How we get where we’re going genuinely does matter. The comfort, speed, duration, and atmosphere of our travel experience firmly dictates how we feel when we arrive at our destination, and while we might brush off a grueling 13-hour flight to reach an island paradise, our bodies and minds don’t shrug it off so easily – even if the toll isn’t immediately evident, it still exists. Jet lag is the primary example of this – we profess being fine, only to fall asleep at 6pm and wake up at 2 in the morning for a week, even though the outward signs aren’t definitively apparent. Your signal is a lot like this, and in this edition of Machine Bites, I’m going to address the nature of cabling, why it’s important, and what effects it can have on your sound.
Practical things in life tend not to be all that sexy – like tax completion or recycling – but that doesn’t diminish their importance. Cabling is how your signal gets from one place to another, and if the infrastructure isn’t there, it’ll have a much harder time than it needs to, and your sound will suffer as a result. You’ll notice I’m not referring to it as ‘tone’, and that’s because this issue covers a broader scope than the characteristics of your mid hump or how much your highs sparkle – I’m talking about the signal itself.
The very nature of a guitar’s signal is that it isn’t especially strong. The combination of magnetic field disturbance, plectrum/finger strike and wood vibration that constitutes the foundation of the noise you’re actually producing doesn’t yield an enormous amount of power, and the signal generated has to then pass through the pots and the internal workings of your instrument to reach the jack socket. It then has to make its way through whatever length and level of cable quality you’ve elected to purchase before it gets anywhere near your pedals and whether you have any or not, the quality of your cable still matters. Although signal loss may not occur drastically until you’re at a significant length, that’s not really the issue – the big part comes with the tonal properties of that cable.
If you’re using a higher quality cable, it’ll generally let more top end through, which can be of serious help if you’ve got a slightly dull-sounding guitar. That’s down to the capacitance in the cable itself, and both coax material and density can have an effect on your sound. It’s worth noting at this stage that there’s no right or wrong when it comes to what company you choose, as you’ll find a cable that works in the context of your setup. It’s as individual as the pedals you choose, what strings or plectrums you like, how high you wear your guitar, or anything else about your rig.
Speaking of pedals, let’s talk about patch leads. If you run a big pedalboard – an increasing likelihood in today’s musical landscape – you’ll have a lot of connections to make, a lot of knobs, and a lot of different internal behaviours. As previously stated in the article on true bypass/buffering, when your signal enters a pedal it has to pass through all the parts of it in order to reach the other side, and every time it does this – whether your pedal is true bypass or not – it changes the sound a little bit. If you want to check just how much that’s the case, try running straight into your amp at volume without going near your pedal board, then run through it with everything turned off. I’ve experience some pedals (which shall remain nameless out of respect) that rob a bypassed signal of all top end, flab out the bass, or render your amp an uninhabitable wasteland, and if you’ve unwittingly placed a couple of these in your chain and love the sound when they’re turned on, you can improve matters by having quality cables, potentially replacing your top end and balancing a loss to the EQ.
It’s worth reiterating that your sound is made up of absolutely everything in your rig, and that each component part, irrespective of size or perceived importance, contributes to the sound as a whole. This means that if you spend five grand on your electric but run it into a 10 watt solid state combo, a significant portion of its inherent tone will be lost (this is not to say that you won’t like the sound, but that is truly another article in its entirety). If you spend good money knocking a pedalboard together with a quality power supply, half a dozen handmade pedals and a perfectly-crafted platform, and then use patch cables that come in a bag of 20 for five quid, you’re going to rob those pedals of their potential, and in doing so, waste money. Good patch cables will last longer – especially as they aren’t being ragged about like your main cables – and allow for more signal to flow across your board.
This advice is predominantly for the dominant section of guitarists who use passive pickups, as their signal is weaker than that of active pickups. As active pickups deliver a much higher signal strength, they do a similar job to that of a buffered pedal at the start of a signal path by producing a much stronger signal at the guitar end. The above information still applies, albeit to a lesser extent, but the fact remains – if you want the absolute best out of your sound so you can accurately say what you want to say, then giving your signal a smooth road makes all the difference. You’ll be more satisfied, spend more time playing, and enjoy your guitar life to the fullest. Try something new – it might change your musical life.
Article by John Tron Davidson, guitar and pedal and pick guru and head honcho at Heavy Repping,; the best plectrum blog on the internet. https://heavyrepping.com/