Playing the guitar isn’t usually a cheap hobby. If you can save a bit of money here and there then it is likely you will try and do so, but though there are some areas that it won’t make a difference, some items shouldn’t be bought on the cheap.
The price difference between the cheapest and most expensive guitar cables is huge. Do you need to get an expensive cable or will a cheap one do the job well? What is the difference between the designs and why is there such a disparity in the cost?
We ran a series of tests over the course of a year and whilst there is often a significant difference in terms of build quality and durability, in terms of sound quality, the difference in sound between a $40 cable and a $5 cable was negligible.
There are a lot of other aspects to consider besides just the price, and in this guide, we walk you through some of the basics of guitar cables, what you can expect and how to choose a rough price range that suits your guitar setup. It isn’t always the best idea to just spend a fortune on a cable, and it certainly isn’t a good idea to scrimp, but there are other factors to consider when making your choice rather than just the price.
Does Cost Always Equal Quality?
This is something to cover before we go into the different factors that make up a high-quality guitar cable.
No guitar product has an exact correlation between the price and the quality. There are always “bargains” to be had, and you can also overpay for things if you aren’t careful. To say that a $25 guitar cable is always going to be better than a $15 cable is not necessarily true.
While the price is a useful indicator (usually, more expensive models will have used slightly more pricey materials) it is not the only indicator, so it is important to do a little research beyond just going for pricier models.
How Does a Guitar Cable Work?
A guitar cable has a relatively simple job. Carrying the audio signal from your guitar to your amplifier (or sometimes to audio interfaces or other inputs).
The design of a guitar cable is usually very similar. Some manufacturers and brands add their own flavor and new technology, but generally speaking, there are five parts to a cable:
The Center Conductor – This is tasked with carrying the audio signal once it has been converted to an electrical signal.
Insulation – This is to protect the current and keep it within the central conductor, isolated from other parts which could interfere with the audio and cause loss of signal.
Electrostatic Shield – The electrostatic shield is designed to prevent (or at least reduce) noise when the guitar cable is touched or comes into contact with someone.
Copper Shield – This is a braided length of copper which is designed to block outside sources from impacting upon the sound, such as “crosstalk” from other nearby cables.
The Outer “Jacket” – This is what we see. The casing that keeps all the components together and makes it look neat and tidy.
Naturally, ¼ inch jacks on either end complete the design of a guitar cable. These jacks should be high-quality, and affixed in a way that means there is no play or movement in the cable end. This is a recipe for disaster as it can lead to the cable cutting out due to a loose connection.
You’re likely to come across the term “capacitance” a lot when you are choosing guitar cables, and low-capacitance models tend to cost more. What is this phenomenon and why does it matter?
When two materials are carrying a current, with an electrical barrier separating them (in this case, the insulation) you will get a capacitor.
This has a value to it, the “capacitance” and this should be lower in order to achieve better results for the guitar sound. Low-capacitance provides you with a stronger response to high-frequencies. It also minimizes the noise that you might get when a cable is accidentally stepped on or comes into contact with something.
The “dielectric constant” is a rating that can provide numbers related to capacitance and allow you to work out which cable is the best. Different materials have different ratings. The lower, the better for your guitar cable.
Polyethylene has a rating of 2.3 whereas rubber has a rating of 6.5. It is easy to see why polyethylene is popular. It is also relatively low-cost. The budget guitar cables that do a good job normally use polyethylene.
Other Considerations for Sound Quality
There is a lot more to think about when it comes to choosing the right guitar cables. Here is a quick run-through of some of the other things that will impact the price, but also, more importantly, the sound.
Balanced or Unbalanced
No, this has nothing to do with a cable falling over. An unbalanced cable is a cheaper alternative due to a less complicated design, but balanced cables have a more intricate design to help the electrical signal.
Balanced cables carry the electrical signal along three wires, positive and negative as well as the ground. They are opposite in polarity. Any noise that is picked up will be out of phase with itself and “canceled out” for a cleaner sound overall.
However, bear in mind that the benefits of balanced cables will only be realized if you have a balanced output. Most guitars are unbalanced and so using a balanced cable is pointless. If you want more detail on this topic check out this article I wrote recently on this very topic.
Length of Cable
The longest guitar cables are usually around 25 ft. The longer a cable is, the more opportunity for noise to get picked up. The signal-to-noise ratio is often very bad when it reaches the end of the cable and goes into your amplifier.
In general, shorter cables are better for clean and clear sound. You will pay significantly more for a longer cable as you will be using far more of the materials that are costly in production. A $15 short cable might be significantly better than a $30 long cable. Another example of cost not always meaning higher quality.
Conductors are one of the most-discussed aspects of guitar cables. The materials used for the conductor make a difference. Some people use “oxygen-free copper” and “linear crystal copper” in order to help with the manufacturing of a guitar cable. These are more pure forms of copper and it seems to most that the signal is cleaner and clearer when using better quality.
Conductors also come in a couple of different designs.
Solid conductors are easy to solder and cheaper to make, but they lack a little bit of strength and can’t cope well with being bent and flexed. Stranded conductors are made in a different way, which means more expensive but stronger cables.
When browsing for cables you will see some higher end cables which are gold plated but why is this?
Gold plating is often used because it is a very durable metal that is resistant to corrosion. Other metals such as silver, for example, corrode much faster. This corrosion can cause connection issues and will eventually mean the connection no longer works. Gold is very resistant to corrosion and so should last pretty much forever.
In terms of tone, there is little to no evidence that gold plating makes a difference here. If a company claims it does that is probably a sneaky marketing ploy.
The gold makes the cable look cool and when considering cables, it is another feature of higher end options which mean they will last a lot longer, potentially a lifetime, without needing to be replaced.
One final thing which will factor into the price of your cable is the connector type. There are a few you are likely to come across.
Standard straight connection
Likely to be the cheapest option is the standard straight connection type as shown below
On many guitars, the jack input can be on the side of the instrument’s body. For that a straight connection type at the guitar end is more vulnerable to damage from flailing limbs, or when you put the guitar down.
An angled connection at one end reduces this risk and sits nice and flush against the guitar.
It is worth bearing in mind that this is not the case for every guitar. For some guitars such as the famous Fender Stratacastor the connection is in a place on the guitar, in this case on the front, which make the angled type connection more difficult to connect. This might actually cause you more problems, and so for guitars like the Fender a standard straight connection i probably the better option.
These connection types usually push the price up but only by a few dollars, but if your guitar has the input on the side, I think they are well worth it to avoid accidental damage.
At the high end of the cable spectrum are silent connectors. This patented technology from Neutrik automatically mutes the guitar cable as it is being plugged in to avoid those annoying pops and horrible feedback noises you get when you unplug an instrument with the amp on.
If you are playing a lot of live gigs and you need to switch guitars often between songs then the silent connectors are worth a try for the extra money.
Matching the Guitar to the Cable
We wanted to put a quick footnote in this article about the occasions when finding the “best” cable might not be essential.
There are a couple of scenarios that are common, but don’t make a lot of sense.
- People using expensive, top-of-the-line cables with average guitars and poor amps. If you are only spending $100 on a beginner guitar set for your kids, you don’t need a $50 cable – the tone you will create doesn’t justify this quality of cable.
- People using amazing guitars and amplifiers with cheap, flimsy cables. If you have spent a good amount of money on equipment, don’t risk losing any sound quality with a cheap cable.
Think about where you will be using the cable and whether it will be involved in recording or live performances.
The Test – Expensive vs Cheap
To test if all this theory translates into real results in terms of quality I tested an expensive instrument cable by Mogami (The Mogami Gold) which cost $40!
Against a cheap $10 cable made by Planet Waves over the course of a year to see if I could tell the difference.
I’d read many conflicted stories around the difference a high end cable can make sonically. Some sound engineers swear there is no difference between most cables providing they meet a certain minimum standard for design and build quality. But some guitarists claim they can tell the difference and love the tone of their higher end cables.
So I ran a series of tests with a few different instruments and a few different amp and speaker combinations to see if I could notice a difference.
I really wanted the expensive Mogami cable to sound better, but I really couldn’t tell the difference at all in any of my tests.
I pulled up a frequency spectrum graph in the DAW too and played the same notes at the same volume and the graph looked identical. No sign of different tone in the highs or mids that I had read on some forums.
There was also no noticeable difference in terms of noise interference. Both were pretty much silent and any background noise was simply the usual noise from the amp which was consistent for both cables.
The Mogami cables look and feel great. They are sturdy, thick and just feel well made. They feel like you could gig with them for a lifetime and they would never let you down.
Every time I get out the Mogami cable it just feels high end and it makes me feel great, even if the sound difference is negligible. There is something to be said about this feeling in music, yes maybe it is the placebo effect to a point but if you are using high end guitars and amps then spending a little extra for a really nice cable just feels good.
I’ve not tested the Mogami cable over a long time (I’ve only had it a year). But I get the feeling it could last forever. I’m used to getting through quite a lot of cables, particularly when playing live. A connection will come loose or something. But the sturdy nature of these cables just gives me confidence that won’t happen as often.
I will also treat the cable with more respect as I paid a lot more for it. I think that is an important factor that seems to ring true with everything I own in the home studio. I consciously seem to take better care of more expensive stuff.
Another benefit of many high end cables is that they come with a lifetime guarantee.
Building a Cable – Is it Worth It?
If you are useful with a soldering iron then it can be a good idea to build your own. This really depends on your own skills and whether you have the time or patience. However, for those who are good with electronics, building a cable is actually pretty simple.
You can buy lengths of cable and solder the jacks on yourself. You need a few different tools, and for one or two it might not be worthwhile, but if you are going to make a lot of them, and don’t have to buy a lot of tools and materials to get started, it could be the case that it works out cheaper to take the “DIY approach”.
You can buy Mogami cabling without the connectors for a fraction of the price of a complete cable and then add some quality connectors with a soldering iron and you are good to go. I would thoroughly recommend this method and it is common throughout the music production world.
If you do want to make your own, there are some great tutorials out there, including one from Guitar.com.
From the sound test alone we really couldn’t tell that much difference between a cheaper cable and one of the high end cables. But I will still advocate owning at least one high end cable in your home studio.
The build quality jut feels so much better, and it really feels like the cable is going to last forever. Before I bought my Mogami cable, cables didn’t mean anything to me, I used to break them, lose them etc. But now I take care of it, and whenever I plug it in to record it feels great.
Sometimes in music the benefits of certain equipment are easier to explain than others. But all I know is I will be using my Mogami cable for years to come.