This article gives you nine invaluable tips for buying, using, and caring for guitar cables. Cables (aka leads) are an essential bit of gear for electric guitar, bass, and keyboard. Getting the right one for you and keeping it in good shape is important for every musician playing and amplified instrument. There’s a 10th bonus tip at the end.
1. You need one, and you need it with you
If you play electric guitar or any other instrument that must be plugged into an amp, you need a) to own a cable and b) to have it with you whenever you go to play somewhere. It is part of your basic kit. It is embarrassing for everyone if you turn up to play somewhere without one. Don’t assume there’ll be a spare for you to borrow. It is your responsibility!
2. Have a spare
Having at least two is a great idea so you have a spare in case one breaks. And they do break.
3. You get what you pay for – but only up to a point.
You need a cable that has strong connectors firmly attached and with excellent strain relief. That 60cm-long, thin wire the guitar shop gave you for free? It’s rubbish. Get yourself something reliable and useful. That $200 gold-plated European thing the shop wants to sell you? It’s a waste of money and won’t do any of the things claimed: it will work fine but is no better than something much cheaper. In Australia, as a rough guide, a robust, high-quality cable will cost you about $50 – $80, depending on brand, where you buy it, and how long it is.
4. Not too long, not too short.
Avoid very long cables. The longer a guitar cable is, the less clear your tone is likely to be, related to something called capacitance. Very long is almost never necessary, it means a heavier cable, more risk of tangling, tripping, and can make your guitar sound worse. However, a very short cable, say less than 3 metres is not practical. Less than one metre is just silly – don’t embarrass yourself. Patch leads are for connecting things like effects pedals together, not connecting your guitar into an amp.
5. Famous guitar or amp brand doesn’t equal a good cable.
In the guitar world, as elsewhere, you often pay a premium for a famous brand name. Low-quality cables with the brand name of a big guitar manufacturer stuck on them are still low-quality. You just pay a lot more for the cool brand name. Similarly, pretty doesn’t equal durable either. Just because a cable has a nice tweed look or something doesn’t mean it will last long. That is true in general when it comes to guitar gear. Even the best manufacturers can sometimes ‘drop the ball’.
6. Straight or right-angle?
The jacks (connectors on the ends) of cables can be straight or right-angled. They can have the same type at both ends, or straight one end and right-angled the other end.
Usually it is best if the end that goes into the amp is straight. Right-angled jacks fit some guitars better while straight jacks are better or others. If your guitar or bass has a recessed output, then a straight jack will be better for you.
7. So, what are some reputable brands?
Most commercial brands make different ranges of cable in different qualities. Avoid the cheapest ones but don’t over-pay for an unnecessary gold-plated thing either. There are some well-respected makers of the components that go into quality guitar cables. These companies may sell their own branded cables, or other commercial and custom makers may use their components to build durable cables. Some of the best-respected are:
Cables: KLOTZ, MOGAMI, and CANARE. Jacks (connectors): NEUTRIK and SWITHCRAFT.
8. Not every cable is for guitar
There are several different types of cable/lead that look like guitar leads, but are not, such as speaker cables and unshielded cables. Speaker cable or some other type of unshielded cable will result in noise and unclear or indistinct sound. You are most likely to encounter cables designed for connecting an amplifier head to a speaker cabinet. These look like guitar leads but are usually quite short and often (but not always) much thicker than a proper guitar lead. Also, don’t use a guitar lead to connect an amp head and speaker cab, that can cause damage. Using a patch cable as a guitar lead won’t damage anything but your dignity.
9. Take care of your cable
- Pull it out of the guitar and amp by the jack (the connector), not the cable.
- If it is the type where the jack can be unscrewed, check that it is firm every time you use it.
- Avoid crushing it by rolling heavy speaker cabs over it, for instance
- Roll it up when you store it. There are YouTube videos that can show you how to do that.
- Extreme bending can be cool on a guitar string, but is bad for cables so don’t do it.
- Take care of the jack if you put your guitar or bass down while it is plugged in.
10. BONUS TIP! Don’t ever put gaffer tape on a guitar cable.
Aka ‘duct tape’. Just don’t, it only ends in sticky disappointment.
Hopefully this very rough guide gives you some help. Don’t spend a fortune and don’t skimp. Guitar cables have a hard life: they are twisted, stepped-on, ripped out, dropped, crushed, may have things spilt on them, have things roll over them, are sweated-on, and more. It doesn’t matter how great your guitar and amp are, if your lead fails, you have nothing.