Once you settle all that, what’s next? Whether you call it a lead, a cord, or a cable, that shielded wire that links your guitar to your amp—and your music to your audience—is a vital link in your tone chain. All things considered, you may never think much about it, but it’s as integral to your sound as your other gear.
Over the years, I’ve had guitarists tell me all they need is a cheap, knock-off model guitar to sound good—that all their tone comes from their hands. I’ve heard others say you’ve got to have top-notch gear to sound great. These are both valid schools of thought. I’ve also seen guys struggle onstage using haphazard, jerry-rigged, MacGyver-style setups. I’ve watched them kick crackling cables and shake connections to keep a signal running to their amp. Somehow, I can’t get behind that as an effective option.
If you’re the type of player who believes in having top-of-the line gear, it won’t really matter how spectacular and expensive your guitar, amp, and pedals are if it all travels from one end to the other through poorly made, subpar connections. A good cable doesn’t have to cost a whole lot of money, but the better ones do cost a little more. Buying a brand-name cable—ideally one with a guarantee—usually helps. I’ve purchased cables that had lifetime guarantees, and that’s quite a declaration for a cord. Of course I lost them or left them at a gig long before they ever had a chance to go bad, so who knows? Maybe someone is still using them today.
When buying a guitar cable, size does matter. Cables will always add some capacitance and a load to your guitar’s signal. The longer the cable, the more it adds. A little might not be too bad, but a lot can completely screw up the tone you’ve worked so hard to achieve. Most standard guitar cables are about 18’ long. Which makes sense, as my web research reveals that cable lengths of 20’ can begin to dull your tone.
And that’s even with a quality cable. Use an inferior cord, and you’ll more than likely start to hear some high-end loss in your rig. Your guitar may sound dull or muted, and undoubtedly you’ll start to pick up noise. I used to run a thin 40’ foot cable to my pedalboard and back through a multi-pin snake. It was a quick and easy setup, but ultimately I was playing music through 80’ of bad signal path. I was blown away at the amount of punch and high end I gained back when I changed my rig around and no longer ran signal out to the pedals. It made a gigantic difference.
On the flip side, if you have too much bright spikiness in your sound, or if you just want to mellow it out for a vintage tone, you may want to try a more old-school approach and dig out what I’ve always called a “curly cord.” They were very popular in the ’60s and ’70s. Hendrix used one, and so did many of the top artists of the day. You can see these curled cords (Pro Co Lifelines are one brand/make that’s been around for a long time) being used on reruns of the old Midnight Special TV variety show. I’m pretty sure that the guitar greats of that era would have used better cables if they were available, but this was the technology of the day, and it inadvertently helped shape their sounds.
Retro to the Max: Vox is one of several companies offering coiled guitar cables, which are making a comeback after being ignored for decades.
A respectable cable can cost a bit more than a generic one. I’m not recommending that you go out and spend $150 on an 18’ guitar cord (yes, they are out there). A true audiophile may argue with me, but personally I don’t hear $120 worth of difference between one of those high-dollar connectors and a decent standard one. You may want to go to your local music store to A/B them yourself. After all, Eric Johnson says different cables and even different types of batteries in his stompboxes change his sound, and you might find you agree with him.
The patch cables that hook all your pedals together should be given the same consideration as the cord that hangs from your guitar. Even if you’ve got the best cables money can buy running from your guitar to your pedalboard and from there to your amp, the audio will still have to travel through the dinky signal path between effects. My guitar tech goes crazy over this stuff. He makes sure that every cable is of good quality, and he will even shorten patch cables so the signal doesn’t travel even one gratuitous millimeter more than necessary between pedals.
Next time you plug in, take a look at the umbilical cord that’s the lifeline to your music, and make sure you’re hooked up right!
Rich Eckhardt is a Nashville guitarist who has performed with singers ranging from Steven Tyler to Shania Twain. He currently plays lead guitar for Toby Keith, and also works as a spokesperson for the Soles4Souls charity (soles4souls.org). His latest album, Cottage City Firehouse, is available at richeckhardt.com and CDBaby.com.