What Makes a Great Guitar Cable?
For this week we talk about guitar cables. If you have ever shopped for guitar cables you’ll find prices ranging from a couple of dollars($) to one hundred dollars($$$) and higher. Seems that the task of plugging your guitar into an amp would be pretty simple and straightforward. I mean, nobody cares that much about their amp's power cord. Why do we care about guitar cables so much? Why do I need a $100 cable or a $2 cable? I’ll go ahead and say this now, you don’t need a $100 cable, and you don’t want a $2 cable. Somewhere in the middle will depend on your needs.
This week we talk about the cable, next week we’ll discuss connectors.
For the construction of a cable, there are three important parts we care about.
- Center Conductor
- Outer Jacket
Cables come in different styles, colors, and materials. But the basic construction of a guitar cable is consistent. A guitar cable features a center conductor, shielding, and outer jacket.
The center conductor is located in the middle of the cable. It's surround by a dielectric that separates it from the conductive outer shielding.
The center conductor is typically made of copper and is the “hot” part of your guitar signal. This part plays a huge role in your tone. Think of the center conductor as a highway. The larger the core, the more signal that can easily pass through. This is important not for just the overall signal but for specific frequencies. Guitar players demand the full frequency spectrum to come through from their guitar, through the pedals, and out to their amp. Without an adequate size center conductor your guitar signal is limited.
The center conductor is typically solid or strand. Solid refers to the center copper being a solid strand of copper where a stranded core is made of many fine strands of copper that together make up the core. Stranded core is usually used for guitar cables since it is more flexible than solid core cables. Whether you use your cables for a pedal board or on stage or in the studio we all know that a stiff cable tangles easily, is hard to use, and just no fun. But a stranded cable is more flexible and is easier to manage providing a better option.
These are examples of the different amounts of shielding found in guitar cables. The more copper that surrounds the center conductor the better the results.
The shielding is another very important part of the guitar cable. This part of the cable surrounds the inner core. The main job of this part of the cable is to “shield” the inner conductor from outside interference. Guitar signals are prone to accepting “noise” from other sources including: lights, cell phone signal, radio signals, and whatever other types of signals are floating in the air. In fact if your cable has poor shielding then just moving or kicking the cable will add unwanted noise through your amplifier. The shielding is typically also made of copper and acts as the ground of the signal path. Just like the core, the amount of shielding varies from cables. The more coverage the better quality and the more interference that is blocked out.
The outer jacket is another important piece. The outer jacket is typical made of PVC and it’s job is to protect the core and shielding from getting damaged. Obviously, thinner cable can damage easily and feel fragile. A thicker jacket keeps the inside components safe. The composition of the jacket is important too. It’s important that guitar cables are soft and flexible so they don’t get tangled during performances and are easier to store. Yet, they have to be durable to meet the demands of the rough and tough musician.
So, what should you look for in a good guitar cable?
Now that we have defined important parts of the cable we need to know what characteristics make a good cable. I always start with the core. The higher the gauge the better. Typically you’ll find 20awg or even 18awg for higher quality cables. Again, the core is made of copper or tin plated copper. There are a few companies that make cables with a silver core, but they are very expensive and although they are more conductive than copper they lack in other qualities, like durability, that make it less than idea.
The Lava Mini ELC instrument cable features a 20awg core and excellent shielding. The jacket is nice and flexible but softer and thinner compared to other cables. It's an excellent option for small patch cables for your pedal board.
For shielding the main ingredient we are looking for is coverage. Cheaper cables have less copper coverage, identified as 50% coverage or less. The best cable have 90-100% coverage. Meaning the copper braid is completely surrounding the core.
Jacket characteristics can be tricky. Just because a cable has a large diameter doesn’t mean it’s a high quality cable. A cable can have a thick jacket but a small amount of shielding and a small core. There should be a nice amount of material to provide a good amount of protection without sacrificing on the inside. Cables that are more flexible tend to be more expensive too. Clothe cables are great options for a good protective cable, but their colorful appeal can be a disguise for the lack of goods on the inside.
You'll find budget cables like the ones above sold at a cheap price or most of the time given away. This cables are overall really thin and mostly just jacket material including very little real copper in the shielding or inner conductor.
So, when looking for a cable find a core of 20awg or 18awg, about 90% shield coverage, and a jacket that is durable and flexible but not too oversized. If your jacket is too large in diameter it can be hard to find connectors to fit if you are looking to make your own assemblies. Colors are fun, but most of the time your high quality cables have the common black jacket. This is not always the case, so check the specs. Watch out for buzz words like silver or gold. Any cables that have silver or gold as a name or main description can be overpriced and feature trace amounts of gold or silver that have little impact on the overall performance of the cable. Very often words like: "gold" and "silver" are simply used for buzz words.
The Rapco Concert series cable(pictured above) is a great balance of performance and price. A nice all around cable and a very affordable price. The Rapco Studio cable is excellent too if you want to go a step higher. The Studio features 18awg core and 95% Braid coverage with a nice soft jacket.
Understanding the structure and characteristics of a good guitar cable will help you find the best option for you and your budget.
Next time we'll take a deep dive into connectors.
Thanks for reading.