ESP GUITARS (Electric Sound Products)
A Headstock Above the Rest
by Todd K Smith
“Twenty years ago, I found the guitar that fits everything I’d ever wanted to accomplish as a guitarist: the tone, looks, and feel of an ESP are what has defined rock as we know it today. Here I am, twenty years later and still loving ESP. Does that tell you anything? ~ George Lynch
Why are some of today’s leading metal guitar players converting over to the ESP guitar? The list is ever expanding drifting from the European powermetal scene including André Olbrich / Marcus Siepen (Blind Guardian), Timo Tolkki (Stradivarius) and Thomas Youngblood (Kamelot) to American muscle metalheads Izzy Stradlin (Guns N’ Roses), Pepper Keenan (Corrosion of Conformity, Down) and Jeff Hanneman / Tom Araya (Slayer). “I love the sound,” says Pepper Keenan on his stop through Reno with Down. “It’s thick on the bottom end, easy string action and you can beat on it all day without going out of tune. Personally, I love the headstock and once plugged in…the guitar adds a lot of crunch to our sound.”
ESP has an interesting history starting in Japan in 1975 as a custom replacement outlet for hard-to-find guitar parts. Two years later they began building guitars for the Japanese market, but it was the cyclone of metal “hair bands” in the mid-80s that put the company on the map. Dokken’s George Lynch is credited to discovering ESP while on tour in Japan In 1986. He walked into an ESP shop looking for a replacement neck and learned that ESP also built custom guitars. As a result, his famous ESP Kamikaze was made and so was the company’s first signature guitar. In 1987, Kirk Hammett of Metallica picked up on the ESP wave and commissioned his ESP KH-2 which was later released as a signature model in 1989. At this time, ESP based its headquarters in a loft in lower Manhattan on 19th Street, latter moving to the seedy 48th Street neighborhood.
In 1993, ESP moved its headquarters to Los Angeles opening an office on Sunset Blvd. in Hollywood. Soon after they launched the LTD line in an effort to mass-produce high-quality products at a more affordable price. Korean and Indonesian contracts made the majority of the Japanese-built flagship instruments almost obsolete. The lone exception was ESP's artist signature lines, which remained ESP (rather than LTD) models. In the early 2000s, ESP resumed shipping the standard Japanese manufactured lines to the United States (where they are very popular among metal and hard rock players), albeit at greatly increased prices compared to the early 90s.
Similarly to Ibanez, ESP was initially known for making high quality and customized replicas of famous American guitars, including hot rodded Fender Strats and Teles, as well as Gibson Explorers. The latter model (known as the EXP) shot to fame when Metallica’s James Hetfield's touted it during their rise to prominence. In 2002, ESP was ranked among the music industry's fastest growing companies. This was largely due to the Fender buyout of Jackson Guitars. Many Jackson endorsers switched over to ESP, due to their stunningly similar design, playability, and quality. Some of the artists who left Jackson for ESP include Dave Mustaine (Megadeth), Adam Darski (Behemoth) and Alexi Laiho / Roope Latvala (Children of Bodom).
ESP’s category line includes LTD, ESP (Eclipse, KH), and Xtone. Custom ESPs are handcrafted in Japan while the standard ESPs are made in factories in Japan. Though ESP’s are incredibly similar to numerous other instruments (the AX series bearing a striking resemblance to the BC Rich Virgo and BC Rich Warlock, the ESP M series being similar to the Jackson Soloist and ESP V series similar to the Jackson King V), ESP has been remarkably lawsuit free when it comes to guitar shapes. In the late nineties the company branched out into the bass market and now has a Standard, Vintage and Deluxe series. The Tom Araya custom is one of the most wicked basses on the market. Says Araya, “ESP makes great fucking guitars, or else I wouldn’t be here.”
“I love the classic single cutaway shape along with the sound. I’m also obsessed with old cars, so combing the paint of an old primered ranch truck with the ESP Eclipse shape made sense.”
~ James Hetfield
Website: ESP Guitars