Here's something we're often asked about when it comes to guitar electronics. On the subject of guitar jacks, mono or stereo, which one is better? What are their uses, and is there a difference in sound?
We'll quickly go over a few key differences for you to settle it once and for all.
For those that want to go a bit more in depth, we'll also include some of the technicalities involved & how to wire each one.
First of all, the two most common guitar jacks used in guitar builds are of course,
You can visually tell them apart by simply counting the number of prongs/leads each one has.
Mono guitar jacks, also known as TS (Tip-Sleeve) jacks consist of two conductive parts, the tip and the sleeve, which carry the audio signal and ground, respectively. Mono jacks are designed to transmit a single channel of audio, making them suitable for mono signals such as guitar output, instrument cables, and basic audio connections.
Stereo guitar jacks, also known as TRS (Tip-Ring-Sleeve) jacks, are audio connectors used in guitar and audio equipment to transmit stereo signals. They consist of three conductive parts, the tip, ring, and sleeve, allowing for the transmission of two separate audio channels.
The configurations is the same as above with the addition of an auxiliary (ring) prong. When it comes to guitars though, this ring connection can function as as switch & is often used for just that.
Often a stereo jack is required for active pickups, pre-amps, LEDs, and other electrical components that require battery power to operate. So when an instrument cabled is plugged in, it complete the circuit to the battery & it "automatically" powers the component while the cable is connected.
Finally, because of the power switching capability, it's important to always disconnect your guitar if you have active components installed such as active pickups. If not, you will likely end up will a dead battery very soon.
In relation to most built guitars, Mono jacks are the standard required for the guitar to operate.
The only exception is for guitars with active guitar pickups, or additional electronics like pre-amps as previously mentioned.
This is where the additional prong (Ring) of the stereo jack comes in handy as it acts like an on/off switch. You can always replace a mono with a stereo jack but usually not the other way around.
In this application, the stereo jack controls an LED by turning it on when the guitar cable is plugged in, and turning the light off when removed. If a mono jack is used instead though, you would require some sort of additional on/off switch else the LED remains on at all times.
So that's the difference & their general uses, but which one is better, and should you upgrade to a stereo jack if you've got a mono installed?
Well it all comes down to application really.
You're not likely to find a distinct difference in feel or sound using one or the other.
The one thing is that a stereo jack will do everything a mono jack can do but not the other way around. If you plan on adding active pickups or perhaps an LED killswitch, then swapping over to a stereo jack will make it all worth it.
If you're replacing your mono switch because it's faulty & you only have a stereo jack on hand, then that's no problem. You can safely upgrade even if you don't have use of the additional 3rd prong functionality.
Your most common mono/stereo jacks available are what's considered a "skeleton" style.
There are however some guitars that feature what's called a "barrel" styled jack & although they look very different, they have the same functionality & wiring.
Which is less common in guitar applications is what called a "switched jack".
These guitar jacks actually have 4 prongs allowing even greater versatility when it comes to wiring auxiliary electronics.
An instance where you would use these is if you had a guitar with piezo pickups in conjunction with regular pups, and you wanted to send 1 signal to the amp, and the other signal to a mixer or another amp.
When it comes to wiring each jack, their components must also be taken into account. They are generally identified as TRS, or Tip/Ring/Sleeve on both the jack & the plug connectors.
A mono jack will only have a Tip & Sleeve section, while a stereo jack will have the additional Ring component. The same can be found on a plug connector where a mono will have a single marking, while a stereo has two.
These process for wiring these is the most simple. Having only 2 prongs, it's pretty hard to get the two mixed up. The "Sleeve" or ground will be the prong touching the center where the plug is inserted, the "Tip" portion will be the remaining prong. Obviously if you get no sound the first time, all you've got to do is swap the wires and you should be back on track. Take your time identifying each component as you'll be sure to get it all right the first time.
For this type of jack, just set it or visualize it in this position. You'll find the center prong to be the "Sleeve/Ground", and the "Tip" or live/hot wire on the right hand side. The remaining prong on the left; the "Ring" will be the auxiliary prong which can be used for power switching.
The switching mechanism is activated by inserting the plug connector in to form a sort of bridge. This bridge connects the Ring & Sleeve together forming a loop and allowing the power to pass through. Disconnect the plug & the gap is created between the two which cuts the power.
Last but not least are the "Switching" barrel guitar jacks with a total of 4 prongs. These are a rare find but here's a diagram if ever run into one.
I hope that cover any questions you might have regarding a sometimes confusing but essential topic of guitar jacks.
If you have any other questions or concerns, feel free to comment below.
Thanks for reading!
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Iron Age Guitar Accessories
226 Douglas Way St
San Antonio, TX 78210
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~William A. Foster (MOH Recipient, 1945)