No matter your skill level, style, or instrument there’s one thing that unites all electronic musicians: you need a way to get the signal from your instrument to the amplifier. Even going from a guitar or bass directly into a console requires at least one instrument cable, and every step along the way requires another patch.
If you’ve looked at prices on instrument cables lately, they’re not exactly cheap: quality, no-frills guitar cables are going for USD $15 on Reverb, and prices only go up from there.
Fortunately, building your own instrument cables requires only basic electronics skills and costs far less than buying off the shelf. Better yet, you can customize the length of the cable to suit your needs—who doesn’t need a 12.25′ instrument cable?!
Soldering a 1/4″ TS/Phone jack to an instrument cable
Building an instrument cable is light on supplies and only requires tools that you almost certainly have lying around.
- Some length of instrument cable (generally sold by the foot)
- (At least) two 1/4″ Tip-Sleeve (“TS”/Phone) plugs
Time needed: 5 minutes.
- Disassemble the plug, slide the handle over the end of the cable
This will depend on the brand of plug you’re using, but generally plugs will have two parts: the plug assembly itself (e.g. the part that goes into the instrument/amp and is attached to the wires inside the instrument cable) and the “handle”, a tube that slides over the plug assembly and generally screws in-place.
In this post, we’re using a pair of Switchcraft 280s, which include a plastic sleeve to further shield the solder joints.
If you forget to slide the handle over the end of the cable before soldering, you’ll either have to feed it from the other end of the cable or de-solder, so make sure to slide it on first!
- Strip about 1/2″ from one end of the cable
We don’t want to remove too much, but you’ll need enough exposed wire to solder to the cable to the plug. Take care to only strip the outermost layer, as we don’t want to harm the copper shielding.
- Separate the shielding from the conductor
Inside the cable, there are two sets of wires:
1. The innermost set, known as the conductor, is what carries your guitar signal.
2. The outermost set, the electrostatic shielding, wraps around the conductor in order to prevent outside interference.
Upon stripping the outer layer of the cable, twist the shielding together, exposing the conductor. Then, strip off just enough of the conductor to be able to solder.
Be careful not to let the shielding and conductor wires touch, as this can cause issues with your instrument signal!
- Solder the plug onto the cable
The conductor should be soldered onto the “tip” of the TS plug, while the shielding should be soldered to the “sleeve”.
On the plugs I’m using, the tip is shorter, while the sleeve extends to include the cable clamp.
If your plug includes a relief clamp, use a pair of pliers to squeeze it closed on the cable. You don’t want to tighten it so much that it constricts or slices the cable, but this will help reduce strain on the solder joints.
- Cut the cable to length and repeat
After you have one side of the cable completed, cut the spool of cable to the desired length and repeat these steps to attach the second plug.
Remember to slide the plug cover over the cable before soldering!
Once you start making your own instrument cables, you’ll wonder why you were ever paying so much for name-brand offerings!