Do Cables Affect Your Guitar Tone?
When promises of better tone are made by cable manufacturers, can we believe them? And what elements of this basic bit of guitar kit, which we all take for granted, can actually impact your guitar sound?
The first thing to address is that your guitar cable is a ‘passive’ bit of hardware - meaning it does not have the capacity to boost or ‘add’ anything to your signal - such as peaks in frequency or volume. With this said, what a cable can do is to provide a cut in these areas (desirably or not so).
Now, the level of tonal significance given by switching out your cables is not comparable to say changing your amp or pickups - these bits of kit attract an impedance/resistance in numbers that dwarf anything offered by the humble guitar cable; but, for the eternal guitar ‘tone-chaser’, there are some points to consider when matching your cable with a desired sound.
For simplicity we can group this into 2 areas:
The length of your guitar cables has a proven and accepted influence on your sound - apparently Eddie Van Halen could tell you whether you had plugged him in using a 10ft or a 20ft cable, by ear alone!
So what causes this?
Don’t worry - we aren’t here to do any scientific deep dive! Capacitance simply relates to the amount of electrical energy which can be stored throughout the length of your cable; seeing as your guitar sound is effectively translated, by your pickups, into an electrical signal - then it stands to reason that this could modify your tone somewhat.
So, give me more capacitance! Hold on there - ask any engineer or electrician and they will tell you that a low capacitance cable performs better (not just in guitar terms). Capacitance itself is measured in feet - the longer a signal has to travel, the more it loses strength and, in turn, the higher its capacitance.
So what does this do to my guitar sound? As we mentioned earlier, a cable can affect your tone by cutting certain frequencies; in this case a longer cable (higher capacitance) will cut your higher frequencies, or act as a ‘low pass filter’, resulting in a muddier tone - no good if you are striving to be heard above the band!
How long is too long?
There is a reason why you won’t see 40ft cables in your local guitar store! And Eddie was right - the real turning point for tonal changes is around 18ft - past this you can expect to experience noticeable changes in highs and mids (our favourite frequencies!).
18ft seems like a lot to play with, but if we consider this as the full length of cabling running through your signal chain - you probably take up a couple of cables just going from your guitar to your pedals and out to your amp; not to mention those tricksy patch leads on your board! So if you are still rocking a stack which puts your amp head at face level, that may add a few feet too!
Capacitance and your pickups
Wait, there’s more; not only will a higher capacitance diminish your stronger, guitar centric frequencies; but it can also make your pickups sad. You see, pairing an inductor (your pickups) with a low capacitance conductor (your lovely short guitar cable) basically causes a higher resonant peak - in plain English - your pick ups give you more bite and high end clarity with a shorter cable!
Ah, something we can all understand - the actually ‘stuff’ from which your cable is made. This can have, as expected, a notable way of altering, not only your tone, but the general quality of your sound.
Unlike super long microphone cables, your guitar cable is ‘unbalanced’ (nothing to do with its psychological state of mind - but there is a a joke at our expense in there somewhere!). This means our standard guitar cable can be the victim of a lot of outside noise and hum - picking up disturbances from RF, lights etc. Generally cheaper cables don’t have the shielding protection of their higher price range competitors; and this is where brands can make a genuine claim that their cables are worth the extra price tag.
A braided outer sheath is considered the most effective material for shielding noise - those boutique cables, with the rope-like outer layer aren’t just there for their pretty looks!
Revisiting the point about your guitar sound essentially existing as an electrical signal; what a shame it would be if, at the first point in your chain, that signal experienced the limp handshake of some dodgy soldering!
Another area where good quality cables offer assurance is the attention and quality control of how well components are soldered and affixed - this all has the potential to upset the conductive flow of the musical magic which is being transferred from the first point it meets your cable. This can also have another knock-on effect - durability; which brings us onto our last topic.
What’s that all about then? The inner part of your guitar cable, the copper wire (or wires as we will discuss), is the bit which carries the electrical signal; so it makes sense that this part is conducive to creating a cleaner tone.
But how much can you do with a length of copper, short of swapping it for gold? This is where some other buzz words, you may have seen in guitar cable ads come into play - ‘oxygen free and ‘linear crystal’ copper. These are considered a ‘purer’ copper and, ergo, promise to deliver a cleaner and truer representation of your guitar signal.
So what’s left after we have oxygenated and crystallised the copper in your cable? Glad you asked - there are 2 varieties of guitar cable conductor, and this is where you can choose to spend the extra cash if you wish:
Solid Conductors - This simply means a solid copper wire employed for the job of transporting your guitar signal. This is favoured as a cost effective option as it has less production costs attached to it. The main draw back here is that we tend to like our cables bendy; in fact its not unusual for us to coil, bend, twist and stamp on our wiry friends. Solid conductor cables tend not to be very hardy and don’t enjoy the rough stuff, and will generally break overs time.
Stranded Conductors - These consist of central core of, commonly, 26 or 41 individual strands of copper wire. As you can imagine, these are more pliant and resistant to the movements associated with the rigours of everyday use. Do they sound better? Debatable; but a broken cable never sounds good!
It is also worth mentioning that any inclusion of gold or silver jacks/tips has no impact on conductivity - but will most certainly lengthen the life of your cable.
Cable good practice points
To wrap things up (accidental cable pun!). Here are some bonus cable do’s and don’t’s:
To avoid extra unwanted noise, try not to run your guitar cables alongside any power cabling (i.e. your pedal power supply wiring or mains leads). Consider keeping any cables away from the top of your amp - for example gathering excess cable length on top of your amplifier or placing lots of pedals, connected by cables, on top of your amp too. This can set off a whole lot of unwanted buzzing! And, of course, always avoid knotting or tightly wrapping your cables; pros favour a gentle coiling!
With all things taken into consideration, you may not feel the need to experiment endlessly with different variants and cable lengths; but, within this blog are some sound considerations when the time comes for replacing your cables.
On a guitar tone mission? Check out these courses on crafting your sound from the tone king himself, Michael Casswell: