Having shared a lot of recent work about pedalboards we've done, it is only fair to spend some time to talk about plugs, jacks, and patch cables. After all, they are a core ingredient to a guitar, pedalboard or amp, and play a big part in the overall tone of your rig.
Plugs and Jacks
Almost all plugs and jacks in the guitar world use the 1/4” system, which owes its heritage to telephones from the late 1800s / early 1900s. It’s been the industry standard as it’s sturdy, reliable, and easily serviceable. The male connector is known as the plug, where the female is the jack. I’ve heard these two constantly being mixed up, so I feel the need to clarify. Plugs are the phallic-looking things on the two ends of a cable. (Please look up phallus in the dictionary if you are unclear). Jacks are the part that's in your guitar or amp or effects pedal.
Mono TS/Stereo TRS
In the guitar world, more often than not, we use mono audio connectors. This means that there are two conductors in the whole interconnect system - the Tip (T), and the sleeve (S). The tip carried the hot signal, where the sleeve carries the ground signal. This is why 1/4” plugs and jacks are also known as TS plugs and jacks. The stereo version would have an extra conductor - the Ring (R). Hence, TRS for stereo counterparts. Stereo plugs are almost never used in guitar applications but stereo jacks do appear every now, most often in guitars that have active electronics, where the extra conductor in the stereo jack acts as a switch to control battery operation.
For our purposes, we mainly come across 3 types of plugs. The straight and right angled plugs are most commonly seen on instrument cables, where the pancake plug is usually found on pedalboards, due to its space-saving qualities. Whether it’s a straight plug or an angled plug, as long as it’s of decent quality, the construction of the plug consists of a core that runs along the length of the plug, a metal shell that composes the shape of the plug, bushing that seperates the tip from the sleeve, and finally a plating material.
The core of all the plugs we use are made of copper or an alloy containing high contents of copper. This is because copper is an excellent conductor of signals and is the standard to which other metal’s conductivity is measured against. You may think, if that’s the case, then why aren’t plugs and jacks all made of copper for the best signal conductivity? That’s because copper is a soft metal and does not resist corrosion well. In reality, though, many manufacturers don’t use copper but use an alloy (with a low copper content), as a cost cutting measure. Right outside the core, we have a metal shell that forms the shape of the plug. More often than not, these are made of a zinc alloy, for its structural rigidity and corrosion resistance. Then last of all is the plating. Plating material is usually either nickel or gold.
Nickel VS Gold
Now this is the main focus of this article. It’s a highly debated topic, where many audiophiles would happily get into arguments over. For the longest time, nickel was the main plating material for 1/4” plugs and jacks. This is because nickel was more commonly available back in the day, and it has great corrosion resistance against humid or acidic environments.
In the 1980s, manufacturers started making gold plated plugs and jacks. It was originally marketed as having even greater corrosion resistance than nickel. Now this is true, as gold is known for being an inert metal. So if you were to ever play a gig on Mars or some extreme climate, gold connectors would definitely help you out. Another advantage to gold is that it offers better electrical connectivity than nickel, but it is important to take into account the thickness of the plating, which is usually in the scale of micrometers. So does the plating material affect the tone? Maybe. At that thickness, I believe it is hard to say. But is it enough for me to overlook all its flaws? Lets see.
Gold is an expensive metal, which means that you would be paying a premium for gold connectors, or cables that have them. Given that gold is an expensive plating material, many manufacturers that do use gold plating, usually only do so sparingly. It'll look great when it's brand new, but within 100 mating cycles, you will see a shiny silver metal where the plug makes contact with the jack’s internal parts. That isn't dirt or material from the jack rubbing onto the plug. That is your plug's gold plating being rubbed off. If that isn't bad enough, there's an even worse problem. Whenever you have different metals connected to one another, and an electrical current passing through, you have a chemical reaction. Now consider that almost any guitar, amp, or effect pedal has nickel plated jacks. If you have a gold plug, plugged into a nickel jack, this chemical reaction will take place. What ends up happening is that the gold plug will be fine, since it is inert, but the nickel plated parts will suffer as it is not as corrosion resistant as the gold. After a prolonged period of time, you end up with a corroded nickel jack, which you probably won't notice until the jack starts acting faulty!
So do we use gold plated plugs? Almost never. The only time we use gold plated plugs is when we know that the mating jack is also gold plated. An example of this is the cable we custom made for Khalil to use on his prototype “Grits” guitar. It connects a Shure UR1 belt pack (nickel-plated plug) to the guitar (gold-plated plug). (When the "Grits" guitar was built, we decided to overkill it with a gold-plated jack.) More often than not, though, you won’t likely have a cable dedicated to a single purpose in which both ends of the interconnects are fully controlled. With pancake plugs, though, it's another story. Finding good quality pancake plugs with nickel plating is a lot easier said than done. Most pancake plugs of decent quality have at least a gold plated tip. Although it isn't our favorite combination, it'll do its job just fine, especially since we aren't going to be plugging and unplugging patch cables on the pedal boards too often.
So in the real world of guitars, we rarely use gold-plated connectors. In fact, we rarely care for gold-plated connectors. Nickel has worked great for so many years - all of the classic great records were recorded with nickel-plated connectors. On top of that, rarely do we ever come across a device that has factory-installed gold plated jacks. The last thing we, as guitar techs, want is to run into a problem with the jack on a device, due to its internals being corroded. In the shop it’s not such a big deal since we can replace the jack, but on a live show stage, we don't often have the time to do so. If the choice was between a corroded plug or a jack, we’d always rather have a corroded plug, because we can see the corrosion, and we can just grab another cable with clean plugs.
And as far as tone goes, on a live stage, the last thing that is ever on my mind is "is the tone suffering because I'm not using gold-plated plugs?". I'm pretty confident that whatever tonal differences gold-plated plugs have are negligible in consideration to what the Front Of House, sound guys, or even a slight turn on an EQ knob on a pedal can affect.
So all in all, there is almost no reason to pay a premium for plugs that only hold its advantages for a short amount of time. I'd be much happier spending the cost of a cable with gold-plated plugs, on two cables with nickel-plated plugs (of decent quality). Now you'd have a great sounding, reliable and consistent backup, rather than amazing tone of nothing, when the gold-plated plugs cause complications.
ALthough, we've focused heavily on connectors in this article, they are only parts of the whole interconnect system, which also includes, the cable itself. We will visit this topic in a seperate upcoming article.