Copyright © 2008 Howard Coleman
Graph Tech is a Canadian company selling, among other things, a material called Tusq for making guitar parts that used to made of bone, ivory or plastic. They sell the material as blocks in numerous sizes and also pre-made bridge saddles, nuts and bridge pins. They claim Tusq is "far superior in harmonic content and sustain to bone". I received some saddle and nut blanks and bridge pins and set out to test them.
This experiment turned out to more interesting than I had envisaged. I set out only to see if Tusq lived up to its claims of superior tone and sustain compared with bone for acoustic guitar parts. What I found was that by far the biggest difference in tone and sustain was due simply to removing and refitting old strings. No appreciable difference was detected other than that. Tusq does have points in its favour: it is whiter than bone and does not make an unpleasant smell when it is worked. I was not given any information regarding the dust so I can't say whether it is safer to work with.
WORKING WITH TUSQ
Working with Tusq was easy. I was not given any safety information (even though I requested it) so I tried to contain the dust as much as possible using vacuum extraction. Even with this precaution bone gives off an unpleasant smell but not Tusq. There was an odour but not unpleasant.
WHAT IS TUSQ?
I don't know exactly! It's probably a trade secret. Tapping pieces of Tusq together or against your teeth you can tell by the sound that the material is very hard like glass. I thought initially that it must be a ceramic to be so hard but working with it showed it to be more plastic-like. I was able to remove tiny shavings with a Skarsten scraper and also noted that machining it with a belt sander (for speed) produced a build-up of Tusq on one edge where particles had melted and fused together. My conclusion was that it is a very hard plastic - harder than any I had experienced before. Tusq is pure white in colour - a big difference compared with the age yellowed bone I removed. This could be useful, if that's what you want, or an issue if you are trying to recreate a vintage look.
I played the guitar and recorded open strings and chords under standard conditions using a stereo mic and Boss Micro BR recorder. I did this
1) before any modification to the guitar,
2) after replacing the nut, bridge saddle and bridge pins with Tusq and then,
3) after replacing the Tusq with the original bone nut, saddle and original plastic bridge pins. The guitar was a hand-made acoustic that had been stored for some time without use. The wound strings lacked all their brilliance at the start of the experiment.
1) "Before" The wound strings sounded dull due to age. The strings had not been used much and were not so old that they showed any signs of corrosion.
2) "Changed to Tusq" The brightness of the wound strings was completely restored BUT... read on...
3) "Changed back to bone and plastic" The sound was now identical to (2).
At first I thought the big improvement when I fitted the Tusq parts was due to the Tusq. However, when I replaced the Tusq with the original bone nut, saddle and original plastic bridge pins I found that the guitar was still phenomenally improved from its original state. The difference between (1) and (2) ie "Before" and Tusq, was very obvious. I found no audible difference between (2) and (3) ie Tusq and bone. Although I have listened to the recordings using Adobe Audition I decided not to bother analysing them as any relevant difference must be appreciable to a player's ears.
Use Tusq if you want a whiter than white material that is also hard and durable enough for the purpose.
Use Tusq to avoid unpleasant odours when working.
Use Tusq to avoid animal products.
If you decide to use Tusq on a large scale then you must look into the safety aspects of dust inhalation. Graph Tech should provide information.
If you are trying to improve the tone or sustain of a guitar first remove and refit the strings if they have not been played for a while. If you just want more sustain and don't mind sacrificing volume consider changing the mass of the bridge eg by using brass bridge pins. This is simple and quick.
This review is simply my opinion of the material. I am not connected with the company and do not sell the products.
Please e-mail me: Howard<AT SIGN>acousticnotes.org.uk