As guitar players, we often wonder whether or not guitar cables actually make a difference in our sound.
Most people assume it probably doesn’t.
But then there’s that occasional dude online who swears his cable makes all the difference in the world.
So you naturally wonder…who is right? And what exactly separates a $10 cable from a $100 cable?
Yet for some reason, it’s almost impossible to get definitive answers to these questions online.
So in this ultimate guide, you’re about to get a crash course on everything a player should know before shopping for new guitar cables.
So here’s what we’re about to cover:
Jump links for the “skimmers”…
- What Are the 5 Layers of a Guitar Cable?
- The 7 Key Features Affecting Performance
- So Here are the Guitar Tables We Recommend…
- Ever Thought of Building Your Own Guitar Cables?
What Are the 5 Layers of a Guitar Cable?
To understand exactly what makes a good guitar cable, let’s start by examining its parts.
While designs vary significantly between manufacturers, a standard cable consists of 5 layers:
- Center Conductor – which carries the audio signal via an electrical current.
- Insulation – which encapsulates the current, keeping it isolated from the other parts.
- Electrostatic Shield – which reduces the handling noise that occurs when a cable is flexed or compressed.
- Braided Copper Shield – which blocks interference from outside sources.
- Outer Jacket – which protects all the internal parts, and gives the cable its “finished” appearance.
Premium cables cost more because of the materials and manufacturing methods used to build each of these parts (although I’m sure marketing hype is partially responsible as well).
Now let’s talk specifics…
The 7 Key Features Affecting Performance
When shopping for a guitar cable, there are 7 important performances features you’ll want to take note of before choosing a particular model.
First up there’s…
1. How Long is Too Long?
You’ve probably noticed that you’ll rarely see a guitar cable that exceeds 25ft in length. Correct?
This is mainly because they get get progressively noisier as length increases. As it turns out, cables over 25′ are usually too noisy to get a quality signal.
High-end manufacturers however are sometimes able to make them significantly longer, but it comes at a price.
So for general purposes, common wisdom states that you should always use the shortest possible guitar cable for your purposes.
2. Oxygen-Free or Linear-Crystal Copper?
There’s lots of debate online about whether Oxygen-free copper or linear-crystal copper will improve a guitar cable’s performance.
The theory behind these materials is that they are purer than standard copper, allowing for better conductivity, and a cleaner signal.
While the theory has not been proven by any scientific testing, listening tests seem to suggest that the difference is in fact real.
3. Solid vs Stranded Conductors
Center conductors of guitar cables come in 2 designs:
- solid conductors – which are cheaper, simpler to solder, but also break easier.
- stranded conductors – which are stronger and more flexible, but also more expensive.
While solid conductors consist entirely of a single wire, stranded conductors consist of many strands of fine copper threads, twisted together into a solid center.
To measure the gauge of these copper strands, the industry standard (AWG) unit is used, with bigger numbers indicating smaller sizes. For example:
- solid conductors – (18-24 AWG)
- individual strands – (32-36 AWG)
- premium strands – (up to 40 AWG)
As you can see, premium cables typically have higher AWG numbers, because many small strands results in a stronger, more flexible cable, than those with fewer large strands.
For example, the two most common formulas used to build a stranded conductor are:
- 26 strands of 34 AWG (26/34)
- 41 strands of 36 AWG (41/36)
According to the principle we just discussed, the second formula will almost always result in the better (and more expensive) cable.
To improve performance even further, some manufacturers add a tin coating over each strand, which makes them easier to solder, and adds longevity by preventing oxidation.
The downside of the tin coating is that it causes a phenomenon known as “skin-effect“, which concentrates high-frequencies of the signal toward the outer surface of the conductor, potentially altering the frequency response of the signal.
This is why other manufacturers prefer silver instead, which is more immune to this effect.
4. Are Gold-Plated Connectors Really the Best?
A commonly held belief among guitar players is that gold-plated connectors are somehow superior to nickel or silver.
But the truth is, gold is only better because it’s less-corrosive, and lasts longer without tarnishing. Which gives the cable a longer lifespan.
In terms of tone and conductivity however, the differences are virtually none.
5. Shielding the Guitar Cable from Environmental Noise
Because guitar cables are unbalanced, they don’t have the same noise cancellation features as balanced microphone cables.
So they are vulnerable to interference from radio frequencies, and magnetic fields from nearby equipment.
To block this interference, 3 types of shields can be used:
- Braided – which is the most expensive, but offers maximum strength, and excellent from both EMI and RFI.
- Serve – which is less expensive, but offers even better flexibility, while still providing adequate shielding.
- Foil – which is the cheapest, the least durable, and offers the least protection compared to the other two.
NOTE: A common claim among many high-end cables is that their shielding protects against ground-loop hum. But the truth is that they simply don’t. At least not to a significant degree.
However, they really don’t need to. Because you can minimize ground-loop hum for free, simply by following these 2 tips:
- Avoid running the cable parallel to extension cords and other AC power cables.
- Avoid coiling up your excess cable length and storing it next to your amp.
And that’s it. Moving on…
6. Shielding the Cable From Movement Noise
One of the most common complaints with cheap guitar cables is the annoying crackling sound you hear, anytime they’re moved or stepped on.
This happens because of the static electricity generated when friction occurs between the insulation and copper shield.
To solve this problem, some manufacturers add an electrostatic shield between the two to discharge static build-up.
The 2 materials used for this sort of shield are:
- Dacron – which is a special kind of “noise-reducing tape”.
- Conductive PVC – which is the newer technology becoming more popular recently years.
Compared to dacron, C-PVC is thinner, more flexible, and offers the better conductivity. It also offers coverage at a consistent thickness with minimal friction.
Occasionially you’ll find guitar cables using braided copper shields instead, although it seems they are less-effective above 10kHz.
7. How Capacitance Affects Sound Quality
Whenever two materials carrying a current (conductor/shield) are separated by an electrical barrier (the insulation), a capacitor is created.
With guitar cables, the value of the capacitor (capacitance) should be as low as possible for two reasons:
- Better high frequency response
- Less triboelectric noise, which is the “slapping” sound that occurs whenever a cable is stepped-on or struck.
To measure capacitance, a rating known as the dielectric constant is used, which assigns the lowest numbers to materials offering the lowest capacitance.
- Polyethylene – which comes from the thermoplastic family of insulation materials, has a dielectric constant of 2.3.
- Rubber – which comes from the thermoset family, has a dielectric constant of 6.5.
Polyethylene is becoming increasingly popular for cable insulation because they outperform thermosets in almost every way…and they’re cheaper as well.
Fortunately, these materials are now cost-efficient enough to use even with budget cables, so it’s mostly a non-issue.
However…certain high-end cables feature special polymers with even lower capacitances, for ultra-premium performance.
So Here are the Guitar Tables We Recommend…
By this point in the article, you literally know more about guitar cables than 99.9% of players ever will.
And you certainly know more than enough to make an educated purchase entirely on your own.
However, to make things even easier for you, I’d now like to show you our list of recommended cables in the budget, mid-range, and premium price points. Here we go…
Recommended Budget Guitar Cables
So I guess it seems pricier guitar cables do in fact have their advantages…correct?
Yet despite this fact, the majority of people reading this post will still want the cheapest reliable cable they can find.
And normally that means spending around $20 max.
So if that’s what you want, here are the top models I recommend:
- Hosa GTR2 –
- Amazon Basics – (Amazon)
- GLS Audio Instrument Cable – (Amazon)
- NewBee Guiar Cable – (Amazon)
- The sssnake – (Thomann)
Recommended Mid-Range Guitar Cables
If you’re willing to spend a little more (which I highly suggest)…
The next price-point we’ll cover is mid-range cables from $20-$50.
For the majority of the guitar-playing world…these are the cables I recommend because they offer the best overall combination of performance, durability, and affordability.
In the long-run it will actually be cheaper to buy a cable in this price range because it will almost certainly last much longer than a comparable budget guitar cable.
And it will probably spare you some frustrating moments as well. Because if you’ve ever had a cable go bad, you know how difficult it can be to even diagnose the problem.
So here are the top models I recommend:
- Mogami MCP – (Amazon)
- D’Addario American Stage – (Amazon/Thomann)
- Monster Prolink Classic – (Amazon/Thomann)
- Ernie Ball Coiled – (Amazon/Thomann)
The Top Premium Guitar Cables
While super-high-end cables certainly do have their advantages…
Guitar players (who aren’t rich) can almost always agree that the minimal jumps in performance simply aren’t worth the massive jumps in price.
However, if you’re lucky enough to be able to afford whatever you want…or you just really really want the best…
You may find that spending $50 or more on a single cable is totally worth it.
In which case, here are the models I recommend you check out:
- Mogami Gold
- Mogami Platinum
- Pro Co Evolution – (10ft/20ft)
- Monster Cable Studio Pro – (Amazon/Thomann)
- Analysis Plus Yellow – (Amazon)
- Analysis Plus Black – (Amazon)
- Vovox Sonorus Protect – (Thomann)
Ever Thought of Building Your Own Guitar Cables?
While you might not be willing to pay $100 for a guitar cable, wouldn’t you still want the cable if you could get it for way cheaper?
Well you can, if you learn how to assemble a custom cable yourself. And many players do.
Personally though, I don’t recommend it, and here’s why:
The most guitar players might have only have 1 or 2 cables TOTAL. If they used dozens, I could understand the benefit of building your own.
However, considering the time it takes to:
- find the parts
- order them
- wait for them
- find the right tools
- watch and study the techniques
- practice them
- and finally build your cable…
The amount of money you save to build one cable probably won’t be worth all that extra labor.
Yet, many people still do it anyway. So if you’re still interested in learning how, here’s a cool video that explains the process in full detail. Check it out:
More Guitar Posts in This Series:
Electric Guitar | Acoustic Guitar | Bass Guitar | Amps | Pedals | Cables | Pickups | Bass Strings | Bass Amps | Bass Pickups | Classical Guitars | Acoustic Pickups | Direct Boxes | Cases | Picks | Slides | Straps | Tuners | Stands | Strings | Capos | Tabs | Guitar Accessories