Some cable manufacturers claim that their (sometimes insanely expensive) cables will produce a better tone – or sound from your guitar. You might have read claims of sweeter, beefier, punchier, or clearer sound.
All of these terms are fairly subjective, so we can chalk all that talk up to marketing prowess. But one question remains – will an $80 guitar cable make your sound “better”?
This is really up to you.
I’m pretty sure Jimmy Page didn’t use an $80 cable when he recorded Black Dog. So if you love his sound, you might not like a cable that will “improve” your guitar sound.
There are a certain amount of “Snake Oil” claims in the guitar cable business, so let’s get what we know for sure to be true out of the way.
Better quality cables will have better shielding – and will probably reduce outside interference. They will probably also have better solder joints, allowing more of the signal from your guitar to reach it’s destination – and less signal that you don’t want (interference). Ideally, you want as much of the sound from your pickups to reach your ears, and as little unwanted sound as possible, right?
There have also been claims that the materials the cable or the ends are made out of can make a difference as well. Maybe the gauge of wire can make a difference.
While the gauge of a wire can affect its overall bandwidth – that is how much signal it can carry – the fact is that a signal coming from a guitar to its next destination is a pretty weak signal, so a standard cable won’t perform much different than a thicker one or one made from a different material – at least in the bandwidth department.
Another thing to consider is that we are plugging this $80 cable into any number of $80 pedals. Obviously an $80 pedal will not have the quality connections and insulations as the $80 cable – so are we losing the benefit of the good cable right there?
The answer is yes, and no.
Yes because almost any electronic device will lose some sound, and add other (possibly unwanted) sound. No because the signal is usually amplified and impedance (possibly) lowered, which will positively alter the signal for the better.
What does impedance have to do with it?
Well, it turns out that impedance and something called capacitance and another thing called inductance do a strange little dance with each other.
It’s best to first understance capacitance – which you have probably heard in marketing materials related to “Low Capacitance Cables”.
A capacitor is two conductors separated by an insulator. It also stores a charge. As the frequency increases, so does the current flowing across the capacitor.
A tone control on your guitar is a sort of variable capacitor. It allows you to change the capacitance of the circuit, increasing the capacitance rolls back the high frequencies – thus changing the tone.
As it turns out a guitar cable is also two conductors separated by a shield. It’s basically a long capacitor.
It is generally accepted that the longer the cable (the more capacitance), the muddier the sound will be (less highs – the capacitance has killed the high frequency tones, and increased the midrange tones slightly).
The average guitar cable carries about 30 picofarads of capacitance per foot of cable.
Guitar pickups are inductors. When you plug in a guitar cable you are making the cable a part of the circuit with the pickups, creating a tuned circuit. So in effect you are adding the capacitance of the cable to the sound of the pickups. An inductor and a capacitor are somewhat polar opposites so they are going to be battling for your sound just by being connected together.
Remember how capacitance can kill your high frequencies and even boost your mids? When you connect a cable with high capacitance to your pickups, you’re changing the sound of those pickups.
So in short – a low capacitance cable can decrease that loss of high frequency.
The real question is – do you want that? It’s possible that you might not like the sound of your guitar through a low capacitance cable. It’s possible that your guitar wasn’t designed for low capacitance.
In the long run, its all subjective. You might not notice the difference when it comes to your particular guitar and your rig, and your buddy might think it makes a world of difference.
The one thing we can all agree on is that the quality of the construction, durability, and the shielding against unwanted noise are factors everyone will care about.
One last thing to note is that if you use active electronics in your guitar, the signal from your guitar will have a very low impedance which can travel through a capacitive cable with little to no degredation in sound, so a low capacitance cable will make no noticeable difference.
To sum up and answer our question – Do more expensive cables affect your sound or tone?
Yes they do. As long as being low capacitance is the cost factor.
Do they sound better?
What should you do?
Try both. Go with your ears and your gut. Does the $80 cable sound $60 better than the $20 cable? If so, buy it.
I had to read a lot of mind numbing literature while writing this article, and I have paraphrased a lot of the specifics of tone controls, capacitance, inductance, and impedance to make it easier to understand. Some details in my wording are admittedly simplified, but this doesn’t change the overall conclusions.