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.
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 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 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).
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.
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!
- Backup Guitar