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Tone Tip: Guitar Cords

Dave Hunter | 09.10.2008

No, not Gm7—that’s chord.  I’m talking sans “h,” that long, black, and too often faulty umbilical cord between guitar and amp. Otherwise known

 as a cable or lead. It’s a rather simple subject, you say? Just plug it in and hope it works? Ah, not so fast, my friend. Stop to consider that that thin stranded wire carries all of your precious tone to whatever’s going to broadcast it to the masses—however high and mighty the gear at either end of it—and compound that with the fact that a great many guitarists are gigging and recording with cords in need of attention, or immediate replacement, and suddenly we’ve got an impending catastrophe to head off here.

Firstly, just as with any piece of music or audio equipment, there are superlative cords; great cords; satisfactory cords; and cheap, nasty, awful,  and totally garbage cords. Your own choice within this realm will have a lot to do with your budget, of course, while also being tempered by your ear and your tonal tastes, but however shallow of pocket and thin of wallet you might be, steer clear of the cheap and nasty. You will, to some extent, know them by their price tag: if it’s the cheapest cord in the cheapest guitar store (or cell phone outlet) in town, you probably don’t want it. Which is not to say there aren’t some bargains out there. But if you have a chance to plug in el-cheapo, if it’s a cord of 20-ft long or less and still dulls your sound noticeably when compared to a short 6-ft cord plugged straight in, or if it’s so microphonic that you can easily induce an audible “thunk” in the amp just by tapping the cord or slapping it onto the floor, you don’t want it. If you have to sell your grandma (or even just rent her out for a while), you should at the very least acquire and hold onto a satisfactory cord.

Beyond that point, while you can spend a lot of money on audiophile-grade cables with mind-boggling specs and impressive write ups, four out of five guitarists will probably get as much service as they’re ever going to want out of a great cord, rather than a superlative cord. Here’s why: while many of the genuine high-end, audiophile-grade guitar cords available out there—and I’m talking your $100-for-12ft or so cords—do indeed let a lot more tone down the pipe, for some guitarists it’s just too much tone. We’re not used to hearing the highest highs and the lowest lows, all that fidelity messes up our amp and effects settings, and ultimately it just sounds harsh to us. That’s all there is to it. In many cases, maybe we should readjust our settings and our style and adapt to the fact that cords such as these allow us to hear the big picture. Often, though, it’s just easier, and more familiar, to stick with the ever-so-slight tone suckiness of the great cord. For rest assured, all very good cords, once you start using them in lengths beyond a few feet, will deplete your signal just a wee bit. In some cases we hear this as “warmth,” “smoothness,” or some other adjective with a positive tonal spin, and we like it. Fine. Get your cable lengths to extremes, however, and the impedance created by all that wire can really start to dull out your tone (see my earlier Tone Tips “True Bypass and the Buffer Zone” for more on this subject). Even with great cords, you need to consider your lengths and connections, and if you need to drive long cable lengths for your stage show, consider doing so from the output end of a buffered pedal or preamp.


So how do you find the great cord? Check for low microphony, sturdy plugs, a look—and more often than not, a name—of quality, and a lack of noticeable tone sucking from reasonable lengths. In short, all those things that, in the negative, reveal the cheap and nasty cord.

But you’ve got the great cord, or even the superlative cord, you say? Even if you took the plunge and invested on a couple of them three years ago, chances are they don’t sound as crystal clear to you now as they did in the first few weeks after you started using them. Is it your amp? Your tubes? Your guitar, strings, ears? Probably not. Hey, you need to clean the plugs on those cords! This one comes to us from Pete Cornish, U.K.-based pedalboard builder to the stars, whose NASA-grade rigs sit on stages under the feet of Jimmy Page, David Gilmour, Lou Reed, and numerous others. “Clean the plugs and free the tone,” Pete once told me, and it has become a mantra of his. Over time and use, a thin layer of tarnish builds up on the shafts and tips of those plugs, and that metal wants to be clean to allow an unimpeded flow of electrons from plug to jack, or vice-versa.  Every couple of months give them a squirt of good contact cleaner such as DeOxit or NoFlash, apply a little elbow grease with a soft, lint-free cloth, and get back to business. The improvement should open your eyes.

Before signing off, here’s one more tidbit. It will sound like science fiction to you, but it’s really just science: guitar cords are directional. That means they very often sound a little better when plugged in one way around than the other. That’s not coming from me, but from late, great amp guru Ken Fischer. Ken was a senior engineer at Ampeg for many years, and is best known as the man behind the ultra-rare and highly collectible hand-built Trainwreck amps. To assuage my disbelief, Ken pointed out that most wire, including the type used in the stranded wire—the “positive” or “hot” lead—within your guitar cord is extruded, which means it is produced by “squirting” hot metal out of a machine through a hole of the desired gauge, to put it crudely. As such, it flows directionally during the manufacturing process, and that directionality also proves to be the quickest path for electrons to follow when it is cooled, spun, and manufactured into a guitar cord. Traditionally, quality audio cable has the writing on its outer insulation printed in the direction of its flow. I’m not going to assume, however, that the manufacturer of the average guitar cord had any idea, or paid attention to, the direction in which their bulk wire supplies were extruded. (To those who do, I apologize. No offense intended.)

What do you do? As Ken said, “Try it both ways, listen carefully, and see which sounds best to you.” Immediately after he passed this info along to me a few years back I checked it out with the half a dozen quality guitar cords I had on hand of 12ft to 20ft in length, and you know, there was a discernible improvement in four out of the six when used one way verses the other. Try it with your own cords and see what you find. Be sure to clean the plugs first, although if they’re cheap and nasty to start with you’re probably flogging a dead horse.

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