coiled up guitar cable on an orange surface

The Beginner’s Guide to Guitar / Instrument Cables

Posted by GLS Audio

For those of you who actually pursued your musical interests beyond the point of the recorder in 6th grade, knowing the difference between an instrument cable and speaker cable is essential. And if you’re like me who didn’t pursue their musical interests beyond the point of the recorder in 6th grade, you had no idea there was a difference. But working as a bartender/stagehand for a dive bar with an open mic really taught me a few things, and I’m going to share them with you today because I am generous and don’t want you to get yelled at by your stage manager/boss in the back room at 4pm on a Tuesday.

Professional Audio Cable Types

There are several different types of audio cables, but for the sole purpose of connecting instruments to other equipment, here are the basic cables you need to know about:

  • Speaker Cable (also known as an amp cable): a speaker cable is a wire that connects speakers to their amplifier sources.
  • Instrument Cable: An instrument cable is a wire designed to transmit low level audio from one device to another.
  • Guitar Cable (Also known as a ‘TS’ Cable or a guitar amp cable): This wire simply carries the signal from your guitar to a different device, such as a preamp, a tuner, or an amplifier.

Why does the difference matter?

I asked this very question while getting yelled at in the back room at 4pm on a Tuesday, so I don’t blame you for coming to the internet first. The fact of the matter is that guitar cables and speaker cables are not interchangeable — even if they use the same ¼” connector.

Using an instrument cable vs a speaker cable incorrectly can mean anything from unwanted or obnoxious noise and feedback to full equipment damage, especially at high signal levels. This is caused by impedance, or the level of resistance within the cable. An instrument cable has a thinner copper wire than a speaker cable has, which means it can carry less signal and therefore higher impedance.

Can I use a guitar cable for a speaker cable?

No. The main issue here is the shielding in an instrument cable or guitar cable may melt from the level of impedance coming from the speaker, which could cause severe damage to your amp! It could work for a little while, but it isn’t worth the risk.

Why does shielding matter?

Shielding is important because it discerns low-quality from high-quality wires. High quality shielded speaker cables and instrument cables have braided shielding as opposed to spiral or foil shielding for greater cable insulation. This braided shielding is the strongest shielding around, and is guaranteed to last through thick and thin. Shielding also protects against interference like EMI (Electromagnetic Interference) and RFI (Radio Frequency Interference). Shielding is measured on a percentage scale — the higher the percentage, the better your wires are protected.

Finding high quality cables

As mentioned, to avoid interference you’re going to want to find cables that have a high shielding protection, as well as an external protection as well. Our website has all of this! From guitar /instrument cables to speaker cables, GLS Audio is a great place to find them.

How to Tell The Difference Between a Speaker and Instrument Cable

On the surface, instrument and speaker cables look completely identical — the only way a lot of them can be told apart is if the manufacturer graciously labels it for you. Otherwise, there’s really no way to tell.

“So you’re saying there’s no good way to tell which is which, but if I mix them I might do damage?” you must be asking me.

Well, yes. BUT, there is another way to tell. By checking the inside of the cable.

What's in a cable?

The inside of the cable holds the key to what you seek, my young musical friend. This will tell you the difference between a speaker cable and an instrument cable. So here we go:

  • The inside of a speaker cable has 2 independent wires, one connected to the tip, and one connected to the sleeve. These wires are more often than not red and black or white and black. Note that there shouldn’t be any braided wires or foil wrap.
  • On the inside of an instrument cable, you will see one or two wires covered in some kind of shielding, which can be braided wire mesh or or foil wrap.

Balanced vs. Unbalanced Cables

Another difference when it comes to cables is balanced versus unbalanced cables, which lead to balanced vs. unbalanced audio. In a nutshell, unbalanced cables have a higher chance of picking up radio interference and nasty noise. Balanced cables, however, are designed to cancel out interference and noise. If your cables are unbalanced, your connection will be unbalanced, making your audio signals change.

How to Care for Instrument Cables

Now that we’ve covered how to differentiate the cables, you gotta know how to take care of ‘em! Here are a few good tips on the best way to make sure your cables aren’t eviscerated by time:

  • Wrap them properly by wrapping it around your hand in circles before gently or loosely tying the end with a rubber band.
  • Avoid sharp bends in the wiring to avoid damaging your cables. Bending your cables too hard will result in damaging the interior!
  • BE GENTLE! Don’t just yank cables out of their sockets, you hooligan! Remove them gently by placing your hand near the connector.
  • Avoid sunlight. Like humans, wires can overheat in the sunlight.
  • Reinforce them with electrical tape, paracord strings, or even embroidery floss.

Now I have taught you everything I know from my years working in a dank open mic dive bar. I hope this helps you not get yelled at, or at your band rehearsal, or whatever it is your creative mind is up to. Shop our audio cables today!

No matter your professional audio needs, GLS Audio has you covered.

Contributing Writer: Aurora Detor