A basic setup with big potential
(Image courtesy of Markus Hillgärtner, used under Creative Commons)
There’s a lot to admire about Ed Sheeran. Here’s a guy who has started at the very bottom of the ladder, performing gig after gig on the local pub circuit with no fast-pass to the top, yet has recently finished a sell out stint at London’s Wembley Stadium. From the local pub to the biggest venue possible in the UK, in a matter of years. What’s more, he’s done it pretty much using only an acoustic guitar, a loop pedal and his own talent. It’s pretty inspiring, particularly for anyone who thinks pop music nowadays is little more than TV talent shows and auto-tuned vocals. Ed has managed to reach the very pinnacle of the British music scene entirely on his own merit. Credit where it’s due.
It’s interesting to look at the equipment used by Ed Sheeran throughout his career. You could probably list it on one hand. Acoustic guitar? Check. Loop pedal? Check. That’s about it. Ed’s songs, particularly in a live setting, are built upon a foundation of acoustic guitar melodies, percussive use of the guitar’s body and little else. The glue holding everything together is the loop pedal, which allows Ed to build up these layered soundscapes, providing the base on which he can lay his unique vocal and lyrical stylings.
The video below does a great job of showing the techniques involved in achieving this sound. It’s heartening to see that it is not the most technically challenging thing in the world, which goes even further to strengthening the belief that anyone, with the right equipment and talent, could achieve great results.
Ed Sheeran’s Guitars
Let’s drill down a bit further into the types of guitar and pedal used by Ed throughout his career. As we’ve outlined, he predominantly (although not always) plays acoustic guitars, and almost exclusively plays guitars made by the legendary American brand Martin. Ed has his own signature guitar, the Martin Ed Sheeran X, which is a smaller scale dreadnought shaped guitar based on the Martin LX1E. The signature model features many of the same base characteristics as the LX1E, such as a spruce top and Fishman Isys T electronics, but allows a few visual concessions in the shape of a koa wood ‘X’ ingrained into the guitar’s top, and flourescent green X inlays in the fretboard.
Further proof of Ed’s good egg credentials are evident in the fact 100% of the profits from this guitar are donated to the East Anglia Children’s Hospice too.
The Martin LX1E has proven wildly popular since its launch. Despite its small size, the guitar produces a wonderfully bold, volume rich tone which elevates it above mere practice or travel guitar status. It also allows learners and budget-conscious players an opportunity to own a guitar from one of the music world’s truly heavyweight brands.
When it comes to electric guitars, Ed prefers Fender Stratocasters. Many acoustic players find the Strat the easiest electric to work with, on account of its contoured body, thin neck and balanced tone. Ed’s main electric is actually an Eric Clapton signature guitar which he had custom painted by a graffiti artist, and he has also been seen sporting a rather dashing PRS at the 2014 iTunes Festival.
Ed Sheeran’s Guitar Pedals
In terms of looping, Ed is a Boss pedal man through and through. When he was starting out, he favoured the Boss RC-20XL two-track looper, which allowed him to use two independent tracks of looping so he could lay down guitar and vocal tracks separately and have complete control over the starting and stopping points of each. It’s this level of control which allows him to build tracks in the way he does, which perhaps wouldn’t be so possible using a single track looper. That said, there is a degree of learning involved with any sort of looping, so for learner loopers a look at something like the Boss RC-3 or TC Electronic Ditto would be a great first port of call.
The Boss RC-20XL is no longer in production, having been superseded by the Boss RC-30. This pedal follows many of the same principles as the RC-20XL, in that it has two pedals to control two different tracks, but it packs in a larger memory for capturing ever evolving sounds, and a couple of in-built effects to help further colour your performance.
For the more advanced looper, you may prefer to look at the flagship Boss RC-300, which offers three independent tracks with full start/stop/overdub control of each. This particular model is perfect for any performers looking to introduce a wide range of instruments into their rig, like percussion, synths, drums or vocals.
As Ed became more proficient in looping, he began looking for ways to develop and improve his capability. For many players this would mean looking at the top end of the range for new guitars and equipment. The guy is probably financially secure for life so splashing out on something like the Martin 00-28VS would have been entirely understandable. However Ed still largely uses the same Martin LX1E he has always used, albeit in a slightly more roadworn condition than it was, and instead looked at how he could add new features to his looping setup.
Much the same as with someone like Beardyman, Ed found that off-the-shelf loopers were great to a point but when your entire sound and livelihood is based upon something it makes sense to see if it can be improved beyond what is readily available. The result of this is his custom-built looping machine, the Chewie Monsta. Created in conjunction with his guitar tech, the Chewie Monsta is effectively the switches from four Boss RC-20Xl pedals built in a custom metal housing, with two screens showing key information Ed would need mid-performance. But where the Chewie Monsta differs is that it isn’t actually a looper in its own right. Instead, the unit is a modified MIDI controller, operating a VST looper based within a laptop running Ableton Live. This kind of setup removes many of the limitations around loop length, track numbers, available effects etc and offers incredible potential for live performance. The particular looper he uses, Mobius, is actually free to download too for anyone interested in checking it out.
As with any kind of musical performance, there are ways in which you can improve the sound, or increase its potential, but with live looping the basic principles remain the same no matter what. Much like older fans of Formula 1 hark back to the days when races were won based on driver talent, as opposed engineering brilliance, anybody with a loop pedal and acoustic guitar has all the tools they need to follow the path Ed has taken. The real skill is in the talent and application put into achieving it.