Today we have a guest submission on instrument cables from Lee Hodgson. Lee teaches at London’s Guitar Institute (part of the Institute of Contemporary Music Performance), has written for Guitar Techniques magazine, been an official demonstrator for Vox amps, and is a Fret-King guitar endorsee. He has put together a very thorough comparison of a wide variety of cables, and though we may differ in our preferences (he disses one of my favorite cables!), the bottom line is that the cable you use DOES make a significant difference and it’s worth trying as many as you can to find what works best for you. Thanks for the great article Lee!
Guitar Leads Do Sound Different…
By Lee Hodgson
Are there really audible differences between guitar leads? And if so, is there a ‘best sounding’ one? Well, they all sound different for sure, so I believe it’s a case of finding what’s best for you. After all, not everyone might want a totally transparent sounding lead. (An electric guitar is not exactly a piece of hi-fi…) Blues players, for example, may want a warmer tone, whereas a funk guitarist might want sparkle, get the idea? On a larger scale, we basically choose between, let’s say, a Fender Strat over a Gibson Les Paul (or vice versa); one has more warmth yet the other has more brightness and cut. Of course an amplifier has tone controls, so does a lead’s characteristics count? I believe so. It’s not just about treble, middle and bass; there are other more subtle factors at work – which scientific studies could explain. All we musicians care about is a musically satisfying result, wouldn’t you say? My main point is that I really can hear how some leads impede or alter the sound in some way or another. Curiously, I can also sense when a lead is the ‘right’ way round: it’s not about tone, it’s rather more to do with cohesiveness and the frequencies all arriving synchronously. Whatever, all I ultimately want is a balanced, uncongested, cohesive and generally wholesome sound. I only want gear that lets me get on with the playing of music.
Test Guitar: Fret-King Corona & Super S with Wilkinson pickups (various pickup settings used).
Test Amps: Mesa/Boogie MkIII Simulclass (EV12L), Cornell Voyager 20 (6V6 tubes, Celestion Gold Alnico loudspeaker). Also a Vox ToneLab ST (modeller).
I USED AN ESSENTIALLY CLEAN SOUND THROUGHOUT. Using parallel thinking, I’m one of those who want even their ‘dirty’ sound to be essentially clean – articulate is probably a better word – when using overdrive. I believe that clarity is invariably perceived as being a positive quality. Some producers think in terms of ‘expensive’ sounds…
Playing Style(s) used: hybrid picking mostly, plus some fingerpicking – the sound of flesh makes Jeff Beck sound good, wouldn’t you agree? I played single note lines (including soulful bends), double-stops, triads and chord strums. I can state categorically that playing multiple notes together or closely in succession, sustaining that is, reveals just how a lead accurately or inaccurately passes the component sound(s). Some leads make your chords sound disjointed and imbalanced, almost as if it’s two guitars fighting each other, whereas certain other leads definitely produce a singular, coherent sound. OK, what follows is my professional opinion of various guitar leads.
My favourite guitar cable is without a doubt, Van Den Hul Integration Hybrid (from Lava Cable). It’s just the best! It actually does seem to improve sustain. It’s quite expensive but not ridiculously so. I went for a 10-foot length.
I bought a 20-foot one of these and it’s fine. I use it for general gigging. It’s a ‘high-end’ cable but very reasonably priced.
The CGK 122N is definitely one of my favourite guitar cables! It seems to add something – which might imply that it’s not neutral sounding…
- Fabulously clear sound (especially on double stops).
- Sounds musically integrated and has a balanced tone; it’s a wholesome sound that makes a guitar sound wonderful by itself yet, it’s also offers a sound that gels with accompaniment noticeably better than when using other leads. It makes you think: “this is what my guitar should sound like!”
- It ‘feels’ great! I’d say it’s best suited for rock/blues/overdrive sounds.
I own several Cordial leads: the CGK175, which is slightly different physically (it is more flexible so is more suited to stage use) but sounds every bit as good as the CGK 122 N, plus I have the slightly cheaper CIK122, which is ever so slightly edgier and more vibrant sounding than the rest.
The Grindycop Beast seems to have gained a great reputation amongst discerning players. It’s main feature is its “quickness” (transient response). I bought one and found it to be, as Sommer themselves put it, ‘analytical’…
Dave Gilmour uses the ‘Lyric HG’, as do many other top-ranking players, but I’m left unimpressed. This twin-core (solid) cable is clear enough and well balanced but all I can say is, playing loud through a VOX AC15, a Cordial cable just delivered something special. Evidence Audio might well say that their cables are totally neutral sounding but I don’t really care, I enjoyed playing through another cable more.
Sweet, clean and fairly open sounding. The cable measures a little resistance, which worries me very slightly.
The Horizon Silverflex cable is very good but not quite as cohesive and balanced sounding as Cordial leads. It has a great sounding treble response, which makes high-pitched lead work very clear, but I think the bass end is ever so slightly disjointed.
I’ve heard that these are highly regarded but they’re not for me. Despite having great clarity and transparency, they have a slightly cold, clinical sound in my opinion. However, I’d recommend that you try them out with your own guitar…
- Extremely clear, brilliant sound that works well with all kinds of sounds and playing styles.
- Good integration and balanced tone: it’s a wholesome sound.
- Excellent transient attack! Which makes it sound immediate as opposed to blurred.
Planet Waves (D’Addario).
I bought a 20-footer (the more expensive twisted-pair version) and had been using it quite happily until I discovered Cordial… By comparison, the PW lead sounded cluttered and uncohesive, especially on double stops (playing D & F# together on the 5th & 4th strings sounded much nicer through the Cordial lead; it sounded more focussed and the chord was noticeably more vibrant!). Planet Waves’ advertising claims that its cable is “acoustically transparent”, devoid of any filtering effects, yet it does, to my ears, sound a little thicker than other leads – which is probably why endorsee Eric Clapton likes them! I should add, however, that I once played a master-built Fender Tele at a gig and the Planet Waves lead did do it justice. You see, it’s a marriage…
- Fairly clear sound for single-note lines but not so great for double stops or chords.
- Flattering when you play hard but loses some detail (sounds a little furry) when using softer dynamics.
- Might suit a rock/blues lead guitarist who wants a marginally thicker, fatter tone. (It doesn’t actually boost anything, it’s just not ultimately as brilliant or detailed sounding as certain others.)
I paid £4.00 for a 10-footer and I really can’t fault it!
- Lovely clear sound for any playing style and note formation.
- Balanced tone: gives a wholesome, integrated sound.
- A cosy sound. Highly recommended!
I used to be an endorsee. The Active Lead is kind of like a DI-box-as-a-lead if you know what I mean. It’s perfect, therefore, if you want to quickly plug into a mixing desk or hi-fi etc that doesn’t have a dedicated guitar input (the Active Lead has a mega-high impedance, which is good for guitars).
Check this out: I once travelled by air so I couldn’t take my main rig. All I took was my (back-up) guitar, a Squier Silver Strat, and my Active Lead. I plugged into another guitarist’s little tranny Fender Deluxe (mic’d up)… …and I received many favourable comments from guitarists from the other bands at the festival. I can’t help liking my Active Lead! It serves a purpose.
- Particularly clear sound, with enhanced high-end – it sparkles!
- Balanced tone: gives a wholesome, integrated sound. Designed to eliminate an undesirable peak that’s found in most electric guitars’ pickup response.
- Suffers from a little added hiss. Also, in order to avoid induced hum, you must keep the integral battery box away from transformers etc.
I paid £82.00 for a 20-footer several years ago and loved it for a while. But then I fell out of love with it and so I sold it! It definitely has a ‘sound’ though…
- Not neutral sounding – imparts fatness and mid-range drive, a “juicy” sound!
- Suffers from a kind of crackling/rustling noise when you shake it. (So don’t!)
- Ripcord also sell expensive speaker and mains leads…
Digressing for a moment, but still considering the lengths people will go for great tone, Eddie Van Halen lowered the voltage supply to his Marshall amp and the sound, he says, went “brown”! And Eric Johnson believes, rather obsessively, in all manner of things that affect tone… Mind you, I’ve heard him play live and I can vouch that his sound was absolutely phenomenal!
Winding down now, I do recall once trying an upmarket Monster lead – they do all kinds of dedicated, stylised guitar/bass leads – and I seem to remember that it sounded neutral. Ultimately though, I preferred my “fruitier” sounding Ripcord, which I favoured at the time.
If you want esoterica, then check out Russ Andrews product brochure, which offers guitar leads that cost up to £600!!!
Finally and in conclusion, I have bought many guitar leads over the years (and plenty more besides those mentioned here, which varied between acceptable and unacceptable) and I can most definitely hear – I’d rather say “feel” – when something is right or wrong, subjectively speaking, that is. It’s all about finding that elusive “perfect combination” isn’t it?