All you ever wanted to know about guitar cables (but were afraid to ask)

Recently, guitar entered the mysterious and magical world of audiophiles. The kind of world where you can buy carbon turntables for 30 000 pounds (yes), anti seismic isolation racks, or cables for 14 000 pounds! Of course, all these expensive devices highly improve the purity and detail of the sound, and finally allow you to listen to mp3 like you should! (Irony inside) Do you recognize the phenomenon? Yes, this is the same thing with guitar, the quest for "THE sound", with expensive guitar pedal effects and cables! Fulltone, George L's, Evidence Audio, Monster Cables... A lot of new "luxury" cable brands! Is there really a difference? What are the characteristics of a "good" cable? How much should it cost?

First, lets demolish some myths about guitar cables together.


Guitar cables myths and legends

1. Gold-plated jack
This first legend around cables comes from the fact that gold is often use in high quality conductors (computers, HiFi...etc), because the conductivity of gold is better than a lot of other metals, and because gold does not corrode. So we would expect an optimal transfer between the jack and the jack input of your amp, guitar pedal...etc. However, 99.999% of effect, amps or guitars have nickel-plated jack inputs! Therefore, the conduction value will be the one of the lowest conductor, that is to say nickel. Moreover, the conduction value of gold compared to nickel is not that much different.
What is more is that gold is a soft metal, the plating quickly wears off the jack when you plug / unplug it a lot. So the gold plating will not corrode (neither will nickel plating anyway, unless you wait for many many many years...), but will goes off the jack! Unless you have a massive gold jack plug (sell your house if you want a pedalboard with those ^^)

gold plated jack vs silver nickel
Here, we can clearly see that only the tip of the jack is gold-plated
Moreover, in most cases the plating is not pure gold
(and surely not for this 0,7 Euros Chinese jack plug)
  
2. The cable itself is special
Almost every cable that you can buy comes from big suppliers that are always the same: Sommer, Mogami, Belden... Recreating a cable would be too expensive for a manufacturer. Almost every cables manufacturers use Sommer, Cordial...etc, and most of the cables you will find in the shops are rebranded cables. That does not mean that they are bad cables, it just mean that you should not have to pay more for a cable because the shielding is supposed to be unique and specific to one brand. However, there are exceptions. For instance, George L's has a specific cable production.
 
3. This cable has more low end / mids / respects the whole guitar spectrum
The only things that can be degraded in your cables are the trebles. Indeed, as we will see later, cables behave like a capacitor, with a small capacitance in picofarads.
Or, this capacitor acts in the RLC circuit formed by your pickups, resistors (internal resistance of the pickup, volume and tone pots), and will eliminate trebles.
The formula to calculate the total capacitance of the cable is:
    Total capacitance = capacitance /meter * total cable length
So, the higher the capacitance of your cable is (so the longer it is), the more you will loose trebles! However, this only acts on treble (it behaves a bit like a low pass filter), so there will be absolutely no influence on the low end / mids!

Fulltone cable lies

Screen capture of Fulltone website. They openly say that cables modify low end and mediums (and that their cables are the best of course) This is clearly all about marketing, and also a lie.



What is a good cable then?

Here is the anatomy of a guitar cable: (picture is Sommer Tricone XXL that I used for my post: how to make guitar cables step by step tutorial)
Guitar cable structure  

You can see that the shielding and the central conductor are separated by 2 insulation layers. One layer prevents the accumulation of electrostatic charges that can happen when the shield rubs the insulation layer. The insulation layer isolates the ground shielding from the copper conductor. These two layers form a capacitor between the ground and signal:

 guitar cable composition
The capacitance value of this capacitor depends on the nature of the cable and its length: materials used for the insulation, diameter and thickness of these materials, diameter of the conductor...etc. The problem is that there are many trade off between these parameters: a very good insulating material can be very stiff and thus makes the cable not very flexible, the conductor can have a big diameter but then the cable will be more fragile...

This capacitor will act on the RLC circuit constituted by the guitar pickup, its internal resistance (plus the resistance of the volume and tone pot). That will change the frequency response of your guitar, mostly by eliminating trebles. The more the capacitance value is high, the more you will loose the highest part of your guitar spectrum. Some people actually like to use high capacitance value to eliminate high frequencies and boost a bit the high mids (typically people using Stratocaster guitars). This is a strategy I would not recommend because the trebles are definitely lost, whereas it is possible to modulate the frequencies with an EQ, boost, or your tone pot that here for a reason right?

Cable capacitance trebles loss guitar
Differences between a high capacitance (600pF-pointed by the arrow) and low capacitance cable. The high capacitance cable boosts a bit the high mids, but your loose a lot of trebles (from Effectrode)

The formula to calculate total capacitance of a cable (quoted above) shows that total capacitance also depends on the length of the cable. A cable twice as long as another one has a doubled capacitance.

The characteristics of a good cable are thus simple:
  • A low capacitance per meter. Generally speaking, 80 pF/meter (24.4 pF/foot) is considered to be a very good value. Below that, it is of course even better!
  • Shortest length possible! It depends of course of your mobility on stage. The shorter the better.
  • Rugged against shocks, twisting, stepping, everything that can happen to a cable during a gig... However this is not really necessary for your patch cables on your pedalboard. A very flexible cable will be much more fitted for this use.

Finally, you do not need so much to have a good cable! What about good jack plugs? Their role will be mainly to be rugged. Take resistant ones. For instance, Amphenol or Neutrik jack plugs are a good standard and will perfectly do the job. Remember: you do not need gold!

A lot of brands do not say what is the capacitance per meter value of their cables, even if it is the most important value (the only one?) to look at when you want a good cable! If it is not written somewhere on their website, they are probably not a serious cable brand... Buying a cable without knowing this value would be like buying a sport car without knowing its engine, performances or handling!


What is the best signal chain?

In theory, the best configuration would be:
  • active pickups, then as many cable as you want!
Indeed, active pickups have a low impedance output, so the effect of the cable capacitance will be negligible. It is like having a buffer built in your guitar!
However, the guitarist is very conservative and does not like to use batteries in his guitar (myself included). Moreover, some guitar effects do not react well to a low impedance signal (fuzz faces for instance) You will have to use passive pickups with high impedance output, whose signal might be degraded by the cables. You will have to minimize the treble loss between the lead cable and your fuzz, then from the fuzz to the first buffered pedal. The ideal configuration would then be:

  • Passive pickups, shortest cable possible with a low capacitance, fuzz, short cable with a low capacitance, then buffered pedal, and as much cable as you want
The best is to have a cable called the "lead cable", with a low capacitance, and short as much as possible, that links your guitar to your first high impedance effect. 
Best signal chain guitar cables
So the best is to find a resistant low capacitance cable that will be used between your guitar and high impedance effects. To know if an effect needs high impedance to sound great, you have different options. You can look on the datasheet of the effect (usually, manufacturers give it). If it is under 500k lets say, it is a high impedance effect. You can also try to put a buffered pedal before it and try to hear if it makes any differences. If there is no audible difference, you can consider it a low impedance effect.


But then, what is the best guitar cable?


Here is a table with the capacitance per meter (or per foot) of many guitar cables that you will find on the market.
Cable name Capacitance
Sommer Spirit LLX 52 pF/m / 15.9 pF/ft
Van Damme Silver Series Lo-Cap 55 pF/m / 16.8 pF/ft
George L's .155 / .225 67 pF/m / 20.4 pF/ft
Klotz AC110 70 pF/m / 21.3 pF/ft
Mogami 3368 70 pF/m / 21.3 pF/ft
Sommer Classique 78 pF/m / 23.8 pF/ft
Sommer Spirit 78 pF/m / 23.8 pF/ft
Cordial CGK 122 82 pF/m / 25 pF/ft
Sommer Tricone MKII / XXL 85 pF/m / 25.9 pF/ft
Cordial CGK175 88 pF/m / 26.8 pF/ft
Van Damme Silver Series Flat-Cap 90 pF/m / 27.4 pF/ft
Adam Hall KIK122 95 pF/m / 29 pF/ft
Klotz AC106 95 pF/m / 29 pF/ft
Klotz AC104 115 pF/m / 35.8 pF/ft
Sommer Colonel Incredible 130 pF/m / 39.6 pF/ft
Mogami 2524 130 pF/m / 39.6 pF/ft
Belden 9778 148 pF/m / 45.1 pF/ft
Free The Tone CU-416 160 pF/m / 48.8 pF/ft
Belden 8412 190 pF/m / 57.9 pF/ft
You can already notice that there is no link between the prices and the capacitance of the cables... (cf Free the Tone...)

For the lead cable & cables before the first buffered pedal

With the chart above, we can see that the cable with the best characteristics is the Sommer Spirit LLX. Sommer conceived this cable especially for guitar. It has an incredibly low capacitance per meter, combined with a good resistance, and a good flexibility. However, it is still quite thick, so it might not be the best cable for a pedalboard. It is a bit more expensive than other cables, but it is reasonably priced (around 2,5 euros / meter).
George L's .155 cable is really thin and flexible, and has a good capacitance per meter value, ideal for pedalboard use. However, it is quite expensive (around 6 euros per meter). As patch cables are short anyway, the difference with another cable like Sommer Tricone MKII might not be perceptible. The Tricone MKII is also incredibly flexible.

For pedalboard patches, after a buffer or a buffered pedal.
Now that capacitance does not matter anymore, you can pick whatever cable you want. For me, I chose the Sommer Tricone MKII that is really flexible, thin and quite cheap (less than 1 euro / meter). In this case, only the flexibility of the cable will be important, in order to be able to make short and aesthetic patch cables.

For the effect loop - using a double cable
When you use the effect loop of your amp, your setup can start to be a bit messy, as it requires already 4 cables to handle: lead cable towards your pedalboard, output of the pedalboard to the amp, and the 2 cables of the effect loop! To avoid such a mess, I use a double cable, the Sommer Onyx 2025. For the effect loop, you do not need low capacitances because the impedance is already low. Thus, you will have one cable instead of two, which is much cleaner looking.

My final advice would be: do not trust brand marketing, check the numbers (measure them if you want to! Science, bitch!), ask for the capacitance per meter/foot, and make the cables yourself!
No cable should cost more than 20 euros if you make it yourself!

Good news is: I made a step by step tutorial about how to make guitar cables.

There it is! I hope this post was useful. If you liked this article, thank me by liking the Coda Effects Facebook page!
Any questions? Suggestions? Disagreement? Post a comment!



To go further

Shootout Cables UK : great website with a lot of informations about cables.
Very good guide (pdf) with a lot of answered questions about cables from ProCo sounds.
Ovnilab.com : great article about frequency response of guitar cables.

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9 Comment
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i have a big problem with Sommer spirit llx

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loss volume, and power. I buyed in Thomman per metre. I use neutriks plugs, silver soldering, but the problem persist.
i need help, thanks

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what's your problem with it?? i think pick one. =(

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This is probably a false contact with your soldering. Check that your connections are perfect (no contact between tip and sleeve of the jack)

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Weird, Sommer Spirit LLX are the best cable you can use for guitar lead cable... Might be a false contact somewhere!

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What plugs do you use to terminate the Onyx? I just got some and they are really thin. I'm not sure if regular Neutriks are going to work.

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Amphenol ACPM-GN are perfect for the Sommer Onyx cable!

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Really good information. Also, I use the Evidence Audio cables (lyric hd and monorail for the pedalboard). I thing that they sound gorgeous. Expensive but really good. How can I check the capacitance of the moronail cable (1metre)?

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The Evidence Audio "Lyric HG" has 38 pF/ft

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