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Guitarists know that strings can make the last little bit of difference when trying to get just the right sound.
If you’re a fan of modern singer-songwriters, for example, and want to capture that sound, you might wonder: What guitar strings does Ed Sheeran use?
Ed Sheeran uses Elixir Nanoweb 80/20 Bronze Acoustic Guitar Strings, and plays the light gauge, .012-.053, set. Strings are part of Sheeran’s distinctive sound, but another aspect comes from his use of short scale guitars, which sound different because the strings are at a different tension.
Let’s look a bit more at the strings and other gear that Ed Sheeran uses, as well as how it all contributes to his sound.
What Gauge Strings Does Ed Sheeran Use?
Anyone who’s played guitar very much knows what a difference the gauge of strings you use can make on both the sound and the playability of the instrument.
Another major factor is the scale length of the instrument. Those two factors, along with the pitch the guitar strings are tuned to, affect the tension the strings put on the guitar, which in turn affects how the strings will feel and respond to your playing.
Thanks to a post made nearly 10 years ago by Sheeran’s guitar tech, we know that he uses Elixir Nanoweb 80/20 Bronze strings in light gauge. The strings run .012″, .016″, .024″ (wound), .032″, .042″, and .053″ from high E to low E.
— Trevor Dawkins (@TrevorDawkins) June 5, 2014
Elixir strings are particularly noted for their coatings. The company claims that the Nanoweb coating they use on the strings makes them last longer.
The idea is that the coating helps protect the surface of the string, delaying or even entirely preventing rust and other corrosion. The coating is also supposed to keep oils and dirt from your fingers from contaminating the strings and reduce handling noise when your fingers run up and down the fret board.
Ed Sheeran’s use of light gauge strings, along with another factor we’ll look at next, mean the strings are under a lot less tension than thicker strings. That contributes to a slinky feel under your fretting hand.
Sheeran isn’t the only guitarist that prefers lighting strings and blues legend B.B. King was known for going lighter while Harrison and McCartney of The Beatles are both know for heavier strings. The other thing that contributes to the way strings feel when playing Ed Sheeran’s setup is his preference for smaller, shorter scale guitars.
While Sheeran has played a number of instruments over his career, including, most recently, Lowden Guitars, he’s been most closely associated with the Martin Guitars “Little Martin” LX1E. That’s a 3/4 size guitar with a scale length of 23 inches, compared to the 25 inch scale length of most acoustic guitars.
He’s such a fan that both of his Martin signature models were based on the LX1E. And it definitely affects Sheeran’s guitar sound.
The chart below shows you how much of a difference that makes with strings like the Elixir strings Sheeran uses.
|High E||B||G||D||A||Low E|
|25 inch scale length||24.7||24.6||30||30.2||29.2||27.8|
|23 inch scale length||20.9||20.8||25.3||25.6||24.7||23.5|
As you can see, the shorter scale length leads to much lower tension on all the strings.
One thing to note: Using medium gauge strings would lead to higher tension, putting the tension closer to what you’d have on an 25 inch scale acoustic guitar with light strings. That’s one example of the way the strings and string gauge a player chooses can have a large impact on both the playability and the sound.
Strings with more tension on them will appear louder and they’ll resonate differently than those with lower tension.
That lower tension also likely contributes to Sheeran’s playing style.
There is a drawback to using lighter strings with lower tension, however. It can mean that you break strings more easily.
You can see that happen to Sheeran in this video.
A final effect on Sheeran’s sound comes from the combination of the strings he uses and the guitars he plays. Short scale guitars tend to sound warmer and fuller than long scale guitars.
That has to do with the amount of tension on the neck, sound board and strings, as well as the overall length of the string. Shorter strings have harmonic points closer to one another, which can lead to a richer sound, full of overtones.
Sheeran’s guitar tone is not notably bright, despite his use of the brightest Elixir strings available, the Nanoweb coated 80/20 Bronze strings. That’s in part because he’s playing shorter scale guitars, which have a much warmer tone.
The two aspects could clash, but in Sheeran’s case, it’s led to a tone that is present and punchy without being too bright or aggressive.
How Do I Get Ed Sheeran’s Guitar Sound?
Few would claim Sheeran is a virtuoso guitar player, but he’s a solid musician and songwriter. One thing about his style that separates him from many other singer-songwriters is his use of syncopation and rhythm when playing.
He’ll accent beats 2 and 4, something done more in dance and hip-hop than in rock or by singer-songwriters. That might help to explain why his songs have a broader appeal.
His guitar set up, with the lower tension strings, helps to reinforce the percussive and rhythmic effects that his playing style depends on. He’ll use a combination of missing the strings on one part of a strumming pattern and palm muting to help accentuate the rhythm he’s going for.
Just like he isn’t necessarily a virtuoso, there aren’t that many people out there clamoring to sound exactly like Sheeran.
His appeal is less about the tone he gets from his instrument and more about the songs he produces and the feelings those songs evoke. This video gives a rundown of how to get Sheeran’s sound.
Apart from the instruments he plays, a key part of Sheeran’s sound is his use of looping pedals. One of the most common he’s seen with is the Boss RC-30 Loopstation, but he uses others, as well, including a custom built looping pedalboard set up.
The strings a player uses are only ever going to be part of their sound, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t important. Like so many other things in music, the effect the strings have might be multiplied or minimized, depending on other factors.
In Sheeran’s case, the brightness of the Elixir Nanoweb 80/20 Bronze strings is balanced by the warmth of the short scale guitars he prefers.
When thinking about how to get a particular player’s sound, though, don’t forget to consider why they choose to sound the way they do. In Sheeran’s case, his tone comes from a series of decisions about his gear and his playing style.
It’s hard to separate that, and when you’re picking a guitar tone, you need to keep those considerations in mind.
I’ve been a musician, particularly a guitarist, for more than 25 years. I love writing about guitars, gear, recording, music in general and more.