The Complete Buyers Guide to Guitar and Bass Cables
Instrument cables are the most underrated part of any rig. While guitars and basses, amps, pedals, and speaker cabinets get all of the glory, they’d be expensive paperweights without instrument cables.
At their very core, any cable is an extension of your instrument’s circuitry. They’re intended to take your signal all the way to your amp with as little quality and signal loss as possible.
At best it should sound like your guitar or bass is hardwired directly to your amps’ input jacks. Without the obvious awkwardness and advanced yoga positions that would be required. At worst it can introduce a lot of noise and microphonics, and a ton of quality loss.
For this very reason you’ll see studios paying for higher quality cables, and punishing interns for carelessly wrapping the cables around their arms like it’s your dad’s orange extension cord. (don’t do that!).
For your own personal setup, a high quality cable is something you should consider. If you saved up your money to buy that sick guitar, several quality stomp boxes, and an amp to run everything through, why would you skimp on the least expensive part of your setup?
Even “expensive” cables will still cost less than pretty much every other part of your guitar or bass rig. But cheap cables can absolutely kill your tone. And that’s not just something audiophiles and audio nerds can hear (like the specific battery brand in a pedal ala Eric Johnson).
So what makes a good instrument cable good and a bad instrument cable bad? For something so simple, there’s a surprising amount of details that go into them.
Anatomy Of An Instrument Cable
Instrument cables go by many names. Guitar cable, bass cable, instrument cable, and “cords” (a term I loathe). They’re all generally the same thing. For instance, the same cable I’d use for my guitar could be used for my bass, or to connect pedals on my pedal board. There are different reasons you’d use something for pedals as opposed to instruments, but the overall anatomy of the cable will be the same.
If you were to cut your instrument cable in half, you’d see something like this:
The middle wire bunch is the stranded copper core. This is the “hot” or “lead” or “conductor” wire in the cable. It’s made up of several wrapped strands of copper wire in the 32-40 AWG thickness range. This sends the signal. It runs from the Tips of the connectors. It’s wrapped in a layer of a PVC material (the clear one) to insulate the lead wire.
The thickness and of the insulator wire will impact how flexible the cable is. And the material will also impact the impedance of the cable based on the dielectric constant. Most insulators today are a thermoplastic material with low dielectric constants.
The next layer is a rubber sub shielding layer (the black one) called an electrostatic shield. The entire purpose of this is to discharge any static electricity cause by friction between the shielding and the core wire insulator. If this wasn’t here, any static could cause microphonics in the cable.
Next up is the shielding. The shielding can be braided or wrapped like the image above. It’s also made up of an oxygen free copper wiring just like the core. The shielding is my typical indicator of the quality of the cable. The better the shielding (i.e. the more shielding wire there is) the better quality the cable typically is.
Lastly you have the outer jacket. The materials will vary by manufacturer. The higher quality jackets will have better flexibility and durability.
The last part of a cable I didn’t mention (yet!) is the connectors. These are called TS (Tip-Sleeve) connectors. You might see or hear them referred to as 1/4“ connectors. This is true, but TRS (Tip-Ring-Sleeve) connectors are also 1/4“ connectors.
Stranded Core vs Solid Core
Most instrument cables have Stranded Core conductor wiring. This is what’s in the image above.
If you’ve ever seen the 90s classic The Three Ninjas, you’ll know that three strands are better than one. And it’s no different in the case of instrument cables. They carry a current well and they’re highly flexible. Solid core wires are cheaper to manufacture, but are stiff and more likely to break. Which is why they’re not used very often.
Different Cable Shielding
The two main shielding types are wrapped shielding and braided shielding. Wrapped shielding is a bunch of cables that are wrapped around the electrostatic shield like striped on a barber pole. The more wraps there are, the higher the quality of the cable. Few wraps can lead to breakage and potentially a weaker signal.
Braided shielding is literally braided around the electrostatic shield instead of wrapped. This creates a very strong shielding. It’s more expensive to manufacture, so the cost of the cables will be higher.
Instrument Cables vs Speaker Cables
If you look at both a guitar or bass cable and a speaker cable, you might not see a difference. They’re both unbalanced cables with 1/4” connectors. The difference is on the inside.
You can see that a speaker cable has two isolated wires running instead of a conductor and shielding like an instrument cable. This enables the cable to handle higher currents like you’d need to take a high wattage amplifier to a speaker cabinet.
You shouldn’t ever use one in place of the others. Instrument cables are meant to handle a very small signal. Like the low output from a guitar or bass.
The shielding on an instrument cable is meant to protect the cable from outside interference. Speaker cables don’t have (and don’t need) this shielding. Using a speaker cable in place of a guitar cable would likely cause a lot of noise.
Speaker cables are built to handle a much higher current, like from an amp to a speaker cabinet. Because of the current running through the cable you couldn’t use an instrument cable. It might seem to work at first, but you’re risking literally melting the cable and possibly damaging your equipment.
Balanced vs Unbalanced Cables vs Speaker Cables
A balanced audio signal contains three wires: two leg wires and a ground. Both legs can be considered lead wires, but the signal runs through them at opposite polarities. The opposite polarity basically phases out any noise that makes its way into the signal.
For this reason you can have balanced cables with pretty long runs. The most common balanced cables you’ll see are XLR cables, used for microphones and snakes. A second type of balanced cable you’ll often see are TRS cables. They function identically, but have a different plug for different applications.
Instrument cables however, are unbalanced cables. This makes them more susceptible to noise, especially at longer lengths. The shielding does a pretty good job to protect the cable from this outside noise but still has its limits. There’s debate about how short a cable should be to protect the integrity of the signal. But almost everyone agrees that 20-25′ should be the absolute max.
Instrument Cables vs Patch Cables
Since instrument cables are unbalanced, low current cables, what do you think the difference is between instrument cables and patch cables for your pedal board?
And that’s it. Whether you’re using a cable for your guitar, pedal board, or patch bay, you’re still using a TS cable. The real change is in the functional design of the cable.
Patch cables for your pedal board typically come with 90 degree connectors so your pedals can sit much closer to each other. Patch cables made specifically for pedal board usage won’t get much longer than 6”. You’ll see instrument cables start at 1’ in length though. I’ve had some of these and used them for my pedals before they were mounted on a pedal board.
Guitar And Bass Cable Connectors
The connectors are where the lead and ground wires are physically joined. Traditionally this is achieved with rosin core solder. One part of the cable we didn’t talk about is technically part of the connector. It’s called a strain relief.
The strain relief protects the joint where the cable meets the connector. Solder makes a pretty strong connection, but at such a high stress spot it’s better to have extra support. On cheaper cables this will be a thicker piece of rubber. On higher quality cables it will be plastic or part of the connector itself.
Common connectors are straight and 90 degree connectors. 90 degree connectors have extra strain relief as a natural byproduct of its design. These are great for plugging into your guitar or bass, but don’t typically work well going into your amp.
They’re awesome for pedal boards though. They allow for maximum space maximizing as you can get your pedals right up to each other. Flat, or “pancake” connectors that put your pedals even closer together. The pancake cables tend to have an inherent weak point because of their thinness. I personally haven’t had great luck with them, but some musicians swear by them.
One step above that are guitar pedal couplers. They bypass the cable altogether. These will typically last longer since there aren’t any points where they move.
Your run of the mill connector’s Tip and Sleeve will be nickel, silver, or gold plated. These are durable and conductive metals that do well in this application. You wont find much variance here, so let’s move onto the housing.
The two main housing types are a multi piece metal enclosure and a molded plastic enclosure.
The multi piece connectors will have the Tip-Sleeve assembly that comes apart for the purpose of soldering. This allows you to repair or modify if needed. There’s a strain relief built in that will either screw into the assembly or is clamped down by the assembly.
The second type is a molded plastic connector assembly.
As you can see, the entire cable and connector is fixed. There is no repairing capability with these cables. The benefit is that they’re cheap to make and subsequently cheaper to buy. If you get a quality cable and take care of it, you’ll get several years out of it. If something does happen you have to buy a new cable, or at least new connectors.
Other Connectors In The Music World
TRS, or Tip-Ring-Sleeve, connectors look like TS connectors, with one more ring. This is used by headphones, both in 1/4″ and 1/8” applications.
XLR cables are used mostly for microphones. They lock in place so they’re a good connector for that use. Powered speakers will typically have XLR inputs as well, since they’re not carrying a ton of current.
If you’ve ever set up a Super Nintendo or have an older stereo you know these. They’ll come in pairs or triplets depending on the application. I have a record player that uses 2 RCA outs for a stero signal. I had to use adapters to get it to my studio speakers since nothing else I have used RCA.
SpeakON connectors function identically to 1/4″ speaker cable connectors (the wires are the same). SpeakOn connectors mechanically lock into the device (like a speaker or amp) so they’re preferred over the 1/4″ TS connector by many musicians.
Banana Plugs are typically used to connect speaker wires without a terminated end. You’ll see this on power amps most of the time.
Are Gold Plated Plugs Better Than Steel?
While there has been heavy debate over the years, there is no clear audio or conductive difference between gold, nickel, or silver. The big benefit of Gold (besides juicy marketing campaigns) is that gold is way less corrosive than basically any other metal.
I live in a humid climate and have never had a cable corrode. I’ve been using the same cables with nickel plated connectors for many years without issue. I wrap my cables correctly with a Roadie Wrap (my preferred method) and try not to abuse my cables. But other than that I don’t do anything else to care for them. Take that information and use it how you want.
What Are The Best Instrument Cable Brands?
20 years ago that would have been much easier to answer. Today you have a ton of options for high quality cables. In no particular order, here are a few of the most popular cable manufacturers.
Mogami is a high end cable manufacturer. If you want the clearest, truest tone then these are the cables for you. This particular cable has a straight and 90 degree connector, which is my preferred configuration for a guitar or bass cable. The really great thing is the Neutrik silentPLUG on the 90 degree connector. It allows you to unplug from your guitar or bass without muting. Truly awesome and revolutionary.
Planet Waves is a great inexpensive option. They’re moderately priced and pretty durable. This specific one has a circuit breaker to quietly unplug without turning your amp off.
The big deal with George L’s (named after George Lynch) is that the cable kits are solderless. That means pretty much anyone can make their own cables.
Sinasoid used silver in their connectors. This is pretty uncommon, since silver is an expensive material. Purists will say that silver has the best conductive properties. No matter how you feel about that, you can be confident knowing that all of their cables are hand made.
(they also have a 100 year warranty you can pass on to your grand kids)
Canare is another high end cable manufacturer I have a lot of experience with. I’ve been using their raw materials to build cables for years. Fun fact, my first “business” was making instrument cables using Canare raw cable and selling them on Craigslist to get through college. This one in particular has the Neutrik silentPLUG connector. I can’t stress enough how much of a game changer this is.
Monster Cables used to be the king cables among musicians. You could walk into any Guitar Center and see an entire wall of them. If memory serves, Monster had an exclusive deal with Guitar Center. I’m not sure if that exclusive deal, and the resulting decay of GC, is what made Monster fade out, or if there was just more competition that dethroned them.
While they’re still available, they’re a little hard to come by.
The only solid core conductor cable on this list. Solid core conductors provide the best signal, but are less durable than wrapped core conductors. That’s remedied with a braided cloth wrap and solid strain reliefs. Not satisfied, they also use a braided shielding.
I don’t see enough cables with cloth jackets anymore. Besides looking great (especially in tweed!) they provide extra durability over standard rubber outer shells. GLS is a great budget brand and you get a lot more than you pay for.
This EBS patch cable is a great example of a “pancake” connector. The right angle of the connector provides durability in addition to a snug fit on your pedal board.
ProCo instrument cables are the original budget brand for guitar players and bass players. They’re sturdy and are great when you need to buy a few at a time.
I think every musician has a Hosa something floating around. Connectors, adapters, or cheap cables. You get what you pay for here. While I have had Hosa cables in the past, I tend to use them for adapters.