By Ed Malaker
Choosing the Best Guitar Wire
Before we talk about choosing the best guitar wire, let’s go over some of the most common types that are used, and which kind might be best for you. Because there are so many available options, it can be challenging to choose the right wire. We’ll break it down so you can choose the best type for your particular needs.
Guitar Wire Components
- The metal composition of the wire
- Number of strands of wire it contains
- Wire shielding
- Wire covering
Metal Composition of the Wire
Most wire is composed of copper, but aluminum is also another popular metal that’s used. Platinum, iron, silver, and gold are also available options, but less commonly used.
Silver is the most conductive, but its high cost makes it impractical for use as a wire for most purposes. Copper follows silver in conductivity, and aluminum follows copper. Even though copper is 39% more conductive than aluminum, aluminum is still an excellent conductor, more than suitable for use in electrical wire.
Copper weighs about twice as much as aluminum and is currently triple the price. Despite copper making up the vast majority of wire, aluminum will soon get a larger share of use as copper becomes more expensive in the future.
Single Strand vs. Multistrand
If you’ve ever looked inside a wire, you have probably noticed that some have a solid core, while others have multiple strands. Some wires have multiple strands braided together instead of being placed next to each other.
This kind of wire, as the name suggests, is a single strand of solid wire. Solid core wire can handle a little more current than the same gauge stranded wire, and the thicker solid wire is more resistant to environmental effects.
We use solid core wire in cases where there is little need for flexibility. For example, we commonly see solid core wire used as jumper wires or bus wires on IC-boards. Interestingly, these are made almost exclusively of aluminum. We also use a lot of solid-core in home-wiring, where we appreciate its higher current property and rarely need to move it once in place.
The multistrand wire is much more common than solid core. The primary reason that we use multistrand wire is that it is more flexible and is less likely to break.
The more strands a wire has, the stronger and more flexible it is. At minimum, all wires have at least seven strands. A seven strand wire is only for applications in which the wire won’t be moved. Nineteen strands is the minimum number recommended for a wire that needs to bend and flex. A wire that needs to flex continuously, such as a headphone wire, can have more than 80 strands.
Most of the wire that you find in small electronic devices at home will be multistrand. The primary downside to the multistrand wire is that multiple strands provide more surface area that can be damaged by the environment. Exposure can allow corrosion to set in and reduce the conductivity of the metal, causing premature failure.
A secondary downside is the increased cost incurred as you add more strands. A wire containing a hundred or more strands can be significantly more expensive than a solid core of the same size.
Most wires use plastic, rubber, or a push-back cloth insulation to protect it from the elements and to keep it from shorting out. Often the wires will come in an array of colors to act as a visual aid when troubleshooting. There is no real standard to the colors, so use what makes the most sense to you.
Shielding is when we encompass the wire and its insulation in a layer of conductive material, and add a second layer of insulation over the shield. We shield the wire when we need to protect it from RF interference. The shielding traps the noise and shuttles it to ground before it can affect the signal in the main wire. Your guitar cable is shielded.
Wires are shielded in one of two ways:
Aluminum tape is an excellent way to shield your wire. The length of wire is covered using the tape for 100% protection from interference. The downside to an aluminum tape shield is that it’s very flimsy and hard to use. Many people find it difficult to solder the tape to the ground wire and it tends to look sloppy. Some companies try to make aluminum tape more accessible by adding a “drain wire” that can ground the foil.
A secondary downside to using foil is that it can develop microscopic tears that can compromise its ability to shield the main wire.
The second, more common option, is braided wired. As the name suggests, a tube of copper or aluminum wire covers the insulation of the main wire. Braided shielding offers several advantages over the foil shield:
- Braided wire shielding is much sturdier than aluminum, and is less likely to be compromised.
- This kind of shielding provides a good deal of physical protection for the main wire.
- Braided wire is much easier to work with and solder to ground.
Unfortunately, there are a few downsides to the braided wire shield as well:
- Braided wire is much heavier than aluminum tape.
- No matter how tightly braided, this shield will always allow some RF to get through.
- The cost of braided shielding can be significantly higher as well, especially if you are going for an extra tight braiding to prevent interference.
The wire gauge is the diameter of the wire, and the wire gets smaller as the gauge goes up. The gauge determines how much current can pass through the wire and how much resistance increases. A larger wire can pass more current, and a smaller wire adds more resistance.
Using a wire that is too large will only add cost to your project without any benefit. Using a wire that is too small can create too much resistance, which can result in heat and melted wires in some cases.
What’s the Best Guitar Wire?
Most electric guitar pickups use skinny wires around 42 gauge. The reason the wires are so thin is that the pickups are only producing a tiny amount of electricity and barely any measurable current. So, we don’t need anything bigger than that for any of our wires, and our guitar will work just fine with 42 gauge wire throughout.
However, 42 gauge is pretty thin wire, and many people will feel more comfortable with thicker wires between the volume and tone controls. If you’d like to use thicker wire, something in the 24 to 27 gauge should work well.
The wires often get tugged when changing parts, especially the output jack, so we recommend using stranded wire instead of solid wire. The more strands, the better.
Using a shielded wire is a personal decision. Most guitars don’t use shielded wire, though it’s definitely within your options to do so. It’s possible to reduce noise by using shielded wire, but the volume and tone pots will remain unshielded. It’s better to coat the entire control cavity with copper tape to prevent interference from entering.
Although there are many options on guitar wire, we recommend unshielded 27 gauge stranded. The insulation — cloth push-back or plastic — doesn’t matter and neither does the color. We hope that this has helped you determine which guitar wire is the best for your instrument use, and that you’ll share this article on Facebook and Twitter. For more articles about guitar electronics, visit humbuckersoup.com