Do cables affect tone? If you want the short answer-- yes, yes they do. Is it a noticeable change in tone? Well, that’s a different question altogether. In order for a cable to notably change one’s tone, it depends on a few things. Capacitance, for instance, is very important. How the cable matches up to the pickups on your guitar is another. The reason why so many out there believe that they are essentially all the same is most likley because they haven’t been exposed to enough variations or situations where the cables do in fact alter tone. If you’re simply a weekend rocker who plays here and there, any old cable will do you fine as long as it’s not dirt cheap (more so because they break easy) but for those who take tone crafting to a higher level, the type of cable being used matters.
Are Expensive Cables Better For My Tone?
Essentially, a cable can sway your guitar’s tone towards two extremes: on one end of the spectrum you can get a muffled, dull, lifeless and muddy sound. You will get this result with longer, coiled, higher capacitance and lower conductive cables – essentially the cheaper ones. On the other far end you can end up with something much more thin, brittle, shrill and compressed. This you will get from straight, short, lower capacitance and higher conductive cables — generally the more expensive ones. Both extremes don’t sound so hot, do they? Ideally, you’re going to want to aim for something in between meaning in some cases, it is actually probably a better idea to buy a “cheap” cable than an expensive one. I should stress now that when I say cheap, what I am actually referring to is a good quality cable that has the traits of the “cheap” one, such as higher capacitance and lower conductivity. The way you determine which type of cable traits might be good for you depends on the tone of your guitar’s pickups.
If your guitar’s tone happens to be too bright, the “cheaper” cable can give you a fuller, warmer, smoother and punchier sound. If your guitar’s tone is too dull, lifeless and muddy, buying a cheap cable is only going to make it worse. For a dull guitar tone, an “expensive” cable will yield a clearer, sharper, brighter and more open sound. On the other hand, if you’re guitar’s tone is bright and you use a cable with the traits of a generally more expensive variety, you’ll end up with something that sounds very too brittle and shrill – not a good time. Pretty much: if your tone’s too bright, you can tame it with a “cheap” cable; if your tone’s too dull, you can liven it up with an “expensive” one. Got it? Alright, now let’s explore how and why this happens.
What is Capacitance and How it Affects Tone
The biggest reason that cables affect tone has to do with its capacitance. Between the inner and outer conductors of the cable there is insulation and it is this precise combination of features that makes for a capacitor that is in parallel to your guitar pickups. The pickups themselves are inductors, and inductor in parallel with capacitor makes a resonant circuit that slopes up and peaks somewhere between 2 kHz and 5 kHz. As far as sound goes, imagine something between a “halfcocked wah” sound and “piercing presence” sound. Above that peak however, the spectrum drops off, so it’s not just sucking the treble but it’s also boosting different parts of the mids.
This means that the greater the capacitance in your cable – which is affected by things such as length, the shape (coiled versus straight) and the quality in the manufacturing – the lower the resonant frequency and the greater the peak. As far as your guitar’s tone goes, if it’s too bright, using a longer, cheaper and coiled cable can bring out the mids while calming the highs which will give you a much more balanced and punchier tone with much less shrill and brittleness. It is also in this situation where an expensive cable might not be the best choice since it can essentially take your already bright tone and make it too thin, too brittle and too compressed.
There you have it. While a certain guitar cable isn't going to make your Telecaster sound like a Les Paul any time soon, knowing the ins and outs of how each piece of gear affects your tone -- whether its drastic or not -- is key to mastering your craft.
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