Guitar cables have their lifespan, that’s for sure. It’s that moment when you realize that the sound output from your amp speakers becomes dead.
Do guitar cables go bad? And why?
Guitar cables do go bad. The signal transmission from your guitar, through the cable, to your amp stops flowing after a while.
Anyway, bad guitar cable happens to almost every guitar player. You embrace your guitar, plug the cable’s jack to the guitar, turn on the amplifier and wait for the valves to warm up just a bit.
A smile starts creeping on your face while you wait for the sound of your first strum to brighten your day and…
And then nothing: silence.
It usually takes some seconds of frantic knob twisting both on the guitar and the amp to realize that the reason is a malfunctioning cable.
But why do the cables go bad?
There are many causes for it. For example, jack can get unsoldered. Too much stepping plays its part, also. Non proper storing is also a factor, as well as the oxidation of the cable.
We’ll get into details further in this article.
More often than not, guitar players spend a lot of effort choosing their favorite amplifier, setting the guitar to their exact specification. Then, they cheap out on the umbilical cord that’s meant to connect the instrument to its voice.
Cables look very mundane and uninspiring to the novice, and even some pros just have a flightcase full of them in less than ideal shape. Yet they are very, very important.
I’m not suggesting that you should pay more attention to the cable than to the rest of your gear. Still, a little care can do miracles to the longevity of your cords.
Guitar cables are, indeed, pretty simple devices. Only a handful of things can go wrong with them. There’s no reason why they should not last a long time, with proper use.
Here are the top reasons for cables going bad, described in details.
1. Unsoldered or Shorted Jack
This is certainly the most common reason why guitar cables stop to work or do work, but badly.
Inside the jack there are two copper wires that are soldered to different parts of the plug. They are put that way to electrically connect two tips of the plug and two sleeves.
It goes without saying, but, as the space inside the jack is pretty cramped, this solder points are not as sturdy as you may expect. In fact, they may break with ease.
Consider that the cable is primarily attached to the jack by a tiny metal clasp. Soon you’ll realize that abusing the jacks is a sure way to shorten their lifespan.
What harms those jacks the most?
Unplugging a guitar by pulling the cable instead than the jack, for example, will stress the solder joints to the point that they will break apart.
Looping Around The Strap
Another source of mechanical stress is provided by the bend you make to the cable when you loop it around the strap of the guitar to avoid unplugging it by mistake.
If the bend is too sharp, either because you used little cable in the loop itself or because you pulled the cable somehow, the risk of a broken solder point in the cable is greatly increased.
If your cable comes with a jack that you cannot take apart this is the end of the cable and you’ll likely need to replace it. This kind of cables are usually the cheaper ones and chances are that even the cord is not worth salvaging.
More high quality guitar cables will have de-mountable jacks and it would be quite easy, with some practice, to solder the wires back to their place and repair the cable.
Here you can find a nice video detailing the process.
Another kind of mechanical stress you can do to a cable is twisting the cable. This will maybe not be enough to break a soldering point, but it may displace the wires inside the jack and short them.
Still, that’s not that hard to fix. Assuming you’re able to take apart the jack and reassemble it correctly.
2. Bad solder
A soldering point doesn’t need to be broken to cause issues with your cable. In this case, diagnosing the problem is way more tricky.
Especially if you buy low quality cables, or if you had some that you repaired without much care.
Then you’ll likely end up with something that’s usually referred as a “cold solder joint”. This is usually quite obvious, as it looks quite sloppy compared to a good joint.
What causes a cold solder joint and how it may kill the performance of your cable?
In order to solder the copper wire to the cable, molten tin is used. If the temperature is too low, the tin will melt only partially, thus increasing the risk of capturing tiny air bubbles inside the solder joint.
Cold solder joints are mechanically prone to cracking, leaving even more air into the joint. As air does not conduct electricity that well and it carries oxygen that oxidize the solder joint from the inside, the efficiency of the electric contact will degrade over time, beside not being top notch from the beginning.
This is difficult to spot, but easy to fix with the skill you’ve just learned from the previous paragraph.
3. Stepping On It
It’s really hard to avoid stepping on your guitar cable, from time to time. Especially if you play live on stage, occasionally or regularly.
Stages tend to be overcrowded with gear and so cluttered with cables. You may wonder how to play without having to trample over all of them.
Actually, it’s a better idea to start organizing the cables in a proper way. The crucial thing to do is to make the cables out of your reach. As much as it’s possible. Stepping on them will surely cause them to fail, one day or another.
The copper wires inside the cable, in fact, are not very thick. They will suffer from mechanical fatigue that takes little to break them.
Just imagine that you’re holding a piece of wire and you bend it in the middle multiple times. The resistance of the wire will decrease rapidly.
In the end, you’ll be able to snap the wire in two with almost no effort. This is what may happen to your cables, if you’re not cautious about stepping on them.
Of course, there are some differences that account for the increased flexibility of your cable. The copper wires are wrapped in rubber that mostly prevents sharp bends, thus reducing fatigue on the metal and distributing it over a bigger area.
You should realize that repeatedly stepping on your cables will almost inevitably make them fail.
A bad news is that there’s no easy way to understand where the wire broke inside the cable. At that point, all you can do is to salvage the jacks and head to the nearest store for a replacement.
4. Storing Them Incorrectly
Properly storing a guitar cable is easy. It’s a task that anyone can master in less than a minute.
Still, there are plenty of people that still have no clue on how to do it and they just end spending money on new cables. Over and over.
If you’re one of those guys that just throw their cables into a bag, no matter how entangled they are, you can probably save a pretty dime by being a little more conscious about the correct way to wrap a cord.
The reason why badly wrapped cables do look bad and broke is called supercoiling. It’s a consequence of over-twisting.
It may sound complicated and it’s indeed a pretty complex topological issue, but it’s also a one that can be understood in an easy way.
Go and pick any piece of string or cable you have around. Elastic bands are great and your headphone’s cord will work too.
Keep one side of the string with each hand and then start twisting one of the two ends in one direction.
By doing this, you will increase the mechanical stress inside the string, but nothing noticeable should happen beside just some twisting.
Now, approach your two hands and look how the string starts to contort. Create what’s technically a supercoil, which is nothing more than the most efficient way that the string find to relax stresses that you applied with twisting.
There are a number of mathematical formulas to determine how the supercoil will form, but we don’t care about this aspect.
We are mainly interested in how badly twisted a cable can become if we don’t wrap it properly. And also, how much this will, in turn, stress the internal wires in the cable.
If you want to learn how to proper wrap a cord and how to look even cooler at your next gig, please take a look here:
Rusted jacks do not work well at all, and that’s the reason why manufacturers sell gold-plated contacts at a premium price.
Frankly speaking, it’s so easy to spot a rusted jack. If you use such a visibly bad cable, you really can’t expect anything but audibly bad results.
Admittedly, this is a very minor issue if we talk about guitar cables that are used regularly.
Still, you may find some trace of rust in cables that have long been stored in as humid environment. If that happens, don’t worry. Some fine sandpaper should take care of the rust and allow you to use the cable again.
Anyway, humidity is a great enemy, not only for your guitar cable, but for your guitar and amp also.
Check this related article from this site, if you want to know more about humidity issues.
6. Rotten Rubber
Another reason why cables can need replacement is rubber outside layer of the cable that has lost flexibility.
This may happen with very old cables. That’s because rubber changes its mechanical properties over time. Especially if it’s stored in hot, dry environments.
Old rubber will become stiff and prone to cracking. When that happens, you can really do nothing definitive to save the situation. Modern rubber compounds are generally more resistant in the long run. If you came across a cable with cracked rubber, don’t hesitate and replace it straight away.
How To Check If Cable Is Good
It’s now time to briefly describe how to check if a random cable you may find is good enough.
First and foremost, you can infer a lot about a cable status by its appearance.
Any sign of past abuse should ring a bell on a possible defect. Worn out rubber, rust, evident signs of previous repair do not indicate that the cable had a peaceful life. Chances are that it will fail sooner than later.
The second, easy way, to check if a cable is good enough is just to try it. There’s no way that a defective cable will be able to harm your guitar or your amp.
It takes little time, unless you have multiple cables to check and it’s honestly the simplest and most straightforward way.
A definitive way to check a guitar cable is to check for electric continuity with a multimeter, as described here.
I admit, it may look overkill for a plain guitar cable, but it’s easier than it may look. Knowing how to use a multimeter that you can grab for a couple of dollars will help you do much more than checking a guitar cable.
You’ll then be able to check pickups resistance, pots functionality and even troubleshoot much more complex problems that you may encounter in your daily live.
I think that the above list is pretty detailed about what can go wrong with a guitar cable. It’s either caused by abuse, or by the natural effects of the environment on the cable itself.
If you enjoyed reading this article as much as I’ve enjoyed writing it, I’m more than happy about it.
Don’t forget to check other interesting and cool articles about various guitar topics and issues. Here, on this site.
Cheers, and rock on!