When looking for the best guitar cable, there are many questions to ask. But typically, people first tend to ask "what is the best guitar cable". And from this point, they get lost in the options, pricing and specifications.
I wanted to break some of these areas down. By doing so, to help you understand some of the features and specifications and what they mean for you. So let's ask a few common questions...
Conductor gauge or AWG or American Wire Gauge. This is what carries your signal from your instrument to the next point of your signal chain. When we talk about pricing of cables - we're generally talking about the copper in the cable. The more copper and the better quality of copper can raise the price. A great gauge for the primary signal conductor is 20 AWG. By having a thicker conductor, you're increase the strength of that signal path. Over time, the cable bending and twisted many times, can cause a thinner gauge to break from fatigue.
Oxygen Free Bare Copper or OFBC is a smelting process of the copper (electrolytically refined). This is an extremely high quality copper. The higher quality copper will increase conductivity, and we all want that. Conductivity is the reason we hear our instrument. Again, like our conductor gauge, the OFBC will often bring in a larger price point compared to Bare Copper or BC.
Capacitance. You'll run into this term a lot. Capacitance, or cable capacitance, is when your signal degrades. This degradation is based on the diameter of the cable in relation to the conductor and length of the cable. Okay, that's complicated. Let me explain it this way. There is a copper "shield" protecting the inner conductor. I'll get into shielding next, but the closer the conductor is to the shield, the higher capacitance. The higher capacitance will result in muddy or darker tone and potential loss of volume. This is also in relation to the length of the cable. The longer the cable, the higher the capacitance.
A good guitar cable will want to have the perfect amount of capacitance in the desired length. For example, our Standard instrument cables are 20-25pF (picofarad) / foot. This is tested at 15' feet lengths. A 10' cable is probably 19-21pF, while a 20' cable is in the 22-27pF range. As we get longer, the pF increases.
Thin cables will either have tiny conductor or have higher capacitance. Our instrument cable is thick (.280" diameter) to maintain a strong conductor and have low capacitance.
Shielding. We touched on this above. Shielding is critical for a quality instrument cable. Shielding (or ground) is to "shield" the conductor from outside radio frequencies (RF). Outer signals are flying about the air. Our cable without a shield is an antenna and would pick up radio or other frequencies. Shielding will pick up those frequencies and send them to ground. This ensures a quiet cable.
Cables come with two types of shielding. Spiral shielding and braided shielding. Spiral shielding allows for more flexibility, but gaps and breakage is possible. Braided shielding is the strongest shielding, but is stiffer. When we talk about shielding, you need to pay attention to "coverage". Cheap cables will have very little coverage. Like the conductor, less copper in the shielding, leads to cheaper production cost. You pay the price with noise.
Plugs. What terminates your guitar cable is important. Plugs are where most failures happening. Strain relief plugs or plugs with proper cable clamps like the Neutrik Pro Series we use are the best. Cable clamps are like Chinese finger cuffs. The more you pull the plug from the cable, the clamp tightens harder. This ensures a good "bite" to protect the solder connections.
If you go with Gold or Nickel contacts is up to you. Many people swear by gold, but unless all contacts are gold in the chain, it doesn't matter. Gold is very cosmetically appealing and that's fine.
This is a funny question that I've heard many times. When you're on stage and the signal stops or you're dealing with noise - ask yourself this question. Usually, I get a nod when I say this. Quality matters when you have a problem. You can get away with a cheap cable - but if you want the best tone in the recording studio. Or if you want something you can count on while on the road. Yes, quality matters.
Okay, so we talked about what makes a great guitar cable. If we start looking at nuts and bolts and compare specs. If cables are the same from builder to builder, are they the same?
I say "no". At this point we should be looking at the business. There are x-factors when purchasing. The unknowns. For example - buyer experience, customer service, company ideology, etc. Why do we like to buy from certain companies and not others?
When we talk about boutique instrument cables or custom cables, we want to feel good about the buy. Where is the wire milled? For instance - here at Rattlesnake Cable Company, we go WAY out of our way to get our cabled milled in the US. Some companies outsource work. Again, a family business like ours hires locally to build a team to build your cables. Customer service is critical. Look up reviews and see how business treat their customers AFTER buying. How did they handle complaints? How did they handle repairs, etc.
So when we talk about cable specs, if they are the same, this is what separates the brands.