There are so many different cable types out there and they all have different functions. Some look wildly different from one another but some look remarkably similar and this can lead to a lot of confusion.
Do you NEED a certain cable type, or is one simply an upgrade from the other? Or worse, is it going to damage my expensive equipment if I use the wrong one?
One common question I get asked is “can you use a TRS cable (balanced cable) for guitar?” This is a very valid question as they look almost identical to a standard guitar cable (TS cable).
A TRS/ balanced cable will still work with your guitar. However, because a guitar has an unbalanced output you won’t get any of the benefits that these cables are designed to provide such as elimination of noise interference.
In this article I will go into a bit more depth on why this is the case, and why you shouldn’t waste your money on these often more expensive cables.
Audio Cable Basics
I think it is useful to quickly explain how an audio cable works before diving into anything more complicated.
If you know the basics then it is always a lot easier to understand why something does or doesn’t work, without just taking my word for it!
An audio cable is made up of a number of wires contained usually within a rubber outer casing.
All will have at least one core conductor wire which is made from a conductive metal such as copper. This will usually be surrounded by some sort of shielding which often also acts as the ground wire preventing electric shock and unwanted fires breaking out.
It’s Mostly About Reducing Noise Interference
Unwanted electrical noise is everywhere particularly in a home music studio.
Lights, wall sockets and any other electrical equipment produce a high-frequency sound, in the U.S.A this is at 60Hz (and harmonics thereof).
These annoying noises can get picked up by your audio cables, which you may be familiar with as a buzz or humming coming from an amp or speaker.
The shielding mentioned above is put in place to try and reduce any unwanted noise interference entering your cables, but it doesn’t do this perfectly.
To get around this, one solution is to use a balanced cable.
Unbalanced vs Balanced Audio Cables
Unbalanced cables are the basic type of cable I already mentioned. They have a single conductor wire and shielding which usually acts as the ground.
A balanced cable on the other hand adds an additional wire to the party.
This means you have two signal wires that wrap around one another. One is referred to as the ‘hot’ wire and the other is referred to as the ‘cold’ wire.
As you can see in my bad stick man drawing below. The two wires carry the same waveform but the cold wire produces the mirror image of the hot wire.
Any interference that enters the waveforms happens at the same time but because the waves are mirror images.
When the signals reach the ‘differential amplifier’ the cold signal is flipped.
The two waveforms are now identical but the interference ‘blips’ (shown as little triangles on the image) are now mirrored and so cancel each other out.
This means you hear the audio but without the hums or buzzes that entered the cable along its length.
TS vs TRS cables
TS (sometimes known as an unbalanced or standard guitar cable)
The typical guitar cable that you are probably familiar with is known as a TS cable. You can verify this by checking it only has one black band, like on the image above.
TS stands for ‘Tip Sleeve’. With the tip part being for the audio signal and the sleeve part being for the ground signal. These two parts are separated by a small black band which is an insulator ring.
These cables are unbalanced and mono.
TRS (sometimes known as a balanced or speaker cable)
You probably guessed now that TRS cables are balanced cables. The extra R stands for ring and that is the bit between the two rubber bands as shown in the image below.
The tip carries the hot signal and the ring carries the cold signal. Meaning it is capable of carrying a balanced signal using the method described above.
Are TRS Cables Stereo Cables?
A TRS cable is the same as a stereo cable.
However, if you want to us it for this purpose the signal will become unbalanced because the hot wire will carry one signal to one speaker and the cold wire will carry the signal to the other speaker.
Can You Use TRS cables for guitar?
Ok so after all that explaining we finally arrive at the answer to the question. Can you use a TRS cable for guitar?
Well the answer is yes you can. If you plug a TRS type lead into your guitar and then into an amp it should work just fine.
However, it is pointless!
Because a guitar outputs an unbalanced mono signal the balanced cable technology simply can not carry out its function.
TRS cables are usually more expensive than TS cables and so unless you find one lying around already, going out and buying one specifically for use with a guitar would simply be throwing money away!
Will TRS Cables Damage my Guitar or Amp?
Although a TRS cable will provide no extra function, you may be asking whether it will cause any damage or issues.
Well, it shouldn’t cause any damage. However, there is a chance in some amps or other devices you may have connection issues.
The corresponding parts of the cable jack must be touching the right parts within the socket. There is a good chance this will still happen, but there is a higher likelihood it may not and you may have some problems.
For that reason it is worth being cautious and just using a standard TS type cable when connecting any guitar or bass.
How To Reduce Noise Interference Without A TRS Cable
Now you know you can’t cancel out noise from a guitar amp using a balanced TRS cable for guitar, are there any other options to reduce those unwanted buzzing noises?
The first thing to point out is that the noises may not be coming from the cable. If the buzzing is there when nothing is plugged in, then the issue is probably to do with the electronics in the amp itself. A certain amount of buzz or hum is normal for an amp though so don’t worry too much.
If the noises start when the guitar is plugged in then there are a couple of options to try.
The first is to try and minimise the amount of electronical equipment you have around the amp. This is tricky to do but if you can disconnect any unused items this can help. Fluorecent lights can be a common culprit so try turning off a few lights (if it doesn’t leave you playing in the dark!)
The second option is to invest in some higher quality cables with better shielding. I am a big fan of the cables below which I find seem to be affected less by noise than many others I’ve tried over the years.
How Do I Know If A Connection Is Balanced Or Unbalanced?
All guitars and bass guitars have unbalanced connections.
Most guitar amplifiers are also unbalanced too because as they are designed to be connected to a guitar there is no need for them to be able to take a balanced signal.
The majority of monitor speakers, however, will take a balanced signal. This is important in the home studio because when you are monitoring your recordings you don’t want to be distracted by sounds that aren’t actually on the recording. You want as nice clean signal.
The photo below shows the back of my audio interface and here you can see there are a few different sockets. In this case they are labelled unbalanced and balanced so I have the option and know exactly what to expect.
If you’re device doesn’t have any labels, then refer to the manual or simply test the cables out and see what happens!
So there you have it. TRS cables will work with a guitar in most cases, but because they are a balanced cable, and a guitar has an unbalanced output they will make no difference to your sound.
If you have a spare TRS cable lying around then give it a go, it shouldn’t cause any damage. But if you don’t then save your money and stick to a standard TS cable.