Many players spend obsessive hours perfecting their tone by tweaking and replacing the gear they play through. Pickups, preamps, cabs, tonewoods, and pedal boards get plenty of attention from players, while an integral piece that connects their hard-won tone to their playing is often overlooked: their guitar cable.
Why though? Many players find themselves torn between seeking out the best cable for noise reduction, or the toughest cable, or simply the most affordable one they can get their hands on. Most everyone hopes to get the best cable for their money, for sure. We at Digiflex want you to be aware of some elements that play a key role in a cable's performance, elements that any manufacturer worth their weight in copper will include. When you're done with this article, you'll be able to make an informed decision the next time you're choosing a cable.
All guitar cables are not created equal
Many cable manufacturers like to use obscure, scientific-sounding language to beef up their marketing and confuse consumers about the elements of a guitar cable that matter. Some of their marketing facts may be true, but completely irrelevant to what is important when deciding on a good guitar cable. Knowing that a particular cable was kept at optimal barometric pressure to ensure maximum conductivity just won't help you choose a cable, because you can't know what the weather was like at all the other manufacturers' sites.
Here's what you should look at to make a valid comparison:
The first element of the centre conductor to consider is thickness, which is measured in the American Wire Gauge (AWG) standard, where a smaller number means a thicker conductor. The more copper you have, the more signal will be left after it travels the length of the cable, and the longer the cable, the more important this becomes.
|After size, the second element to think about is the material used/treatment of that material. Copper is by far the most commonly used material. To reduce costs, many entry-level cables use a copper alloy instead, which results in reduced conductivity (see fig. 2).
As far as copper treatments go, there has been a debate raging for years over the effectiveness of "oxygen-free," "linear crystal, "cryo-precipitate," and other esoteric methods of treating copper. Now, we respect individual opinions as to how cables using these types of treatments sound in an individual's own setup, but we have yet to see actual scientific data that demonstrates any true benefit.
Solid vs. Stranded
The third design element is the type of conductor: solid or stranded.
A solid conductor, as you might guess, is composed of a single, thick strand of copper. This will carry the most signal, with the least loss, as it is 100% copper with no air gaps. However, this also makes for a more rigid and fragile cable. An example of a solid core is your cable TV wire.
Stranded conductors are made up of dozens of tiny filaments that are braided together to form wire that has a total surface area equivalent to solid copper, but that has a much higher flexibility. This means that the cable can move with you. The higher the strand count, the more copper you have carrying your signal, and thus the better your cable is.
A cable's shield is the material that surrounds the centre conductor and serves as a protective barrier for your signal. There are two (2) main methods of shielding for portable cables (see fig. 3):
- Served, or spiral shielding: This type of shielding consists of parallel strands spiralled around the centre conductor. It's less expensive, but also less effective. Typical spiral shields provide about 80-85% coverage, and run the risk of gaps appearing between the strands, especially when the cable gets flexed.
- Braided shielding: As its name implies, the strands of the shield are braided together, resulting in near complete (often 95-98%) coverage of the centre conductor. With this type of shielding, the underlying conductor is rarely exposed.
A third, complementary shielding type also exists: electrostatic/combination shielding. Because the conductors of the shield move with the cable, they can create static electricity when rubbing against the insulator. This can make cables noisy, as the static the movement introduces gets transmitted to your devices on either end. To reduce this, many high-end cables have a thin sheath (often a mylar-backed aluminum foil) between the insulator and the shield. This serves to prevent the accumulation of static, but can also introduce an extra stiffness to the cable.
One thing to keep in mind is that the signals we are talking about here are unbalanced signals. By nature, the ability to eliminate interference in cables designed to carry these types of signals is limited. You can solve most interference issues by following these two simple rules:
- Never run your unbalanced cables directly alongside power cables.
- Never coil your cable near a power source. A coil acts as an antenna and will absorb the interference in its vicinity.
Now we're getting into the nitty gritty… A capacitor is formed whenever two electrical conductors are placed in close proximity to one another. In a cable, the centre conductor and the shield act this way, and the electrical differences between the two is what is called the capacitance (expressed in a measure of picofarads). The larger the conductors, the more capacitance they produce; the longer distance these two elements are in proximity to each other, the more capacitance they produce. So, while a hair-thin centre conductor, or a two-inch long cable, will have negligible capacitance, a 100' 12 AWG power cable will have very high capacitance ratings.
Why should you care?
|When this capacitance is applied across an audio circuit, it acts as a low-pass filter. The higher the capacitance, the more high-frequency output is lost (see fig. 4). This is the main element that will make an actual, real-world difference in the sound of your instrument, and it's probably the only element, other than noise, that can be heard by everyone.
"Well then," you might say, "give me a cable with 0.0000000001 pico-mini-farads of capacitance!"
Not so fast there, Eddie. Think about it, higher frequencies equate to crisp, sharp, crystalline tone.
Is that the sound you're after?
If so, then by all means go for the ultra-low-cap cable. But if you play mud-rock, or brown blues, and dig a dark, moody feel, you could simply swap out your cable for something a little less "high tech" and you could be good to go. You could introduce something truly unique to your sound. We're not here to tell you what to do, we only want you to know your options!
The length of your cable has an enormous effect on your overall sound. Here is the summary of the previous two points, you'll see what we mean:
- A longer cable will pick up more noise, as an unbalanced cable cannot truly eliminate noise, only minimize it. So, the longer your cable, the more noise it will pick up.
- The capacitance effect we described earlier gets worse over distance. The longer your cable, the greater the high frequency loss.
This is why most players tend to stay under 20' when it comes to guitar cables. Any longer than that and you're getting into the realm of noisy, muffled sound. Now, we're not saying it will be unbearable, but it’s definitely less than optimal. Don't forget, what works for you in your spacious countryside studio (lucky you!) might not hold up once you get to the gig and everyone is piled on top of each other with power cables strung here and there. Just take this as a warning.
Admittedly, the jacket has little influence on a cable's sound, but it's still an important factor in the overall quality. The jacket holds it all together and is ultimately the cable's first line of defense. The better the material, the longer the jacket will last. The tighter the extrusion, the less movement in the conductor and shield.
|The jacket is also crucial in how comfortable the cable feels, and how likely it is to tangle… and let's not deny the obvious: who wants ugly cables? Aesthetics can also play a big role when choosing a cable.
There are a myriad of choices on offer when it comes to cable jackets. So, the only way that you're going to find what fits you best is to look, touch, uncoil, twist… test them out!
Finally, we come to the connectors. So visible. So hotly disputed.
- Dozens of manufacturers
- Countless sizes and shapes
- More finishes and colours than you can shake a stick at
- Options galore…
Size, shape, and function are factors dictated by what you're playing. You have to choose the connector that fits the instrument or device you are plugging in.
Nickel and silver are the most common types of connector plating, and they both do a bang-up job of transmitting a signal. Gold on the other hand is the mystical solution to an infrequent problem: Gold doesn’t conduct any better than the other two choices, it's simply more resistant to tarnish. That's it. Choose based on what works for you.
Choose your favourite cable based on what works for you
We hope this little primer has helped demystify some things that can come up when you're faced with the massive number of choices that exist in guitar cables. As you can see, there is no "right" answer, and the only "right" cable isn't necessarily the most expensive cable, it's the one that sounds the best for what you are playing, the one that feels the most comfortable to YOU, and the one that won't ever let you down. Quality comes with a price tag, but expensive does not necessarily mean best!
Don't look for the "better" that the ad copy is flaunting, find your "best" guitar cable instead.
Digiflex is a manufacturer of high-quality interconnect products, offering standard and custom products to the entertainment industry. For more information on our products and services or to find out where you can find our cables, visit us at www.digiflexcables.com