"I had lived in London for a couple of years, but I had never really seen the dark underbelly of it,” – how Ed Sheeran wrote his breakthrough song, The A Team

Ed Sheeran in 2013
(Image credit: Peter Kramer/NBC/NBC Newswire/NBCUniversal via Getty Images)

Not many artists can say that the major label debut single they penned at just 18 years old was a Top 10 hit in nine different countries. Fewer still can claim to have sung about crack cocaine addiction and prostitution in front of an audience of 17 million people, including the bulk of the British Royal Family, as part of the Queen’s 2012 Diamond Jubilee celebrations.

“Two years ago at Christmas, I did a gig at Camden Proud Galleries in London," recalled Ed Sheeran in a cover feature interview with Total Guitar in 2012.  "I finished up my show and my friend came up to me and said, ‘What are you doing tomorrow?’ He explained that this homeless shelter called Crisis do this thing every year where they get given these big warehouses in lots of different areas around the country. But this particular one was in East London. They sweep the streets, basically, and house homeless people over the Christmas period for a week. They give them healthcare, shoes, food, dental care, cinemas, beds and house them. And my friend asked me if I wanted to be the entertainment.

She was a big Guns N’ Roses fan, so I played Sweet Child O’ Mine for her

“So I got down the next day, I got down the next day, I got a little badge and said, ‘I’m here to help’,” Ed continued. “I spent the first hour walking around meeting everyone, playing different covers. And all around the room there were these posters that said, ‘Angel’s Rules’, and what you could and couldn’t do. My friend explained that there was this woman called Angel, who was part of the shelter, who had been breaking all the rules from day one.

"They told her if she stopped breaking the rules, she could be the sheriff of the place and make her own rules. So they printed up and laminated these sheets of paper. We met Angel and sat down and had a talk with her. She was a big Guns N’ Roses fan, so I played Sweet Child O’ Mine for her.”

Ed wasn’t expecting anything from this good deed, but he ended up finding a muse in Angel. While Sheeran was packing up his kit after the main gig at the shelter, his friend explained that it was his job to get these people back onto the street again. Finding out where people like Angel had come from, how they made their money, and what they were going back to provided bittersweet inspiration for the guitarist.

“Being 18 at the time, I had lived in London for a couple of years, but I had never really seen the dark underbelly of it,” he explains. “And that really affected me. I got home that day, I was on the train, just thinking, thinking, thinking. And I got home and started off the tune. The first line I wrote actually was, ‘She’s just under the upper hand,’ because I felt that half the people in that shelter were just not quite able to get out. All they needed was a push…”

To strum along and accompany yourself playing this song much like Sheeran does live isn’t particularly challenging from a chordal standpoint – The A Team is based around a couple of simple progressions very much from the Noel Gallagher ‘cowboy chord’ school – but the percussive right-hand technique is trickier to master and, importantly, keep in time.

There's also a pretty electric guitar part that runs throughout, which features a fairly clean sound that you should be able to get close to with any electric equipped with a single-coil neck pickup. “We call it the John Mayer sound,” says Sheeran. “The compressed, warm, Telecaster sound. He uses a Strat, but we used a Telecaster.”

Conclusive proof that less is indeed more, The A Team’s simple arrangement of Martin acoustic guitar, Telecaster, computer-generated strings and piano took Sheeran and producer Jake Gosling just half a day to record. All things considered, that’s not bad going for an afternoon’s work.

Chris Vinnicombe worked with us here on the MusicRadar team from the site's initial launch way back in 2007, and also contributed to Guitarist magazine as Features Editor until 2014, as well as Total Guitar magazine, amongst others. These days he can be found at Gibson Guitars, where he is editor-in-chief.