Guide to Guitar Cables for Stage and Studio (Beginner How To Tutorial)

07/02/2020
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Of all the things that might improve your guitar tone…

You’d probably think that a new cable ranks pretty low on the list, right?

At least, that’s what most of us assume.

But then there’s that occasional dude online who swears his cable makes all the difference in the world.

So you naturally wonder…

Who is correct?
And what exactly separates a $100 cable from a $10 cable?

It’s a common question that virtually every guitar player asks himself at some point.

And yet for some reason, it’s almost impossible to get a definitive answer from any one source.  So for today’s post, that’s the goal.

And after a ton of research, here are the facts I’ve compiled.  Starting first with…

 

The Anatomy of a Guitar Cable

instrument cable anatomyTo understand exactly what separates one guitar cable from another…

Let’s begin by examining their parts.

While the design can vary significantly from one manufacturer to another…

A standard cable consists of 5 basic parts:

  1. Center Conductor – which carries the audio signal via an electrical current.
  2. Insulation – which contains the current, keeping it isolated from the other parts.
  3. Electrostatic Shield – which reduces the handling noise that occurs when a cable is flexed or compressed.
  4. Braided Copper Shield – which blocks interference from outside sources.
  5. Outer Jacket – which protects all the internal parts, and gives the cable its “finished” appearance.

The main reason premium cables cost more is the materials and manufacturing methods used to build each of these 5 parts (although I’m sure marketing hype is partially responsible as well).

Now let’s talk specifics…

The 7 Key Features Affecting Performance

Guitar cable manufacturers generally focus on 7 common areas when explaining the benefits of their product.

But as it turns out, some of these areas matter far more than others.

So let’s look at each one now.  Starting with…

1. Length

The reason you rarely see a guitar cable that exceeds 25ft-in-length is…”unbalanced” instrument cables get progressively noisier as length increases.

Beyond that, the signal-to-noise ratio is usually too poor by the time it reaches your amp/audio interface.

And while all sources agree that the shortest possible cable yields the cleanest sound, it’s not exactly clear how long they can be before a direct box becomes necessary to extend the signal any further.

Because while conventional wisdom suggests a 25ft maximum…high-end brands sometimes offer options significantly longer.

And this is almost certainly due to the fact that the premium parts used in these cables (which we’ll discuss next) allow for a cleaner quieter signal.

2. Conductor Material

There’s a lot of debate these days about whether  “Oxygen-free copper” or “linear-crystal copper” will improve a guitar cable’s performance.

Without getting too scientific, the basic theory is that these materials are “purer” than standard copper, allowing for better conductivity, and a cleaner signal.

While the theory has not yet been proven by any scientific testing, listening tests seem to suggest that the difference is in fact real.

3. Conductor Design

The center conductors of guitar cables come in 2 basic designs:

  1. solid conductors – which are cheaper, simpler to solder, but also break easier.
  2. stranded conductors – which are stronger and more flexible, but also more expensive.

While solid conductors consist entirely of a single wire, stranded conductors consist of many strands of fine copper threads, twisted together into a solid center.

To measure the gauge of these copper strands, the industry standard (AWG) unit is used, with bigger numbers indicating smaller sizes.  For example:

  • solid conductors – (18-24 AWG)
  • individual strands – (32-36 AWG)
  • premium strands – (up to 40 AWG)

As you can see, “premium” cables typically have higher AWG numbers, because many small strands results in a stronger, more flexible cable, than those with fewer large strands.

For example, the two most common formulas used to build a stranded conductor are:

  1. 26 strands of 34 AWG (26/34)
  2. 41 strands of 36 AWG (41/36)

According to the principle we just discussed, the second formula will almost always result in the better (and more expensive) cable.

To improve performance even further, some manufacturers add a tin coating over each strand, which makes them easier to solder, and adds longevity by preventing oxidation.

The downside of the tin coating is that it causes a phenomenon known as “skin-effect“, which concentrates high-frequencies of the signal toward the outer surface of the conductor, potentially altering the frequency response of the signal.

This is why other manufacturers prefer silver instead, which is more immune to this effect.

Moving on…

4. Connector Quality

A common belief held by many guitar players is that gold-plated connectors are somehow superior to nickel or silver.

But the truth is, gold is only better because it’s less-corrosive, and lasts longer without tarnishing.  In terms of tone and conductivity, the differences are virtually none.

So this is one feature you can basically ignore.

5. Shielding

Because guitar cables are “unbalanced”, they don’t have the same noise cancellation features as microphone cables…

Making them especially vulnerable to interference from radio frequencies, and magnetic fields from nearby equipment.

To block this interference, 3 types of shields can be used:

  1. braided shielding – which is the most expensive, but offers maximum strength, and excellent from both EMI and RFI.
  2. serve shielding – which is less expensive, but offers even better flexibility, while still providing adequate shielding.
  3. foil shielding – which is the cheapest, the least durable, and offers the least protection compared to the other two.

NOTE: A common claim among many high-end cables is that their shielding protects against ground-loop hum.  But the truth is that they simply don’t.  At least not to a significant degree.

However, they really don’t need to.  Because you can minimize ground-loop hum for free, simply by following these 2 tips:

  • Avoid running the cable parallel to extension cords and other AC power cables.
  • Avoid coiling up your excess cable length and storing it next to your amp.

And that’s it.  Moving on…

6. Electrostatic Shielding

One of the biggest problems with cheap guitar cables is that annoying crackling sound that occurs whenever they’re moved.

This happens because static electricity is generated whenever friction occurs between the insulation and copper shield.

To solve this problem, some manufacturers add an electrostatic shield between the two, which discharges any static build-up.

The 2 materials used for this type of shield are:

  1. Dacron – which is a special kind of “noise-reducing tape”.
  2. Conductive PVC – which is the newer technology becoming more popular recently years.

Compared to dacronC-PVC is thinner, more flexible, and offers the better conductivity.  It also offers coverage at a consistent thickness with minimal friction.

With some cables, conductive PVC has even replaced braided copper shields as well (although it seems they are less-effective above 10kHz).

7. Insulation Material

Before we cover insulation, let’s start with a quick explanation of capacitance, and how it relates to sound quality.

Whenever two materials carrying a current (the conductor/shield) are separated by an electrical barrier (the insulation), a capacitor is created.

In guitar cables, the value of the capacitor (capacitance) should be as low as possible for two reasons:

  • It results in better high frequency response.
  • It minimizes triboelectric noise, which is the “slapping” sound that occurs whenever a cable is stepped-on or struck.

To measure capacitance, a rating known as the dielectric constant is used, which assigns the lowest numbers to materials offering the lowest capacitance.

For example…

  • Polyethylene, which comes from the “thermoplastic family” of insulation materials, has a dielectric constant of 2.3.
  • Rubber, which comes from the “thermoset family“, has a dielectric constant of 6.5.

This is why polyethylene, as well as all other thermoplastics, are becoming increasingly popular for cable insulation.  Not only do they outperform thermoset in almost every way…they’re cheaper as well.

Fortunately, these materials are now cost-efficient enough to use even with budget cables, so it’s mostly a non-issue.

However…certain high-end cables feature special polymers with even lowercapacitances, for ultra-premium performance.

Now that we’ve covered each of the 7 KEY FEATURES to look for in a quality guitar cable, let’s move on to the next section of this post, where we look at the best models in each price range.

Starting first with…

1. Best Budget Guitar Cables

cheap guitar cablesBy this point, it’s obvious that pricier guitar cables do – in fact – have their advantages…

Right?

Yet despite this fact, the majority of people reading this post will still want the cheapest reliable cable they can find.

And normally that means spending around $20 max.

So if that’s what you want, here are the top models I recommend:

Up next…

2. Best Mid-Range Guitar Cables

mid priced guitar cablesFor those of you willing to spend a little more (which I highly suggest)…

The next price-point we’ll look for mid-range cables is approximately $20-$50.

For the majority of the guitar-playing world…

These are the cables I recommend because they offer the best overall combination of performance and affordability.

Given that they’re also more durable, a single good cable will likely be cheaper in the long-run, compared to several cheap cables over the next few years.

And it will probably spare you some frustrating moments as well.  Because if you’ve ever had a cable go bad, you know how difficult it can be to even diagnose the problem.

Anyways, here are the top models I recommend:

Up next…

3. Best Premium Guitar Cables

high end guitar cablesWhile most of us can agree that super-high-end cables do have their advantages…

We also agree that the minimal jumps in performance simply aren’t worth the massive jumps in price…

At least not for the average dude on a budget.

However, if you’re lucky enough to be able to afford whatever you want…

You may find those benefits to be totally worth it.

So if you’re willing to spend more than $50 on a single guitar cable, here are the models to check out:

And finally…

Building Your Own Guitar Cable

While very few guitar players are willing to pay $100 for one cable, that doesn’t mean they wouldn’t still want that cable if they could get it for much cheaper.

And actually…you can…if you learn how to assemble a custom cable yourself.  Which some guys will do in order to save money.

Personally though, I don’t recommend it, and here’s why:

The most guitar players might have only have 1 or 2 cables TOTAL.  If they used dozens, I could understand the benefit of building your own.

However, considering the time it takes to:

  • find the parts
  • order them
  • wait for them
  • find the right tools
  • watch and study the techniques
  • practice them
  • and finally build your cable…

The amount of money you save to build one cable probably won’t be worth all that extra labor.