THIS IS YOUR LIFELINE.
Your umbilical cord. Your main vein. Well, you get the picture. Call it a lead, a cord, or a cable, whatever— that sheathed, shielded wire is a vital link in the tone chain. However marvelous and expensive your guitar, amp, and pedals, none of it will sound very good with a poorly made cable carrying your signal from one to the other, and the quality of these long, thin accessories can vary dramatically. A good cable doesn’t have to cost a whole lot of money, but the better ones often do cost a little more. Buying a brand-name cable usually helps, ideally one with a guarantee.
LENGTH MATTERS , BUT FOR THE WORSE.
Any connecting cable will add some capacitance and inductive loading to your guitar’s signal; the longer the cable, the more it adds. A little might not be audible, but a lot—the amount that can be introduced by cables of around 20 feet or more—can start to dull your tone slightly. Add to this length the factor of poor quality, and you will very likely hear some loss of high end and a muting of overall tone when comparing a long, cheap cable to a shorter one of a higher quality.
THERE’S GOOD, BUT IS THERE TOO GOOD?
A decent cable of traditional technology can cost twice or more than a generic cable, but there are also plenty of hightech “audiophile” cables on the market today, which can easily cost you $100 or more for one cord of a mere 12 to 18 feet. A/B one of these alongside a traditional cord and many players will hear crisper highs and greater fidelity over most of the frequency spectrum. It’s an improvement for some, but for others it comes across as harshness and coldness—too much of a good thing—so better isn’t always best. Audition before you buy, and let your ears decide.
AND SOMETIMES WORSE IS EVEN BETTER.
Taking the thinking expressed in #3 a step further, some players even opt for vintage or inferior guitar cables because of the way they “warm-up” a guitar or an amp that is otherwise too bright and spiky. Stevie Ray Vaughan was said to have pursued this route in order to emulate aspects of Jimi Hendrix's tone, and the gray Radio Shack cord is a favorite in this realm, as is the old spring-loaded coiled cable. For many contemporary players this trick will just dull down their tone (you can bet plenty of greats of the ’50s and ’60s would have used better cables were they available), but it’s one to keep in mind if you need to tame harsh highs.
THE LITTLE LINKS COUNT TOO.
Or, you’re only as strong as the weakest link in the chain. If you’ve got the best cable money can buy running from guitar to pedalboard and pedalboard to amp, but are using cheapo generic patch cords to link all the pedals together, you are wasting your money on the good stuff in the first place because those little links will sap your signal before it completes its journey. If you find highquality guitar cables worth the investment, don’t forget to treat your pedals to some little lengths of the good stuff too.