Basic Elements: Cables
By PGS Fitz
By necessity, I spend an inordinate amount of time cruising guitars, spec’ing them out, window shopping—just being a geek, really. I’m guilty of hyperfocusing on the instrument and practically ignoring other less sexy things that are of great importance in the grand scheme of my guitar rig.
This week in the corner we’re looking at a critical and often-ignored component in the realm of playing electric guitar : the cables that transmit the signal between your guitar and amp. This component is often barely given a second thought by some players (I’m guilty), but we can’t be heard without it. Thankfully, there’s room in guitar-land for all of us, from your typical plug-and-play person (like me!) to your complete and utter tone aficionado.
There are a couple schools of thought about gear—some people think you can pick up the cheapest gear possible and make it sound great (some people can!) and some people think that the craftsmanship of the gear matters (it can!). Whether you’re playing a department store guitar or a Fender Custom Shop Nocaster, it does seem like the one thing you don’t want to happen is have your cables short out, so it makes sense to spend a little time and effort making sure your wiring is solid.
Whether it’s a $5 or $50 cable, the underlying structure of the cable is the same. At the heart of the cable is a stranded copper center conductor wire—stranded to allow flexibility in the cable. These copper strands are what carry the electrical snapshot of your signal through to your amp. The center conductor is insulated by a layer called the dielectric, which separates the center conductor from the shield layer. Shielding is a critical component of a cable, as it not only blocks electro-magnetic interference but in a bi-directional cable also completes the signal to your amp by sending the return signal. The shielding is complemented by an electrostatic shield to reduce handling noise, and the whole thing is wrapped in an outer jacket for protection and hopefully a long life.
For the best possible tone, your cables should be as short as possible while still getting the job done. Instrument cables in excess of 20’ are widely accepted to dull tone—remember, the longer the distance the signal has to travel, the more degradation the signal will experience. In an ideal world, the cables from your guitar to your amp (or pedalboard) should be 15’ or less. With large pedal boards, it also makes sense to try to keep cables short and tidy—many cable manufacturers offer DIY kits that will allow you to custom cut your own lengths of cable so that you can ensure that your signal isn’t traveling any excess distance to get through your board and into your amp. It’s tempting to pick up a handful of el cheapo grande patch cables for your effects—but you should give the same consideration to your patch cables as you do your main instrument cables. After all, without these tiny little copper wires, no one’s gonna hear the pinch harmonic in the middle of your solo.
Just as the boutique effects market has exploded, the cable industry has gotten a bit more hip in recent years, with several manufacturers now offering extremely high end cable. One of my favorite companies is Divine Noise, right here in Portland—where every cable is hand-soldered and guaranteed for life. I’m especially a fan of their whimsical 50/50 cable—a hybrid straight/curly cable for those who can’t decide which style they prefer.
In an ideal world, you’d have a chance to A/B a few cables against one another when choosing the right cables for your rig; some of us are particularly tuned to tone and can hear minute differences in cables (Eric Johnson, anyone?!)—though for most of us, simply doing a bit of research on the manufacturer and their methods should help steer us in the right direction. Cables experience a ton of wear and tear—look for a manufacturer that offers a lifetime warranty on their cables—it’s a good indicator that they take quality assurance seriously.
Next time you grab your guitar and plug ‘er in, take a moment to check your wiring and look for ways to improve it – your tone will thank you.