Ultimate Guitar Guide: Cables

A beginner's guide to cables: how to use them, where to place them, care tips and advice.

Ultimate Guitar
What goes between your guitar and your amplifier? Cables, of course. Those little wires with rubber tubing, shielding, copper wiring... gold plated end plugs? The options are endless. Where to begin?

First off, cables are designed to carry your sound from the pickups on your guitar to the input of each effect, onwards to your amplifier. Traditionally, nickel or gold plating is used on the end plugs, the inner wiring is made of copper, which is then wrapped in a protective plastic layer, with a grounding cable, and then covered up in a rubber tube.

Guitar Cables

When buying for a guitar cable, always make sure there is a good rubber sleeve for tension resistance. This prevents the cable being torn out of the end socket when accidentally tugged against. Some cables have better protection than others. If you're careful, you'd be able to get away without any end sleeves necessary to protect against your cable being pulled out of the end socket, but you're probably better off spending a few extra dollars, just in case.

When buying guitar cables, normal straight end plugs are fine, but if your guitar has a flush mount output jack, or the jack is on the side of the guitar, you may want to consider having the cable ends look like this (pic #1).

The one right angled end pin is meant to fit into the guitar, without it sticking out, ideal for sitting while playing down.

An ideal length for a guitar cable is approximately 10 feet. Remember, when 1/4" cables run for any more than 30 feet, noise in the cable and signal degradation begins to occur.

Patch Cables

Patch cables are, traditionally, used to carry signals from your effects to your amplifier. They do not require end sleeves for tension resistance, as they are not usually moved around while in use. A good effect-to-effect cable has two right-angled plugs, and is approximately six inches long. This allows for two effects to be as close together as possible, with a cable that is not being squished or twisted to allow the effects to be close together, like this (pic #2).

For longer distances, such as connecting an amplifier head to a cabinet, or a mixer to a P.A. system, standard cables will do just fine. Try to keep the distance to a minimum. Before you go into the store to buy your cables, measure out the maximum distance that the two objects will ever have to be away from each other, and then buy an appropriate cable length. Remember to leave a small amount of slack in the cable so it is not being pulled taught, and this represents a major tripping hazard onstage. You don't want to fall down while performing a big solo.

Microphone Cables

Microphone cables are different than standard 1/4" plugs. These guitar cables can go on for approximately 300 feet before signal degradation occurs. This is because of the wiring dynamics of the cable, which has three independent wires, which can be seen in the in or out plugs of an XLR cable.

When buying microphone cables, especially adaptors to combine two signals, make sure you have the proper amount of male and female connecters. Male connecters are the type that have the endpins that go into the receiving female connecter. Yep, just like in real life. If you buy two female plugs into one male plug instead of the opposite, you'll have to go back to the music store to exchange it. It's not just inconvenient, but you don't want to find out on the night of a big gig that you accidentally bought the wrong cable.

Here is an example of a male and female connecter. The male connecter is in the foreground, and the female connecter in the background (pic #3).

On Stage

When on stage, refrain from moving cables around when in use. This causes "handling noise", or scientifically, triboelectric interference. Keep all cables tied up together, and it would be wise to use pieces of duct tape to tape them to the ground so they don't move around too much. Try to keep cable length to no more than 30 feet from guitar to amplifier, or amplifier to mixer, or mixer to P.A. cabinets. Signal degradation can occur before the 30 foot mark, so don't go overboard.

When using speaker cables with excess length, make sure you coil up the cables and keep them tied with an elastic. If you hear radio interference coming from the cables, simply coil them in the opposite direction. It's a very real possibility that radio signals can be picked up by coiled up speaker cables.

Keep all cables a safe distance from your performers, so that they don't get stepped on harshly and damaged, and so they don't get tripped over. The end pins can be especially susceptible to damage, so ensure they are safe.

Try not to stretch cables to get them to fit into a socket. Always move the equipment closer, so that your cable isn't being stretched to its limits just to deliver the sound. Solder can be damaged, wires frayed - anything. You're better safe than sorry.

Always keep at least one spare cable of each kind handy when performing. You never know what could happen. Also, a cable joiner would be good to have also - a small device that allows two cables to be joined together to create one longer cable. Although signal degradation can occur, sometimes a longer cable is simply necessary.

In Conclusion

Some good cable companies include Planet Waves, Yorkville, Fender and Monster Cable. Planet Waves cables are considered to be the best, but are expensive. I personally use Yorkville cables, as they are relatively inexpensive, and have a simple layout, to ease repair and to keep too many things from going wrong where they cannot be reached. Your local music store probably has a deal with a manufacturer to market its own brand of cables, too, so check out the brands available and prices. The rule of thumb is "You get what you pay for", but don't take that as absolute law. Sometimes they're terribly overpriced, sometimes they are mass-produced and therefore cost less.

Always store you cables free of pinching, to prevent the copper wiring from being damaged. Never expose them to water or other chemicals which may damage them. Cables can last a long time if you care for them properly, so don't take them for granted.

Thanks for reading my article, and I hope anything you've learned will serve you well!

Peace Out
- Backup Guitar

41 comments sorted by best / new / date

    Nice article i have 2 nice grey fender leads and they work wonders. I personally recommend fender, it's been thrown around and still in perfect condition
    pink?y pink?i jus got a normal black one-no idea wot it called but hey,it does the job
    great article! remember: good-quality cables are best, gold-plated, end-marked are best...ahem PLANET WAVES! great job dude.
    Personally I play with LiveWire... mainly because it's what was recommended by my dealer when I bought my guitar. They've got a life time warrenty (which is always nice) and are extremely durable.
    awsome article !!! LEARNED A LOT PS this is the only guy on the internet who knows how to write articles
    does this sound sexual to anyone else? haha read it again and think sexually; makes it cooler. good one though
    Backup Guitar
    this is the only guy on the internet who knows how to write articles
    I'll be signing autographs later. Wow, sexual innuendo has invaded guitar playing! I never thought I'd see the day. :rolleyes:
    say i've been wondering about what would happen if two differet brands are connected together into the sound system..i mean they have the same rules of physics but different metals, like copper or gold plated...I have to also wonder of why costs are extremely vital for such performance. WHY? WHY?
    Backup Guitar
    Two different materials don't make a difference. With gold plated stuff, you're basically getting "quality", because gold is a more pure conductor than nickel is. You don't have to pay a *lot* for good performance. Some cables are just ridiculously overpriced. btw, planet waves is now coming out with a more affordable line of cables.
    power freak
    A few points need to be added IMO. Firstly the cables you buy must have low capacitence per foot. This keeps your top end in tact while keeping long cable runs. Thicker cables usually help this. Its not nessecairly the length that starts degradation. The end materials matter alot. A plated gold end will generally sound better and clearer due to its properties as an element. ALso as gold is very unreactive it doesn't tarnish easily so it will last a long time. The solid core material also plays a part in the cable. Copper has bee used for years, and is an average conductor with medium capacitance. Althogh many Audiophiles prefer silver due to its more transparent response on a wide frequency range.
    a regular cable from my guitar to my effects for each effect to another one those small little cables and from the last effect to the amp? another 1/4" cable?
    hehehe..... it IS funnier when you think sexually... but its better normally. Great job! i have a right angle on my SG so i dont snap it off.... but i figured that out my self
    i'll remember this also NEVER leave your cable ends on the floor when unplugged, as this will leave them prone to being trodden on (personal experience) i have a soundlabs or sumthin cable, it was cheap because it said cooper instead of copper on the cable
    KevinHallX: i'm a bass player, would you recommend getting bass cables? i heard it's not that necessary at an amateur level
    umm a 1/4" cable works 4 anything that needs it like guitar, bass, elec organ etc
    Almost Imfamous
    i hate cables...they are so ***ing annoying...the can destroy your amp ( if your cable is broken and you filddle with it it pops. that pop is extremly horrible for you amp)i would go wireless, but its expensive and probly has horrible downsides.also the mess... tangled cables...
    wow i didnt think anyone could talk so long about cables....pretty informative..good work....i have a pink fender cable :
    ideal for sitting while playing down. !?!?!?!??? do you mean playing while sitting down or is there something new that i havent heard of? its always good to have a read through before you post it.
    joyful womble
    you can make your own cables too, i have a homemade one and there's no noise off it at all
    I know of an amazing deal at guitar center: If you buy a monster cable and anything ever happens to it, you can trade it in for a new one
    Tom Martin
    id always say that its worth spending more money on an expensive cable thats gonna last you than to buy a cheap one... its better in the long run.
    "For longer distances, such as connecting an amplifier head to a cabinet, or a mixer to a P.A. system, standard cables will do just fine." i thought you were supposed to buy speaker cables to connect a head to a cab or P.A.'s to loudspeakers? can't using regular instrument cables cause damage?
    yeah, i was gonna say that too. NEVER use instrument cables from amp to cab, or mixer to p.a. You need speaker cable. The reasoning being the signal coming from a powerd source (such as an am) is way too large to travel through a 1/4 in instrument cable
    ALWAYS GOOD STUFF, than other defining what's selling out, what's on my chest, FIVE FROM ME !
    Geldof the Grey
    ^I think what he meant by standard cables was that you don't need the angle jacks or particualr metals as mentioned in other parts of the coulmn. I believe that since the signal is powered, it wouldn't make such a difference to the tone... The other possibility is that by "standard cables" he meant speaker cables. I don't know, I have never used cabs...
    Nice, i always buy cheap cables. over and over (The ones i buy are only 4.50), but they do gimme some of that tribo-something or other noise you were talking about
    i'm a bass player, would you recommend getting bass cables? i heard it's not that necessary at an amateur level
    Just one more time for the record... DO NOT USE INSTRUMENT CABLES BETWEEN YOUR HEAD AND YOUR CAB. Ahem. Sorry for shouting. This just has to be hammered home. Peace.