If you're a hard rock or metal guitarist, you've probably heard of ESP's guitars since they have earned a stellar reputation in those genres. ESP offers three general tiers of guitars: world class models, medium range models, and affordable models that still give plenty of value for your money.
History of the Company
Electric Sound Products, known as ESP, was formed in 1975 in Tokyo, Japan. The founder, Hisatake Shibuya, founded ESP to manufacture high-end components and replacement parts for electric guitars and basses.
It wasn't long before markets for ESP's products opened up worldwide. In the late 1970s, ESP started producing top quality guitars for the Japanese market. These guitars were the Grassroots, Edwards, and Navigator models, and they were inspired by legendary guitars such as the Fender Telecaster and the Gibson Les Paul, SG, and Flying V.
In 1984, ESP developed a relationship with Kramer Guitars in Manhattan, which had been endorsed by Eddie Van Halen. Because of the demand for their guitars, Kramer outsourced production of components to ESP. By 1986, ESP had started making their 400 series guitars, high-end models that were celebrated for their sound and quality. After George Lynch, guitarist for Dokken, bought an ESP Kamikaze while he was visiting Tokyo, ESP models started taking off in the world of heavy metal.
The 1990s saw ESP instruments gaining steadily with regard to their market share in the United States and in 1993, the company moved its headquarters to Los Angeles, California. ESP's gains in the guitar market became even more pronounced after ESP introduced their LTD line, which consisted of affordable models geared toward beginning musicians and guitarists on a budget. These designs appealed to metal players who, after gaining musical skill, would be encouraged to move up to a higher-end ESP model.
The 2000s to Present
In 2002, ESP was recognized as one of the fastest-growing music-related companies in the world. The 2000s also saw the introduction of the Xtone series, semi-hollow body guitars that broadened the company's appeal to a wider range of musicians beyond rock and metal. In 2014, under the leadership of CEO Matt Masciandaro and Executive Vice President Jose Ferro, ESP started making handcrafted, custom guitars at a factory in North Hollywood, California.
Current Production Models
ESP currently offers five guitar series, which range from high-end models to more affordable instruments. No matter what style of guitar you play, your level of experience, or your budget, you're sure to find an ESP guitar that suits your needs.
ESP Original Series
The ESP Original Series, made in Tokyo, are ESP's top-of-the-line models, each of which is handcrafted in the company's Custom Shop. The Original Series guitars used to be available only in Japan, but as of 2014, more models in this line have become available in the United States. Only the best woods and components are used in these guitars, and they are ESP's highest quality line of production instruments.
- Arrow - The Arrow, a magnificent V-style guitar, is available in two styles: the Rusty Iron model and the Black Andromeda model, and both of them retail for around $4,000. This guitar features a bright mid-range tone with a marked percussive sound, which makes it perfect for aggressive rock and metal music. The Arrow is equipped with humbuckers designed by Seymour Duncan, which bring a classic rock influence to its voice. Artists who play the Arrow include Daniel Freyberg of Children of Bodom and Jessie Santos from Shattered Sun.
- FRX - You can get the FRX with either a liquid metal silver finish or a see-through black sunburst finish. FRX guitars sport a bold, jagged style with multiple bevels. The fingerboard has 24 frets, and the set-through neck allows you to access the top frets. The FRX's powerful sound is enhanced by two highly responsive Seymour Duncan humbuckers. These guitars cost around $4,000.
- Horizon - The Horizon series guitars are beloved by such artists as Ben Savage of Whitechapel and Benjamin Weinman of Dillinger Escape Plan. The guitars are gorgeous double cutaways, which are available in faded sky blue, antique brown sunburst, deep candy apple red, or black finishes. They run around $5,000 and are equipped with top-of-the-line features like set-through necks and passive pickups with knob controls. Interactive Guitar Magazine describes the Horizon as a "charged up Metal Monster" with its clear, thick, biting tone.
- Mystique - A Mystique will cost you around $5,500, and they're available in marine blue, see-through black cherry, and tea sunburst finishes. The guitar has a rich, warm sound, thanks to its maple top, solid mahogany body, and two passive pickups. The Mystique will appeal to a wide range of guitarists, including those in rock, pop, or jazz fusion.
- Snapper - Snapper guitars are available in a variety of finishes, including aquamarine, see-through black, brass red, burner, and ice white. Priced around $4,000, they are a retro-style model, hearkening back to the early days of ESP when they manufactured guitars with a traditional Fender Stratocaster vibe. The Snapper guitars have Crunch Lab pickups and a bridge pickup which lend sonic possibilities appropriate for a wide range of genres from heavy metal to country music.
- Stream - Available in antique sunburst, supreme blue, and titan metal, the Stream models cost around $4,000. They have a unique and appealing asymmetrical body style that's made of solid mahogany. The Steam guitars feature Seymour Duncan humbucker pickups and a 24-fret ebony fingerboard. These guitars are celebrated for their crisp and bright sound.
Since the mid-1980s, ESP has offered the Standard series of guitars, mass production instruments celebrated by the heavy metal world for their sound and playability. In 2014, ESP gave the Standard series a new name: the ESP E-II series. These guitars, which can be thought of ESP's mid-range series, are crafted in ESP's Tokyo factory by skilled luthiers, and they're available in some of the same styles as the Original Series, plus a number of others.
- Eclipse - The E-II Eclipse is favored by Alex Skolnick of Testament, Brian Eschbach of The Black Dahlia Murder, and James Hetfield of Metallica. They're available in a variety of finishes, including black satin, marine blue, see-through black cherry sunburst, and vintage honey burst, and they cost around $1,800. The Eclipse brings to mind the Gibson Les Paul with its single cutaway body style, and it has EMG 60/81 brushed chrome pickups. With its solid mahogany body, the Eclipse has a warm, rich sound.
- M Series - The M Series guitars will cost you around $1,800, and artists such as Brian Bonds of Florida Georgia Line and Thomas Youngblood of Kamelot would doubtlessly agree that they are well worth it. These guitars are double-cutaways and are available in various black finishes and an urban camo finish. The M Series guitars have a rugged look and a double-cutaway style. They earn kudos for being "metal workhorses" with their aggressive, crisp tone.
- ST-1 - As a favored guitar of Bob Kulick, Beardo, and Bad Brad of Colt Ford, the ST-1 is available for around $1,800. Packed with two Seymour Duncan Classic Stack pickups and one Pearly Gates pickup on the bridge, the ST-1 is a double-cutaway guitar with a tea sunburst finish, an alder body, and a satin neck. This model is known for its punchy tone and excellent dynamic range.
- TE Series - The TE Series baritone models are seven-string guitars that are played by Shane Beecher of Tempting Fate and Stephen Carpenter of Deftones. Since they have an extra low string, the TE Series instruments are great for amping up your low end. These guitars are available in snow white or satin black finishes, and they cost around $1,700. TE Series guitars have solid alder bodies and are equipped with EMG pickups.
The LTD series appeared in 1996, and it offers guitars that are more affordable for all kinds of players, whether you're just starting out on guitar or you're already out there playing regular gigs. These guitars come in a variety of styles, from V-shaped to double-cutaway to single-cutaway. Many of the styles are lower-end versions of Original Series models and E-II models. Some of the more well-known LTD lines include the Ax, the Ex, the V, and the Xtone.
- Ax - With its jagged, aggressive design that brings to mind a battle axe, the Ax guitars demand attention. At around $400, they're an excellent deal for anybody who plays hard rock or heavy metal. The powerful LH-150 humbucking pickups work well with an amp to ratchet up your metal sound, and the guitar has good sustain, as well.
- Ex Series - The Ex series guitars are preferred by the bands Brassknuckles and Demonstealer and by Alec Atkins of Unlocking the Truth. The Ex series guitars, previously known as the 400-series, have a jagged design that will make you and your guitar stand out in a crowd. These instruments are available in black, snow white, and black cherry metallic finishes. They have earned a reputation as "shred machines," and their crushing sound screams heavy metal. You can pick one up for about $300.
- V Series - If you're interested in a more affordable flying V, you'll want to look into the V Series models. These guitars range from $200 to $700. They have mahogany bodies and rosewood fingerboards. Two EMG-81 humbucking pickups help provide a blistering metal sound.
- Xtone - Cory Branden of Norma Jean and Charlie Bereal of Lil Wayne both love the Xtone, a semi-hollow guitar that's available in luscious sea foam green, sonic blue, and black finishes. These guitars cost around $400 and are suitable for a wide range of genres, whether heavy metal, alternative, or indie folk. They feature a single f-hole, a chambered mahogany body, a jumbo 22-fret fingerboard, and two LH-150 humbucking pickups. The Xtone has a thick, edgy sound that's well suited for rock and blues.
The ESP Signature Series is composed of guitars that are co-designed by world-class artists who love and play ESP's guitars. These artists, most of them who play hard rock or heavy metal, have input into all aspects of design for each model in the Signature Series, which ESP builds to exacting specifications. You'll find guitars designed by James Hetfield and Kirk Hammett of Metallica among many other artists, including Alexi Laiho and Alex Skolnick.
- James Hetfield - Numerous ESP signature models have been co-designed by James Hetfield, rhythm guitarist for Metallica, including the Snakebyte Series, the Vulture Series, and the Iron Cross Series. The Snakebyte and Vulture guitars cost around $4,000, and the Iron Cross guitars cost around $1,000. The Snakebyte guitars have jagged body styles whereas the Vulture guitars are flying V style. The Iron Cross guitars have a more traditional single cutaway body style. Premier Guitar celebrates the Snakebyte for its brutal, powerful tone.
- Kirk Hemmett - Kirk Hammett has designed truly legendary guitars for ESP in his highly acclaimed KH series. These guitars sport an aggressive double cutaway body style and cost in the neighborhood of $1,000 to $5,000, depending on the model. The KH-2, a high-end $5,000 model, has been dubbed "The Black Axe of Metal," which is certainly not surprising, given its alder body that provides plenty of sonic boom, its top quality hardware, and its fierce, crunchy sound that really makes metal music sing.
- Alexi Laiho - Alexi Laiho, lead guitarist for the Finnish death metal band Children of Bodom, designed a series of Flying V style guitars that range from $1,000 to $4,500, depending on the model. They all feature U-shaped maple necks, fingerboards with 24 jumbo frets, and glow-in-the-dark inlays. The guitars are equipped with EMG HZ F-H2 passive pickups that infuse a tremendous amount of heavy metal power to the sound.
- Alex Skolnick - Alex Skolnick is a versatile guitarist, excelling at both thrash metal and jazz. The models he designed for ESP have a traditional single cutaway body shape and stunning finishes, whether lemon burst or black aqua. These instruments range from $1,000 to $6,000, depending on which model you choose. The guitars come with Seymour Duncan pickups that have been tweaked by Alex to provide outstanding dynamic range and expression and a wide range of sonic possibilities.
- George Lynch - As a groundbreaking signature artist with ESP since the mid-1980s, George Lynch has made his mark with his fabulous series of guitars. The flagship of his series is the Kamikaze which began as Lynch's personal guitar. With its stunning, distinctive appearance, guitarists all over the world wanted one of their own. The George Lynch models include the Skulls and Snakes, the Sunburst Tiger, and the GL series, and these instruments range in price from $500 for the GL-200SBT to $4,000 for the Kamikaze.
Near the end of 2014, ESP unveiled its Thinline Series, which the company calls "transducer-electric." These guitars combine the warm, rich tone of an acoustic guitar with the comfort and playability of an electric guitar. They come equipped with Fishman pickups and preamps with onboard tuners, and their slim, lightweight bodies make them comfortable to play onstage. They're available in black and natural finishes. Models with an N beside their names have nylon strings, such as the TL-6N.
- Cost - Due to their simpler construction, the Thinline guitars aren't as expensive as the straight-up electric models. You'll need to pay around $400 to $500 for one of these instruments.
- Quality and Sound - If you're interested in playing a hybrid guitar, Thinline series models offer high quality at an affordable price. These guitars prove to be an innovative solution to feedback problems that can arise when people play acoustic guitars in live performances. The Thinline models feature solid mahogany backs and necks that feel like a classical guitar. They have a warm, ringing acoustic sound with an impressive dynamic range.
ESP USA Series
Since 2014, ESP has been making handcrafted guitars from their new factory in North Hollywood, California. With ESP USA, you can purchase instruments that have already been crafted, or you can build your own guitar by requesting a specific body style, wood, finish, and pickup system. There are specific models currently available through ESP USA, which include the Eclipse, the M-II, the M-III, the M-7, and the TE-II.
- Cost - The guitars in the ESP USA series are expensive, since they're handcrafted and many of them are custom-designed and built to specification. Models that have already been built can run you from $3,500 to $4,300.
- Quality and Sound - With their high-quality construction and world-class sound, ESP USA models receive high praise from guitarists. They are described as "drop dead gorgeous," as exemplified by the ESP USA Eclipse with its Vintage Natural finish. This guitar has a set-through neck, which makes the body and the neck appear to be one piece of wood. Its tone is exemplary and delightfully expressive, ranging from full-on metal punch to a lush jazzy warmth.
If you've got big bucks to spend, ESP has a Custom Shop through which you can buy the guitar of your dreams. You can either take the specifications of an existing model and tweak it to where it's more to your liking, or you can build a completely new instrument from the ground up. Whichever you choose, you need to download a PDF of the company's Custom Order Form and tell them exactly what you want. When you submit your form to an ESP dealer, you'll receive a price quote. You can also buy one-of-a-kind Exhibition Limited Series guitars from ESP dealers.
Inevitably, a couple of ESP's guitar series have been discontinued. It's possible, though, that you can still find such instruments on the used guitar marketplace.
The Seymour Duncan guitars were an obscure ESP series produced in Japan starting in the middle of the 1990s and ceasing production in 2004. There were two tiers of quality with these guitars: higher-end instruments that sold for $2,000 to $3,000 and mid-range instruments that sold for $900 to $1,500. These guitars were modeled after Fender instruments, both Telecasters and Stratocasters. Seymour Duncan guitars are difficult to find, but if you're lucky, you might be able to locate a used model for sale online.
ESP Standard Series
The Standard Series of guitars, whose multiple lines became tremendously popular starting from their introduction in the mid-1980s, was technically discontinued in 2014 when the series name changed to the E-II series. They remain the same guitars, however, albeit under a different name: high-end, mass produced instruments that are made at the Tokyo factory for export to the United States. If you're interested in finding vintage guitars from ESP's Standard Line, you can search the used guitar marketplace on the internet.
Quality and Innovation
Over the decades, ESP has innovated cutting-edge guitars for discerning and passionate musicians. With their excellent business acumen, tremendous creativity, and considerable skill of their luthiers, ESP holds itself to the highest standards in the art and craft of designing and manufacturing guitars of superb quality and playability.