Useful Stuff to Know » article » How Guitar Cables Affect Tone » Jun 10, 08:48 PM

How Guitar Cables Affect Tone

If you’re thinking of buying an expensive guitar cable for better tone, READ THIS ARTICLE FIRST!

Guitar cables play a surprisingly large role in your guitar tone. It can move your tone toward one or the other extremes:

A) muffled, dull, lifeless, muddy, honkey, quackey

B) thin, brittle, ice-picky, shrill, compressed

These are the cable factors that contribute to either tone:

Towards (A): longer, coiled, higher capacitance, lower conductivity — generally the cheaper cables.

Towards (B): straight, short, expensive, lower capacitance, higher conductivity — generally the expensive cables.

Now depending on whether your guitar is already too bright or too dull, you can pick the appropriate cable and achieve either of the following:

Right amount of (A) – fuller, warmer, smoother, punchier

Right amount of (B) – clearer, sharper, brighter, more open

So why the difference between cables? Mostly it has to do with cable capacitance. Between the inner and outer conductors of the cable there is insulation, and the combo 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, between a “half cocked whah” sound and “piercing presence” sound. Above that peak, the spectrum drops off. So it’s not just sucking the treble, but it’s also boosting different parts of the mids.

The greater the capacitance in your cable, which comes with it being coiled and/or longer and/or cheaper made, the lower the resonant frequency and the greater/sharper the peak.

Thus if your guitar is too bright, using a longer/cheaper/coiled cable can bring out more mids while taming the highs, leading to a punchier and less brittle tone. That’s why the more expensive cables like Mogami, Monster, PlanetWaves Instrument Pro, etc… aren’t always a good choice, since compared to your current cable they could make your tone more brittle and compressed.

There are guitarists who want to sound like the 70s rock legends (Jimi Hendrix) and employ the same long coiled guitar cables to get that smooth middy Hendrix sound. Sometimes these cables are quite expensive if they’re expressly made for that purpose. But you don’t really need such cables.

Let’s say you already have a Mogami or Planet Waves cable that’s a bit too bright and brittle sounding… how do you replicate adding a longer / coiled cable? You simply add a small capacitor across your pickup output wires (ground and hot). It should be a ceramic cap in the 220 pF to 470 pF range. That will tame a brittle sound. You can go higher (1 nF = 1000 pF or more) if you are going for a 70s tone.

Some may ask, why not use your tone pot? Well it’s because adjusting your tone control raises or lowers the height of the resonance peak, NOT its frequency. So you won’t get that punchy mid-boost from rolling down the highs with a tone pot, as you would from adding a capacitor across your pickup or using a longer/coiled/cheaper cable. You would get more or less of the resonant peaking that the tone pot capacitor already determines.

The advantage of adding a separate capacitor is that now you can use the more expensive cables that are inherently more durable. There’s no sense in getting a cheap cable to get a tone if it’ll start crackling and going out in less than a year.

Keep in mind the above only applies to the cable between your guitar, if it has passive pickups, and the first thing it plugs into. The cables after that don’t matter because active pedals are like buffers that keep the cable capacitance from affecting the resonance peak of the tone. Thus for live use, one might see a guitarist use a 10-20 foot coiled cable into a pedal board, which then runs out through a 50 foot cable to the amp head. Only the 10-20 foot coiled cable in this example affects the guitar tone, not really the 50 foot one after the pedal board. So with the capacitor mod above, you can use just a 10 foot high quality cable and still get the same tone as using a 20 foot coiled one for instance.

For further explanations and diagrams, see this informative article: