Choosing the Right Cable

There is a way to fine tune your tone that often gets overlooked but can really help put some icing on your tonal cake: your guitar cord.
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There is a way to fine tune your tone that often gets overlooked but can really help put some icing on your tonal cake: your guitar cord. I used to think a cable should simply get the signal from point A to point B as transparently as possible. After all, it’s just a utility piece of gear with a small function, right? Boy, is that not the case. As a matter of fact, the wrong cable can remove the “magic feel” from your rig and really murk your tone.

In the simplest of terms, your cable is like a tone control, but a very complicated tone control. “Capacitance” is the term used to describe what lets the upper frequencies roll off to ground and warm up the tone. A cable actually has something called “distributed capacitance.” There is the center conductor that carries the signal and the outer shield or ground. These are separated by the dielectric, and that keeps the two from shorting out. Manufactures have used all kinds of combinations to optimize the tone and reliability of cables. In cables, the separation is never perfect. The fact that the capacitance takes place over a length of material rather than in a singular component makes it “distributed.” Because of that, a component such as a capacitor can never exactly duplicate the sound of a cable, but I will talk about some ways to get close.

When my friend and electronics master Kirkwood Rough of Upstairs Amps in San Francisco was at the NAMM Show a couple of years back, he took his meter with him and measured the capacitance of all the cables he could get his hands on. Elixir had the lowest capacitance, under 10pF per foot. This may not make for the “best” sound, but knowing what a cable does may help you determine when and how to use it.

What can you do with all this info? First, if you have the opportunity, try different cables and notice what you may or may not like about them. Here are some numbers to work with and some experiments: Kirkwood’s measurements came up with a range of 10pF to 100pF per foot. Add that up to a 20-foot cable and you get 200pF to 2000pF or more. Again, the effect of a long cable tone compared to a capacitor tone will be different but worth trying. The idea is to put the capacitor between the hot signal and ground. A switch can be used to kick it in and out, or it can be wired permanently. You can also have one for each pickup, but be aware that they will add up when both pickups are on.

Here is a great tip: On any guitar with more than one tone control, wire it up so one has a traditional value and the other has a very small value that you can add as desired. The main tone control can be a normal .01-.05μF. For the second one, I would start off with anything between 3000pF and 6800pF. While it is actually a tone control, it ends up sounding like different pickups. I put a 6800pF on my Telecaster and my Strat. When I turn it down it sounds like I put in a set of fatter pickups. Here’s another reason this mod is cool: Cables don’t affect active pickups, because of the low-impedance output of the preamp. But this type of tone control mod can be very usable in an active setup.

It is also good to note that the input impedance of your amp or pedals will change the way all this works as well. Finally, don’t be shy about using the cheapest, crappiest cable you can find. It may not last but you could have a few seconds of fantastic tone!

Gary Brawer is bald, he’s bad, and he gives a sh*t about your guitar. His many clients include Joe Satriani, Metallica, and Neal Schon.