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The connection between guitar and pedal board or amplifier is an often overlooked but important part of the signal chain, and players have a few choices.
There are wireless setups, but for people using a cord, there is the choice between coiled vs. straight guitar cable. Which is better?
The decision between coiled vs. straight guitar cables is a matter of preference more than anything else, especially when using modern cables. Some older coiled cables could cause noise or a drop in brightness, but that is much less pronounced today, meaning some former disadvantages of coiled guitar cables are eliminated.
Let’s look at why players use coiled cables, where the dire warnings you’ll hear about the loss of tone originated, and how to decide between using straight vs. coiled guitar cables.
Why Do Players Like Coiled Guitar Cables?
It’s worth looking at why this is an issue in the first place. In general, cables for guitars and other instruments come in two types: straight and coiled.
For many players, the kind of cord they choose will never be an issue. They’re unlikely to play on a stage where they’ll be more than 10 to 15 feet from their rig, after all, with 10 feet being a fairly common length for straight guitar cable.
For players who want to move around the stage more, or who simply have more stage between them and their rig, a longer cord is essential. One reason that coiled instrument cords are used is the same reason older, wired telephones had coiled cords: it lets you fit a longer cord in a smaller package.
In a coiled cord. the coils are close together when at rest, but easily stretch out when needed, making for a more compact package. That makes the cords easier to pack, as they take up less room than a straight cable of the same length.
Another advantage for coiled cords when dealing with a large stage is that the springy nature of the coils keeps the cord from laying on the floor and creating a tripping hazard for anyone who has to cross the stage.
The springy nature can be a mixed blessing, however. Coiled cables have more of a tendency to get tangled than do straight cords, so putting them away can be more of a chore.
Are Coiled Or Straight Guitar Cables Better?
When you start searching for information about coiled guitar cords, you’re often led to older players talking about what coiled cables were like in the 1970s or 1980s. While that has its place, it doesn’t recognize one very important fact: cable technology has changed dramatically since then.
The first thing you’ll hear about coiled guitar cables is that they have a much higher capacitance than other cables, and therefore make a guitar sound less bright. There is some truth to that, or at least there was.
This video explains how to measure the capacitance of a guitar cable, as well as why you might do that.
You can definitely hear the impact that coiled cables had when listening to at least some players. If you’re trying to sound just like Jimi Hendrix or Stevie Ray Vaughan, for example, a coiled guitar cable will be very helpful, and the reduced brightness is exactly why.
If you listen very closely, you’d likely be able to hear the difference between some coiled and straight cords today, but not necessarily for the reason you think.
Older instrument cables were often poorly shielded, and could be quite noisy, as well, with the coils sometimes causing interference because of the bad shielding. That same effect could also increase capacitance in the cord, further darkening the sound.
Now, with modern cables, the shielding is much better. Where a difference would become clear is when comparing two different lengths of cable.
Compare the somewhat standard 10 foot straight cord to the somewhat standard 30 foot coiled cord, for example, and you might be able to hear a difference in brightness, depending on what kind of set up you’re using and how trained and sensitive your ears are.
Whether that change is a worthwhile tradeoff with the extra room to move around while plugged in is up to you. For some people, it’s actually an essential part of their sound.
Some players argue that you can’t get a Hendrix like tone without a coiled guitar cable. And Hendrix definitely understood what he was doing with his tone when he used a coiled cable, because he apparently changed to a shorter cord — which would have lower capacitance — when he was recording a track that called for a more standard Stratocaster tone.
So while, yes, a coiled cord was one of the “secrets of Jimi’s tone,” as innumerable headlines have shared over the years, you can absolutely get a similar effect with a bit of EQ tweaking or judicious use of the tone knob.
Does It Matter If You Use Coiled Or Straight Guitar Cables?
Even today, there is one issue with coiled guitar cables that players need to be aware of. Unlike longer straight cables, which lay mostly on the floor, coiled cables tend to be under a small amount of tension.
That tension can result in the tip of the cable wanting to come out of the jack in the guitar or amp, something to be aware of when playing. Some players also worry about the weight of the cable and what effect that might have.
Because the cord isn’t resting on the floor as much, more weight from that cable pulls on the jacks. Over time this can cause a worn out jack, which can mean more noise when playing, as well as when plugging and unplugging the instrument.
I already noted that a 30 foot long, coiled guitar cord will have higher capacitance than a 10 foot straight cord would. Given modern cable construction, there would likely not be much of a capacitance difference between a 30 foot coiled cord and a 30 foot straight cord, however.
Some players might tell you they can hear a difference between the two — and maybe you can, too — but the difference is likely to be small and be hard to detect for most listeners.
While there used to be quite a lot to take into consideration when picking between straight vs. coiled guitar cables, that isn’t really the case anymore.
Modern methods and materials have made cables more durable, better shielded, and quieter than they were in the past. That goes for straight and coiled cables alike, but the difference is most noticeable on coiled guitar cords.
Such cords used to be a compromise some players made to get more room to more around on stage, while some others used it as a distinct part of their signature tone. Now, however, there isn’t much of a difference.
Whether you’re putting together a rig in tribute to Hendrix or SRV or you just like the look of a coiled cable, personal preference is now all the reason you need to go with the cord of your choice.
I’ve been a musician, particularly a guitarist, for more than 25 years. I love writing about guitars, gear, recording, music in general and more.