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I have a pile of old semi-functional guitar cables in a box somewhere, and one that continues to work well year after year. An instrument cable is an often overlooked piece of gear, but an important one. So just what is the difference between an average budget guitar cable, and premium ones that cost many times the price? Is it worth it to spend more on a cable?
The main differences between inexpensive guitar cables and premium ones are:
- The quality of the wiring and construction of the cable — a well-constructed cable will last longer. More expensive cables use varying gauges of copper wire and different winding techniques to create a high-quality cable.
- The materials and construction of the cable connectors — better materials equal better sound. Higher-quality cables will have precision soldering and employ quality materials for the connectors.
- The quality of the cable shielding — better shielding will help reduce any external noise. A good quality guitar cable will use internal and external shielding to eliminate noise from handling the cable, and to block radio and electromagnetic frequencies.
- The brand name and marketing — well-regarded brands can charge a premium for their products.
In order to better understand these differences and choose the right cable, it’s helpful to know how guitar cables are constructed. We will go over the components of a guitar cable, and the features that have an impact on your guitar tone. Lastly, we will discuss a few things to consider when shopping for your next guitar cable.
What’s In a Guitar Cable?
To understand the differences between a premium guitar cable and an inexpensive one, we need to know the components that make up a guitar cable. Cable designs can vary in length, connector type, and material, but the internal components essentially follow the same recipe.
As explained by E-Home Recording Studio, guitar cables are constructed with five essential components, in order from the cable exterior to its center:
- Outer Jacket – This is the outer cable material such as the braided or rubberized material that contains and protects all the internal parts. Look for a tough exterior that will survive some abuse. A cable with a cheap, thin exterior may crack and wear out quickly.
- Outer Shielding – The braided copper outer shielding provides a flexible barrier for electromagnetic and radio frequency (RF) noise.
- Inner Shielding – This inner shielding protects against noise that can occur when someone handles or steps on the cable.
- Insulation – The internal insulation isolates the core of the cable from its other parts.
- Conductor – The conductor at the center of the cable carries the guitar’s audio signal through an electrical current.
The components of guitar cables remain the same, but as mentioned above, the quality of the materials and construction will vary. This contributes to the wide range of costs.
What Impacts The Guitar Tone?
When deciding between an inexpensive and premium cable, there are a few things to keep in mind.
Aside from the materials and construction, perhaps the top consideration is the length of the guitar cable. A longer cable will reduce the quality of the guitar’s signal, especially in the higher frequencies.
A general rule of thumb is to use a cable 25 feet or less. If you are just practicing at home, or playing in small venues, you should be able to get away with a much shorter cable.
As discussed above, the cable shielding eliminates noise that occurs when the cable is compressed or bent, and protects against electromagnetic and RF interference.
There are different types of outer cable shielding used, some better than others. Here are the three major types, as described by Sweetwater.
A braided shield is constructed from braided copper strands, wrapped around the core of the cable. The braid can be constructed from different thickness of copper, and may be wrapped using proprietary techniques that vary by manufacturer. It provides a good balance of coverage, flexibility, and strength.
A serve shield, or spiral-wrapped shield, is created by wrapping individual copper strands around the cable center. The advantage of a serve shield is its flexibility. It’s not as strong as the braided shield however.
This is the least expensive type of shielding, and also the least robust. Foil shielding consists of a thin layer of aluminum foil in conjunction with a copper drain wire. It’s the least flexible shielding, and will break down more quickly than the others. The foil shielding also has a higher transfer impedance, which just means that it does not conduct the signal as well.
The inner shielding of the cable is what protects against noise from compressing or bending the cable. This occurs when there is static electricity build-up between the copper shielding and the cable insulation. The inner shielding helps discharge any static electricity. Better cables will use more effective and flexible material for this shielding.
The bottom line on shielding is to be aware that there are different types. When shopping for a guitar cable, recognize that higher-quality cables will have better shielding.
Have you noticed that some cables have gold-plated connectors? Gold is obviously a more expensive material than their nickel or silver counterparts, but the difference in audio quality may be subjective.
Some audiophiles and audio engineers will argue that it makes a difference. For the average guitar player, you may be able to save some money by sticking with standard connectors. If you want to try gold connectors and see how it affects your tone, by all means, give it a shot.
Aside from the gold-plating, look for well-constructed connectors that are soldered properly. Basically, stick with a name brand cable, and skip the low-end cheap options. They won’t last.
Remember that pile of cables I mentioned at the beginning of the article? Those failed due to bad soldering in the connectors.
Conductor Material and Design
The conductor at the center of the cable is also going to vary a bit in design and material. Some manufacturers use a single-wire conductor, while other cables are constructed with a multi-strand center conductor.
The multi-wire conductors are more expensive to manufacture, making them a feature of premium cables. They add strength and flexibility to the cable design.
You’ll also see the term “oxygen-free copper.” This means the copper material has been refined to eliminate as much oxygen as possible. Supposedly, this increases conductivity and is beneficial to the audio signal.
How to Choose the Right Guitar Cable
All the terms thrown around when looking at different cable options can be confusing and sometimes seem like marketing fluff. There are differences as we outlined above, and some of it is indeed marketing hype.
If you are an audio engineer, you probably know exactly what you’re looking for. For the rest of us, a reasonably-priced brand name cable will be fine. With a few tips recommended by Guitar World, you’ll be on your way to cable nirvana.
Decide on Your Budget, and Skip the Cheap Cables
- As with any other purchase, figure out your ideal price, and where you draw the line. There’s no reason to spend hundreds of dollars on a cable if you don’t need to.
- Avoid the low-end cheap cables. Some of the cables that have failed me are ones you’d find in a music store with the store name on it. Not to disparage any music stores, but these are inexpensive cables that likely won’t last.
- Also avoid those knock-off cables you might find online. Skip the cable that came with your budget guitar bundle. A mid-range cable from a reputable company will be fine (in the $20-60 range).
Pay for the Materials You Need, Not the Ones You Don’t
- Do you really need the gold connectors or oxygen-free copper? Maybe not. For everyday practicing and playing, the standard connectors are going to be just fine.
- Different cable material types will have some impact on the guitar tone. If you are recording, or need the best sound possible, then you may want the more expensive cable.
- Also note the cable jacket and connector type. I prefer the braided instrument cables. Ernie Ball has a nice one. Many cables will have a rubberized exterior.
- The connectors will also be a barrel design that you can unscrew to access the solder joints, or a rubberized and tapered casing.
- The outer cable design is going to be a matter of personal preference.
Pick the Right Length
- If you are performing on stage, you will likely need a longer cable. You might even decide to skip the cable entirely and go wireless.
- For practicing at home and with your band, or playing in a small venue, you can get away with a shorter cable.
- Remember that the cable length affects the tone, so choose the length appropriate for your needs, and don’t buy a super long cable if you don’t need that extra length.
Now that you know the differences between budget cables and premium ones, and you have a few shopping tips, you are on your way to finding the right cable for you. Refer to this guide to help you buy the right cable without spending more than you need.