How to make a $400 guitar play like a $1,000 guitar
From nuts and saddles to bridges, pickups, machine heads, and more, Graph Tech has been rethinking the hardware that holds guitars together since 1983. Where others saw replaceable doodads, Graph Tech founder Dave Dunwoodie saw links in a tonal chain: Maximize the harmonic punch of each component, and you can significantly improve a guitar’s performance. As he explains, “installing Graph Tech products can make a $400 guitar play like a $1,000 guitar—and a $1,000 guitar sound like a dream.” While every company in the guitar industry boasts about tone, Dunwoodie’s claims are endorsed by the majority of the world’s top guitar makers, nearly all of whom use Graph Tech parts on an OEM basis.
Graph Tech’s original performance breakthrough was the self-lubricating guitar nut, which also happened to be the first black nut available to the world market. The key was the development of its TUSQ material, a proprietary man-made ivory. Replicating the tonal transference properties of ivory, with an added boost in harmonics for richness, TUSQ is consistent from piece to piece and within each piece, a quality organic materials cannot match. TUSQ is now used in nuts, saddles, bridges, and end pins on the world’s top-selling guitars. Graph Tech is now the largest manufacturer of nuts and saddles, and its product line includes a staggering 1,200 distinct nut and saddle models, with most in stock and ready to ship. But the company is also renowned for its collaborative product design and custom work. Dunwoodie says, “Custom design and consultation starts when manufacturers come to us looking for a particular performance quality. We can usually figure out the right material to produce it, at the right price point.” For example, when tests proved that Graph Tech’s NuBone XB increased an instrument’s volume and bass harmonics, Dunwoodie began recommending it for use on ukuleles and small-body guitars that need more bottom end.
The TUSQ material does more than just improve tone; it enhances string life. After trial and error, using a machine that plucked guitar strings until they broke, Dunwoodie discovered that a TUSQ bridge saddle infused with Teflon dramatically reduced metal fatigue and string breakage—an added benefit to go along with the otherwise more balanced tone.
TUSQ has even been used in a successful line of guitar picks. As Dunwoodie describes it, they are “Picks with a purpose! Three tones, three shapes, three gauges.” To put this claim to the test, he suggests dropping a TUSQ pick onto a hard surface alongside a standard pick and listening to the difference. The TUSQ picks are color-coded for their range of tones: white for “bright,” vintage for “warm,” and dark gray for “deep.” They are available in three shapes: a standard pick shape, a smaller teardrop, and a large “bi-angle,” with a pointed tip as well as a more rounded tip for different styles of picking.
More recently, Graph Tech reached beyond its bread-and-butter nuts and saddles to create a revolutionary improvement in guitar tuning machines. Eliciting reactions around the industry that can be summed up as “Why didn’t someone think of this 30 years ago,” the ingenious Ratio: Tuned Machine Heads incorporate string core tension into the tuning equation and feature a balanced gear design that makes every string respond equally to any tuning adjustment: Instead of all strings having one gear ratio, such as 18:1, each string has its own gear ratio, anywhere from 12:1 to 39:1. The result is faster, precise tuning that is very intuitive for the guitarist. Ratio can be found on an ever-growing number of manufacturers’ guitars, including Martin, Framus, Hagstrom, Riversong, and more. There’s a Ratio product to fit most major acoustic and electric models including sets for both 3 + 3 and 6-in-line headstocks, locking varieties, and soon, Bass Ratios. Ratio was recently awarded U.S. and Chinese patents. The company has patents pending in 11 more countries.
Noting that today’s “two most popular electric guitars were designed in the early ’50s,” Dunwoodie acknowledges tradition-based constraints on guitar parts innovation. “When you develop a new guitar product, you can’t color too far outside the lines,” he says. “Ratio: Tuned Machine Heads are a good example of what is acceptable, because they look like standard guitar machine heads, not some big, goofy device that’s bolted onto the guitar. Under the hood, they make a huge difference for the guitarist.
“When we were designing the locking version of Ratio,” Dunwoodie continues, “I started reading reviews for other locking machine heads, and just about every second comment was… ‘I had to drill new screw holes to fit in this brand or that brand onto my guitar.’ Some players are OK with that, but most, including myself, wouldn’t dream of drilling more holes into a good guitar. So, we thought for a while and then designed InvisoMatch mounting plates, which we received a patent for. There are different designs of plates that match most popular machine heads’ screw patterns—so you can use the appropriate plates, and then use the existing screw holes. Installing a new set of Ratios takes about ten minutes: no drilling, and the new install is perfectly lined up.”
Graph Tech’s latest innovation, patent-pending Dry n’ Glide, is an engineered talc for guitarists and musicians in general. Dry n’ Glide dries the hands instantly, offers a super-smooth glide on the neck, and pH-balances the hands to greatly reduce rust and corrosion on hardware. “We had this formulation and loved it… but we couldn’t figure out a neat, clean way to get onto a player’s hands—so, until we figured that out, I didn’t want to release it,” says Dunwoodie. “And let me tell you: aerosol doesn’t work. We finally came up with a roll-on solution (thank you Patrick!), and then we were ready. Quite literally, I think the first words anybody says after they put it on and feel their guitar neck is ‘wow!’ We’re not making a lot of money on this, but it is a long-term, bigger picture project.
“For our OEM customers,” adds Dunwoodie, “we want to be their R&D source when they’re trying to solve an issue—anything involving nut design, nut-saddle performance, MIDI design, rosewood and ebony synthetics, and so on. Even better, we like to get in at the start of the development of a new model. Whatever their needs, we’ve got the answers, and we’ve been doing it for 30 years.”
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