Instrument Cables and Tone

If you simply take a look at any random music gear forum on the World Wide Web you will undoubtedly run across this very polarizing question; do cables affect tone? If you want the short and simple answer – and read the entire article before you scream at me all you naysayers – then yes, yes it does. Is it a noticeable change in tone? Well, that’s a different question altogether because in order for a cable to notably change one’s tone, it depends on a few things. Capacitance, for one, is very important. How the cable matches up to the pickups on your guitar is another. For those of you rolling your eyes thinking that I’m simply trying to get you guys out there to buy expensive cables for no good reason – simply grab a coiled cable made in the sixties like the ones used by Jimi Hendrix and compare it to using any of today’s. Oh, they still exist, only they’re pretty damn expensive, but just to fill you in on the answer: there’s a big difference.


Factors Affecting Tone

Contrary to what you might hear from your average Joe Forum guitarist, cables do in fact play a significant role in one’s tone. The reason why so many out there believe that they are essentially all the same is simply 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 fiddles 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 the rest of us who take tone crafting serious, cables matter.

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. Well, I hesitate to use cheap, what you actually should be aiming for is a good quality cable that has the traits of the “cheap” cable that you are looking for, such as higher capacitance and lower conductivity. Anyways, 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.


Capacitance and 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.

But here comes another set of problems – you want certain traits of the “cheap” cable in order to tame your tone but you don’t want to deal with a shoddy product that’s probably going to break on you after less than a year. Or maybe you already spent some serious coin on the top of the line from Mogami or Monster. Well, the answer should be obvious if you’ve been paying attention; you’re going to have to change that tone on your pickups and I don’t mean reaching for that tone knob (which only raises or lowers the height of the resonance peak and not its frequency). The best way to do is this is by adding a small capacitor across the ground and lead wires of both of your pickups. If this sounds like something you might consider, try and buy something in the 220 pF to 470 pF range and make sure it’s ceramic. This technique will tame a brittle and overly bright sound. Now you can take advantage of the superior build, quality and brand recognition of the elite cables without them chocking your tone – best of both worlds!

2 thoughts on “Instrument Cables and Tone”

  •  azemar

    whats the best cables for my Roland Fantom G 8 keyboard using it live going into the 180 watt roland 15in keyboard amp?

  •  Beauregard

    Good,concise article. Now I know why I bought a "good" cable & couldn't use it w/my guitar. The price range on cables is large. I'm building a home studio & thought I'd spend the $'s on equipment & upgrade the cables later. A tech told me just the opposite,buy good cables 1st &
    upgrade the equipment later. Any advice from anyone.- Thanks JB

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