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Guitar Cables For Working Musicians

by Phil Taylor

Death Valley cable

Earlier this year I wrote an article about G&H Industries jack plugs. These are superbly made plugs and I’d been hankering after a good quality American cable to partner with them. It can be a challenge to find genuine quality gear though – it’s out there – but it’s a question of having the patience to look for it. The small companies – perhaps better described as craftsmen – don’t have vast advertising budgets to lavish on front page guitar magazine adverts. Besides they’re usually busy shipping customer orders or tinkering in their workshops, as was the case with Death Valley Cable Company (DVCC) in Darwin, California.

Fortunately, I discovered their website where I found a refreshingly straight-forward, no-nonsense explanation about what’s important for good tone and reliability in a cable and… what is not so important. These guys are obviously musicians but also experienced engineers. It’s well worth taking some time to check out their site – it’s packed with real science, openly discussing the engineering principles and quality of the materials used in the construction of their cables. Let’s take a closer look at the parts and processes that make up a DVCC guitar cable.

The Jack Plug

The solid copper core inside the G&H jack plug was put there to ensure maximum fidelity – copper is an excellent electrical conductor, surpassed only marginally by silver. According to DVCC, this type of construction is more reliable than plugs with a one-piece brass tip and core. The reasoning behind this is that copper is more ductile than brass it will give or bend a little rather than snapping if trodden on or abused. It’s the ideal metal for the core. It’s worth noting that copper has become much more expensive over the years there are some manufacturers who have been tempted into using cheaper metals such as steel and plating it with copper or gold. There is no such skimping on quality materials here though. The G&H plugs are substantial and heavy. The body and housing are made of brass with a good thick layer of nickel plate. It’s neo-classic design and a solid piece of engineering. More information on these plugs can found in my short article, however let’s move on to discuss the cable itself as this is where things become interesting.

The Cable

I must admit to being strictly old school when it comes to guitar gear. I’m not looking for space-age innovations or gimmicks in a cable, quite the opposite. In fact, having a huge choice of exotic jacket colours, gold-plated plugs or other such eye-candy is more of a distraction than anything. I’m looking for cable that will help create music and give many years of low maintenance, trouble-free use. A cable that looks more traditional, probably how they used to look back in the 1950s and 60s, which would, more than likely be covered with black (perhaps grey for the more adventurous) rubber insulation and terminated in nickel plugs.

The Jacket

Rubber tyre

Rubber is tough and hardwearing which is why it’s used in tyre manufacture.

This is where DVCC’s substantial 20 AWG multi-stranded copper cable scores highly. It’s custom manufactured to their specifications them by C.B.I., a family owned business based in New York and you can have any colour you want… so long as it’s black. The outer jacket is made of synthetic rubber, which appears to be neoprene, again an excellent choice of material because it’s exceptionally tough, durable and resilient to impacts and scrapes. Synthetic rubber is used in cables designed for extreme environments from building sites to deep-sea exploration in the Arctic. It’s flame resistant, resistant to water, oils, acids and alkalis, ageing in sunlight and can be used outdoors for decades without shrinking, cracking or degradation. In comparison, PVC cables are mechanically weaker and cable jackets are usually thinner. Additionally, PVC becomes brittle and stiff in the cold and when warm becomes soft which means it’s easily damaged if trapped in a flight-case lid or driven over by a stage truck. A rubber cable will give decades of use and being black it won’t show up the dirt after a few arduous pub gigs – it’s a cable for working musicians.

The Conductor

Copper

Copper is an excellent electrical conductor – only marginally surpassed by silver.

Internally the cable utilises multi-strand ‘electrolytic tough pitch’ copper wire, which is traditionally used for electrical applications such as telephony, communications and in electronic component manufacture. It’s worth noting that the conductivity of electrolytic tough pitch copper (C11000) and the more expensive oxygen-free copper (C10200) are identical. Even the extremely expensive C10100 highly refined copper with silver impurities removed and oxygen reduced to 0.0005%, has only a 1% higher conductivity which is insignificant in audio applications – variations in temperature of a just few degrees have a greater effect on conductivity. C10100 copper is actually valued more for it’s chemical purity than electrical conductivity and finds use in deposition (sputtering) processes used in the manufacture of silicon chips where the release of oxygen and other impurities would cause problems. Incidentally, C10100 is used in anodes for vacuum tubes too. As I mentioned earlier, DVCC have done their research to ascertain what is relevant and what is not relevant in cable construction.

Construction

DVCC cables are entirely made by hand. This includes cutting insulation, preparation of wires, soldering and assembly. All this meticulous care and attention to detail is aimed at making he connection as reliable as possible. From their site, “The way cables attach to G&H plugs may look old-fashioned and not as secure as using a wire lock or plastic covering the plug housing and a portion of the cable but rest assured that nothing short of an atom bomb is going to remove that plug from the big chunk of soldered shield wire.”. Here they’re almost certainly referring to the Neutrik jack strain-relief which I can testify is ‘bomb-proof’ – I’ve been using them for almost 30 years with no failures. More detailed information and photos of how DVCC put their cables together can be found on their website. Because all assembly work is perfromed by hand, DVCC can supply truly bespoke cables – any length with any connector, whether it’s a 10½’ cable with two angle plugs or a 7′ cable with one straight plug and one angle plug in nickel plate. It’s nice to see a manufacturer who takes pride in their work and has something genuinely useful to bring to the table.

Sound Quality

I’ve been recording with these cables during summer for my own music and to make sound samples for the Effectrode website. The cables are electrically very quiet, which is down to a semi-conductive layer between the inner core’s jacket and the spiral wrapped copper shield. This virtually eliminates the “crackles”, “pops” and other noises when handling or moving the cable (technically known as triboelectric and microphonic effects).

As well as being quiet, there’s something I like about the sound of these cables. They’re clear, full and well balanced in comparison to my Klotz cables with Neutrik jack – which have been my reference for almost 30 years. This may because the DVCC cables are lower noise and there is less loss of high frequencies.

More sound clips coming soon!

Conclusion

Cables are a critical part of the signal path in any guitar rig, however it’s easy to overlook the fact that they are not ideal conductors and therefore have an effect on tone quality. The capacitance of the dielectric can cause loss of top-end and introduce noise into the guitar signal. The connection between the cables and the jack-plugs can add further noise and is also a potential point of failure. These noise and reliability problems become even more significant in a more complex setup, such as an effects pedal board where there are more cables in series. Using well constructed cables manufactured from quality materials reduces these problems as far as it’s practically possible. Also, it’s worth highlighting that just knowing these cables are made by a reputable and knowledgable manufacturer, such as DVCC gives me peace of mind and, more importantly, I like what I hear in them – they’ve now become a permanent part of my recording set-up.