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Lee Hodgeson - Guitar Leads Do Sound Different...

The Justinguitar.com Masterclasses

Are there really audible differences between guitar leads? And if so, is there a 'best sounding' one? Well, they all sound different for sure, so I believe it's a case of finding what's best for you. After all, not everyone might want a totally transparent sounding lead. (An electric guitar is not exactly a piece of hi-fi...) Blues players, for example, may want a warmer tone, whereas a funk guitarist might want sparkle, get the idea? On a larger scale, we basically choose between, let's say, a Fender Strat over a Gibson Les Paul (or vice versa); one has more warmth yet the other has more brightness and cut. Of course an amplifier has tone controls, so does a lead's characteristics count? I believe so. It's not just about treble, middle and bass; there are other more subtle factors at work - which scientific studies could explain.

All we musicians care about is a musically satisfying result, wouldn't you say? My main point is that I really can hear how some leads impede or alter the sound in some way or another. Curiously, I can also sense when a lead is the 'right' way round: it's not about tone, it's rather more to do with cohesiveness and the frequencies all arriving synchronously. Whatever, all I ultimately want is a balanced, uncongested, cohesive and generally wholesome sound. I only want gear that lets me get on with the playing of music.

Test Equipment

Guitar: 
Fret-King Corona with Wilkinson pickups (various pickup settings used).

Test Amps: 
Mesa/Boogie MkIII Simulclass (EV12L), Cornell Voyager 20 (6V6 tubes, Jensen Alnico loudspeaker). I USED AN ESSENTIALLY CLEAN SOUND THROUGHOUT. (Using parallel thinking, I'm one of those who want even their 'dirty' sound to be essentially clean - articulate is probably a better word - when using overdrive. I believe that clarity is invariably perceived as being a positive quality. Some producers think in terms of 'expensive' sounds...

Playing Style(s) used:
Hybrid picking mostly, plus some fingerpicking - the sound of flesh makes Jeff Beck sound good, wouldn't you agree? I played single note lines (including soulful bends), double-stops, triads and chord strums. I can state categorically that playing multiple notes together or closely in succession, sustaining that is, reveals just how a lead accurately or inaccurately passes the component sound(s). Some leads make your guitar sound disjointed and imbalanced, almost as if it's two guitars fighting each other, whereas certain other leads definitely produce a singular, coherent sound.

OK, here's my verdict...

Cordial (Neutrik)

Absolutely stunning! Using one of these makes me love my guitar more than ever!

- Fabulously clear sound (especially on double stops).
- Sounds musically integrated and has a balanced tone; it's a wholesome sound that makes a guitar sound wonderful by itself yet, it's also offers a sound that gels with accompaniment noticeably better (than when using other leads).
- Definitely makes you think: "this is what my guitar should sound like!" It also 'feels' great!

The Cordial lead, CGK175 (product code: CSI3 6PPS, labelled as “Top Performance”), is easily the best I've ever used. It really did make me go "wow!” Most satisfyingly, it's the only lead I've ever used that seems to convey the soul... Cordial's CGK122 is slightly different physically but is great sounding, too. I have several of them… I also have another Cordial lead, the CIK122 version, which is ever so slightly edgier and more vibrant sounding than most. I like it a lot but my favourite is still the CGK 175. The Cordial budget lead is unexceptional.

The Cordial is my first choice yet there are others that I'd consider worthy, too...

Horizon Siverflex

To be honest, I like this as much as the Cordial lead for all the same reasons…

George L's

I've heard that these are highly regarded but they're not for me. Despite having great clarity and transparency, they have a slightly cold, clinical sound in my opinion. However, I'd recommend that you try them out with your own guitar…

- Extremely clear, brilliant sound that works well with all kinds of sounds and playing styles.
- Good integration and balanced tone: it's a wholesome sound.
- Excellent transient attack! Which makes it sound immediate as opposed to blurred.

Note. The George L's sonically transparency is, I feel, of debatable merit: I found whilst playing along with a CD that, using the George L's lead at the front end, I was just a little bit too "in-your-face" all the time. On the other hand, the Cordial lead made me sound like I was there in the studio/on stage with the band. On the plus side, I do believe that Pod users, for example, might benefit from the George L's excellent 'cut'.

Planet Waves (D'Addario)

I bought a 20-footer (the more expensive twisted-pair version) six months ago and had been using it quite happily until I discovered Cordial. I was somewhat shocked at how the PW sounded cluttered and uncohesive, especially on double stops (playing D & F# together on the 5th & 4th strings sounded much nicer through the Cordial lead; it sounded more focused and the chord was noticeably more vibrant!).

Planet Waves' advertising claims that its cable is "acoustically transparent", devoid of any filtering effects, yet it does, to my ears, sound a little thicker than other leads - which is probably why endorsee Eric Clapton likes them! I should add, however, that I played a masterbuilt Fender Tele recently at a gig and the Planet Waves lead did do it justice. You see, it's a marriage...

- Fairly clear sound for single-note lines but not so great for double stops or chords.
- Flattering when you play hard but loses some detail (sounds a little furry) when using softer dynamics.
- Might suit a rock/blues lead guitarist who wants a marginally thicker, fatter tone. (It doesn't actually boost anything, it's just not ultimately as brilliant or detailed sounding as certain others.)

Ki-Sound (Rotosound)

I paid £4.00 for a 10-footer and I really can't fault it!

- Lovely clear sound for any playing style and note formation.
- Balanced tone: gives a wholesome, integrated sound.
- A cosy sound. Highly recommended!

Active Lead

I used to be an endorsee (maybe I still am!). Kind of like a DI-box-as-a-lead if you know what I mean. Clean sound but unfortunately a little noisy. It's perfect though, if you want to quickly plug into a mixing desk or hi-fi etc that doesn't have a dedicated guitar input (the Active Lead has a mega-high impedance, which is good for guitars). Listen to this: I recently travelled by air so I couldn't take my main rig. All I took was my (back-up) guitar, a Squier Silver Strat, and my Active Lead. I plugged into another guitarist's little tranny Fender Deluxe (mic'd up)... ...and the favorable comments I received from several guitarists from other bands at the festival was unbelievable!

- Particularly clear sound, with enhanced high-end - it sparkles!
- Balanced tone: gives a wholesome, integrated sound. Designed to eliminate an undesirable peak that's found in most electric guitars' pickup response, it does indeed smooth things out.
- Suffers from a little added hiss. Also, you must keep the integral battery box away from transformers etc.

Ripcord (MI)

I paid £82.00 for a 20-footer several years ago and loved it for a while... But recently I fell out of love with it and so I sold it! It definitely has a ‘sound' though...

- Not neutral sounding - imparts fatness and mid-range drive, a "juicy" sound!
- Suffers from a kind of crackling/rustling noise when you shake it. (So don't!)
- Ripcord also sell expensive speaker and mains leads (yes, they believe even the latter affects the tone!)

Digressing for a moment, but still considering the lengths people will go for great tone, Eddie Van Halen lowered the voltage supply to his Marshall amp and the sound, he says, went "brown"... And Eric Johnson believes in all manner of obsessive aspects of tone that people may mock. Mind you, I heard him play live once and his sound was absolutely phenomenal!

Round Up (conclusions...)

Winding down now, I do recall once trying an upmarket Monster lead - they do all kinds of dedicated, stylised guitar/bass leads - and I seem to remember that it sounded neutral (ultimately though, I preferred my "fruitier" sounding Ripcord at the time). If you want esoterica, then check out Russ Andrews product brochure, which offers guitar leads for up to £600!!!

Finally and in conclusion, I have bought many guitar leads over the years (and plenty more besides those mentioned here, which varied between acceptable and unacceptable) and I can most definitely hear – I'd rather say “feel” - when something is right or wrong, subjectively speaking, that is. It's all about finding that elusive "perfect combination" isn't it?

Have fun!

Last Updated: 20th August 2006

About Lee Hodgeson 

Lee has toured with No. 1 chart act Odyssey and Top 10 chart acts Bobby Thurston and George McRae, and has jammed with Stevie Wonder's Wonderlove.

Lee Hodgson is a regularly featured columnist and transcriber in Guitar Techniques magazine and is an erstwhile columnist and transcriber for Guitarist magazine as well. He has authored a book, Hot Country, and written chapters for various modern titles including Guitar: A Complete Guide For The Player and Play Acoustic, plus grade pieces validated by Trinity College of Music.

Lee also teaches at Guitar Institute (www.guitarinstitute.com) in London.

e-mail: [email protected]

 


Lesson ID: MA-101