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Reggae legend Bob Marley wrote dozens upon dozens of iconic songs, some of which you probably hear nearly every day.
When they hear his bouncy, syncopated guitar playing, some people wonder: What kind of strings did Bob Marley use?
Bob Marley played multiple different guitars, both acoustic and electric, during his career, and based on the limited evidence available, it appears he used the strings that came with the instrument from the factory, rather than having a preference for a particular brand of strings.
Let’s look at the guitars and other gear Marley played, and let’s also look at how those guitars shaped his genre defining sound.
What Guitar Strings Did Bob Marley Use?
As I noted above, it seems like Marley didn’t have a preference for a particular brand of guitar strings. Instead, it seems like he stuck with whatever came from the guitar from the factory.
That was possible, in part, because for an international rock star, he owned relatively few instruments himself. He probably owned fewer than a dozen when he died in 1981.
That likely made keeping track of strings easier for Marley’s guitar tech, Gary Karlson. Another possibility is that Marley simply didn’t care about what strings went on his instrument and left string choice up to Karlson.
What Gauge Strings Did Bob Marley Use?
Just like with the type of strings, no one has found evidence that Marley had a particular preference for one gauge of strings over another. Rather, it seems he played whatever thickness of string that came with the guitar.
That was quite common, especially when string choice in general was more limited. John Lennon, George Harrison, and Paul McCartney each played the strings that came with their instruments originally, especially during the early parts of their career, for example.
We can guess what gauge strings he played on at least one guitar, however. Guild Guitars produced the A-20 Marley, which is a tribute to the Guild dreadnought that Marley used at his Kingston, Jamaica, home as his primary songwriting instrument.
That instrument comes with D’Addario XL coated light gauge 12-53 strings. Coated strings weren’t available when Marley was alive — he died in 1981 — but it is possible the gauge of strings, which runs .012”, .016”, .024” wound, .032”, .042”, .053”, from high E to low E, matches the thickness of the strings that were on Marley’s guitar when Guild examined it.
What Electric Guitars Did Bob Marley Play?
Marley’s favorite instrument was a 1970 Les Paul Special, with two P-90 pickups.
He bought the guitar, which had once belonged to Marc Bolan, in London in 1973 and would use it, with some modifications, until his death in 1981.
It would be the guitar he was probably most photographed playing. Not long after he bought the guitar, it fell and the selector switch was pushed through the front of the guitar.
A hasty repair with an oversized Les Paul selector switch plate was used for years, but in the late 1970s, that switched to an oval piece of aluminum, which made the guitar look it’s most distinctive.
While that guitar was a favorite, it wasn’t the only electric guitar he played. In photos from before he bought the Les Paul Special, he’s captured playing an early 1960s Fender Stratocaster in white and an early 1970s Fender Strat in sunburst, for example.
And photos from his 1973 tour of the United States show him playing an early 1970s Gibson SG, and though the photo is in black and white, so the color isn’t clear, the instrument is likely Cherry Red.
In 1979, Marley was pictured during his tour of Japan playing a sunburst Yamaha SG-1000, which had been a gift from the guitar maker.
In addition to these, he was seen playing Paul Standards and various other electric guitars throughout his career.
What Acoustic Guitars Did Bob Marley Play?
While Marley is probably best known for his electric guitar playing, like so many other players, his first instrument was an acoustic guitar. In Marley’s case, it was the late 1950s or early 1960s nylon string student model.
The guitar, eventually heavily fire damaged, is now on display in a museum in Jamaica.
One acoustic he rarely performed with but still loved and played regularly, I’ve already mentioned: a 1970s Guild dreadnought-size guitar. He’s pictured casually leaning that guitar against the ground on the cover of David Burnett’s biography of Marley, “Soul Rebel.”
Eventually honored with a signature model, the Guild A-20 Marley I noted earlier, this was the guitar Marley used at home to practice, to work on melodies, and to write songs.
In pictures and videos from late in his life, Marley is sometimes seen performing his 1980 hit “Redemption Song” on one of the most iconic acoustic guitars of the 1970s and 1980s, the Ovation 1687-8 Adamas.
Ovation Guitar Company launched in the late 1960s with the two-fold innovation of a synthetic back that was also rounded. The combination of material and shape gave it volume and sustain like no one had ever heard before from an acoustic instrument.
In 1977, the company launched the Adamas model line, which featured a thinner soundboard with carbon fiber reinforcement and multiple small soundholes. That model was what Marley used for the recording of “Redemption Song” and he can be seen using it live during his touring to support his final album.
That wasn’t the only Ovation that Marley was seen playing, though. He also had an Ovation Balladeer, given to him in 1975.
Other acoustics that Marley was spotted playing over the years included a number of 12 strings, including an Eko Ranger 12 string and an Epiphone FT-365 12 string.
Much of Marley’s guitar style has become part of pop culture now. This video, for example, walks though the gear needed to sound like him.
But like with so many other artists, people who try to imitate Bob Marley by playing the same kinds of guitars and the same basic tone he had are very much missing the point.
Marley’s sound, like his songwriting in general, was influenced by his experiences. He heard sounds and music he liked and took those to make something new and completely unique.
He did the same with the topics he wrote about. Without those particular experiences, his songs would have sounded totally different and even been about different things.
When looking at how Marley — or any artist — got their particular tone, there’s more to it than just what they used. You need to understand why they made the creative choices they did, which helps give you a much more complete picture.
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.