Will this Hobbit-sized Martin possess enough magic to charm us here at Acoustic?
Ed Sheeran is now well on his way to becoming a force majeure in the singer songwriter stakes. His song ‘I See Fire’ from the recently released second installment of Peter Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy will doubtless introduce him to an even wider audience and 2014 could well end up being something of a golden year for the diminutive redhead from the shires of Suffolk. It just so happens that his signature Martin guitar is causing a bit of a stir, too…
For years Ed played an LX1 “Little Martin” and so when negotiations began concerning the design of a signature model, it was a fairly straightforward choice to base it on this – the smallest member of the Martin stable. If you’re not familiar with the LX1, it really is quite tiny – very much along the lines of a Baby Taylor or some of the travel guitars currently on the market. As such, it stands just 870mm tall and must rank as one of the slightest signature acoustics in the stores today. One of the most significant differences between the two models is that the LX1E offers a pickup as standard, something that is not available on the rank and file version.
Another request from Ed was that Martin should make the guitar both affordable and ecologically sound and so the instrument is built at the company’s facility in Mexico and comprises some quite interesting and forward thinking building materials. Indeed, the solid Sapele top is really the only conventional body timber in evidence…
So, it’s Sapele for the top – Ed originally wanted the warmth of mahogany, but Sapele is sonically very close to it – and realistically a much more affordable substitute. It looks attractive and, of course, provides a contrast to the standard LX1’s spruce top. The Sapele here has been laser etched with the “+” sign borne by Ed’s first album and the lower case acronym “each” which stands for East Anglia’s Children’s Hospices – the charity to whom Ed’s royalties from the sale of his signature guitar have been donated.
The LX1E’s back and sides are constructed from textured HPL – or “high pressure laminate” to you and me. When I spoke to Chris Martin IV recently he told me that Martin have received their fair share of flack for using what might at first appear to be a type of plastic on some of their newer designs. But, as he told me, HPL actually originates from paper or wood pulp, despite what your senses might lead you to believe. In fact it feels a bit plastic-like, but if you tap it you’re rewarded by a distinctly woody response. Strange, but I’m keeping my mind wide open!
The neck material is Stratabond, a composite of layered wood (it’s a trademark of the Rutland Plywood Corporation, which may give you an idea of the process central to its construction) with something of the appearance of a really wild but oddly uniform mahogany. Here, it’s been dyed light brown and looks and feels satisfyingly wood-like in the hand. Stratabond is not a new material as it has been used as both stocks and handles of guns in the past. More recently we’ve seen it on the Martin DRS1 that we reviewed in Acoustic a couple of years ago. It’s strong and resistant to bending or warping, which ticks at least two of the more important boxes for guitar neck construction, you have to admit.
The HPL laminated headstock is festooned with six Martin embossed tuners and fronted by the familiar C.F. Martin & Co. trademark in bright orange – and we’re not talking subtle burnt umber here, but rather the you’ve-definitely-been-tangoed variety! We also meet the “+” sign here again with the nice touch of adding “Since 1991” – Ed Sheeran’s year of birth – underneath to match Martin’s “Since 1833” beneath their own logo.
On to the fretboard now and another diversion from the norm in that it’s Richlite, rather than ebony or rosewood. Richlite is another artificial product made from mixing paper with phenolic resin and has found its place in kitchen work surfaces as an alternative to granite. So you can be sure that it will take a considerable amount of punishment!
It’s Richlite for the bridge, too, with a black Tusq saddle and so this guitar really is a composite of new building materials and admirable ideals, as it’s both affordable and ecologically sound. Let’s see if its voice is as virtuous…
Being such a small-bodied instrument I wasn’t expecting that much in terms of tone from the LX1E – but seeing that it bears the Martin marque, I was also expecting to be contradicted in my expectations! In fact it has bags of tone – way more than its body size would suggest and despite a little inevitable boxiness around the lower mid-range, it possesses an exceedingly useful palette of sounds. Arguably it responds best when you apply a sort of Sheeran-esque gentle slappy strum to it, but I found that it worked well with almost everything. As I’ve said in the past, you’re hardly going to get a full-bodied dreadnought tone out of a little mite like this – but then again, I haven’t plugged it in yet…
The LX1E comes equipped with a Fishman Isys under saddle pickup/preamp combo with a built-in tuner and so it’s stage-ready as well as travel friendly. When inputted to my trusty AER Compact 60 the LX1E revealed a very sprightly and useful electric personality. Even with the EQ on the amp set perfectly flat the LX sounded very good indeed: basses were fuller and trebles sweeter, with the most satisfying response still in the region of gently picked chordal accompaniment. The sound here would be very good from any guitar, but for this body size and price range, it really is quite remarkable and as such I can understand entirely why Ed wants this as his number one instrument for both studio and touring work.
Well, they say that good things come in small packages and that is certainly the case here. Ed said that he wanted a great sounding guitar that his fans could afford and Martin has certainly delivered that and more. It’s not only the perfect “sit in front of the TV and have a strum” guitar or even a “takes up no room whatsoever in the car when setting off on holiday” type of instrument. Despite its size it’s a fully capable, pro-level stage guitar with a very good variety of tonal assets built in. I have to say, too, that if newly sought out ecological building materials sound as good as this then the future of guitar building is, perhaps, a golden one!
Pros: A mighty mite in terms of build and sound
Cons: A very slight tendency towards boxiness in the mid range
Overall: Looks like a little treasure with a sound like a dragon’s hoard!
SOUND QUALITY 5
BUILD QUALITY 5
VALUE FOR MONEY 5
Model: Ed Sheeran LX1E
Retail Price: £499
Body Size: Modified O – 14 fret
Made In: Mexico
Back and Sides: HPL
Nut Width: 43mm
Scale Length: 584.2mm
Onboard Electronics: Fishman Isys
Strings Fitted: Martin SP medium
Left Handers: Yes
Gig Bag/Case Included: Padded gig bag