Guitar String Spacing

In this article, I’ll show you how to perfect your string spacing for a more professional look and comfortable feel on your next guitar.

At first glance, this might seem like such a basic or unimportant topic, but in reality, there is a lot of subtlety, technique, and artistry to getting it just right.

If you get the string spacing wrong, it can have a huge and detrimental impact on how your guitar is judged and perceived by collectors and players alike.

Uneven or disproportional string spacing will make your guitar:

  • Feel uncomfortable to play
  • Look amateurish and unrefined
  • Distract from the good qualities of your guitar

But here’s the good news

By the time you finish this article, you’ll have a solid understanding of:

  1. The different types of string spacing
  2. The best tools and techniques
  3. How to do it step by step

Sound good? Let’s get started…

Understanding The Guitar String Spacing Problem

When we see or play the strings of a guitar, our eyes and hands seem to evaluate the layout of the strings automatically.

The creative part of the mind that looks for visual harmony and the intuitive sense of touch of the fingers, both seem to focus on the space between the strings.

However, as luthiers, when we lay out the string spacing, it seems obvious and logical to divide the distance between the outer strings evenly, and lay out the center points of each string.

It feels like this should result in strings that are equally spaced,

*But there’s a big problem…

Each string has a different diameter.

Because of the different diameters, even though each string has an equal spacing of the center points, the distance between each string is different.

The strings on the base side will be closer together than the strings on the treble side.

That lack of even spacing looks less pleasing and feels uncomfortable to just about any player.

This approach is known as Equal String Spacing

(or string spacing calculated for the center points of the strings).

The Solution: Proportional String Spacing

The solution is to lay out the nut slots so that each string’s diameter is accounted for and the distance from string edge to string edge will be equal.

This approach is called Proportional String Spacing, and it’s the key to that professional and refined look and feel.

Here’s a great little image I found on Stewmac’s website that shows the two methods side by side to make it easy to see the differences.

It’s a subtle change, but you can feel it and see the difference.

Untitled 1000 x 609

(Image Courtesy of Stewmac)

Proportional String Spacing Tools

Hopefully, that makes sense so far, But, if you are like me, the thought of calculating each string’s diameter for every nut width and every string spacing is a little overwhelming. Thankfully, we have a few great options to make that part much easier and even kind of fun.

Option 1 – Online String Spacing Calculators

*Great for Steel String and Classical Guitars

There are several free online string spacing calculators that can do the calculations for you. They provide you with both the spacing from string edge to string edge as well as the spacing laid out from string center to center.

Here’s one I found helpful here: TCR Guitar Goods Nut Calculator

The challenge with this method is accurately transferring the spacing to the nut. I use magnification and a good quality 16r rule (with 50ths and 100ths of an inch) for this, but a caliper can work, too.

Option 2 – The String Spacing Rule (My Favorite)

*Great For Steel String Guitars (Not Intended For Nylon Strings)

This amazing string spacing rule is the best way to quickly find and accurately mark the perfect proportional string spacing.

It even has little slots for accurate marking with a pencil or a scribe.

This ruler uses a gradually increasing string spacing method that works perfectly for steel string guitars.

However, nylon string guitars do not have a continuously increasing string diameter from the high to low Strings.

So, for nylon string guitars, I recommend using the calculator I mentioned above.

String spacing ruler 3

How To Lay Out Proportional String Spacing

Step 1 – Fit The Nut

The first step is to fit the nut blank to your nut slot and ensure it aligns accurately with the edges of the fingerboard. This is important for the measurements and marks we’ll do in the next step.

(I also leave a little extra material on the top of the nut so I can have room to mess up a little and let my eye make the final adjustments I describe in step 5.)

Step 2 – Mark The Outer Stings

The next step is to mark the two outer strings.

It’s common to see steel string guitars with the outer strings positioned with the bass string center 5/32″ from the edge and the high E string 1/8″ from the edge.

For nylon string guitars, 5mm or 4.5mm from each edge to the string center for the high and low E is common.

Step 3 – Lay Out The Inner String Locations

This step is where I get out the string spacing rule and slide it back and forth until I find the string spacing that is a perfect fit. Once I have it, I mark each string location using the openings in the rule, which helps with accuracy.

If you’re using the online fret calculator method, you’ll need to use a caliper or 16r rule to lay out and double-check each string location.

Step 4 – Use A Saw To Make The Initial Cut

To begin the nut slots, I first use a little saw called a Zona saw.

It has a super thing kerf and very fine teeth. I make a shallow cut at each string slot location. Even though my favorite nut slotting files are amazing, I never use them for this initial marking.

The thin saw cuts should be just deep enough to let the nut files grab and cut in the exact location and prevent any drift or variation that would void all the extra care we’ve taken to get to this point.

Step 5 – Use Your Eye To Make The Final Adjustments

No matter what you use for the initial layout, you still have to let your eye be the final judge as you carefully finesse the slots to the perfect positions as you begin to file them deeper.

Final Thoughts

There is so much more I wish I could share about the important subtleties of creating the guitar nut (and saddle), but that’s all the space we have for today’s post.

(Should I make this a mini-series? Or even a course for you guys/gals in the Luthier’s EDGE)

I hope what a shared so far was helpful and that from now on, you’ll not only be aware of this important aspect of your guitar string spacing, but you’ll also know how to get it just right and take your next guitar to even higher levels of refinement and quality.

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