properly cut/sized one should help. You can also look into raising the action a touch to handle the buzzing when using a capo around the 3rd fret.
  • String gauge has been increased
    This could cause binding in the nut slots. You could try changing to a lighter string gauge, but keep in mind this can affect action and intonation.

If none of these solve the problem, I'd move along to the tuning machines:

  • Were the strings wrapped around the tuning posts?
    The question Acoustic guitar - how to wind strings on the tuning posts has a lot of good information about how to do this. Maybe the shop installed the strings differently than you have done for years.
  • Have the strings had time to stretch out?
    Give them some time, maybe settling in will help.

If none of this helps I suggest looking into the Bigsby trem more closely.

  • The strings all stick now. The strings were wound around the posts differently than I do it, but when I cleaned out the slots on getting the guitar back I restrung it my way, with the same strings I've been using for years -- from the same value pack of 10 sets, in fact, so they were even the same lot number as the strings that were on it before I took it in (I gave them another set from that box to restring, but a mixup could happen of course. I stretched them by hand until they were stable, and they've had a week and a half to settle in. I can't swear it's the same nut as before, though. – Ed Plunkett Feb 27 '17 at 22:48
  • I think it's almost certainly the tremolo, then. Why the problem would crop up only after a setup I don't know. I'm not familiar with Bigsby systems at all, gonna throw these out there: Is it possible the shop changed a setting on the trem while doing the setup? Or are there trem issues that can show up on after time? Is it possible that your ears improved? – neilfein Feb 27 '17 at 23:21

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