ESP Guitars Review: Fearsome Axes For Metal And Beyond

ESP guitars are known for their build quality and have become ubiquitous in the hard rock and metal community. I was first introduced to ESP by Ian, a good friend and Metallica devotee.

Ian swore by ESP while I was a Fender acolyte. The debate was on. And it was fierce.

Bruce Kulick, ex Kiss lead guitarist

Some 20 years later this would position me perfectly for an ESP guitars review.

As kids who were short on cash, we spent weeks in music shops getting our hands on the ESP guitars and LTD guitars we couldn’t take home. 

ESP competes in the heavy metal and hard rock space against legendary guitar brands like Ibanez, Jackson, Schecter, and Gibson.

Kids will end up with an Ibanez guitar vs the ESP guitar they really want. 

Later in life we graduate to the LTD guitar vs Jackson, or the ESP vs Gibson.

Let’s dig in.

Here’s a quick look at the guitars we’ll be reviewing:

Electric guitars:

Acoustic:

Bass:

ESP Guitars Reviews: Their Most Iconic Axes

ESP LTD Guitars

ESP’s LTD series is their most affordable line. It also happens to feature their widest range of body styles. Founded in 1996, they’re designed to directly compete with other brands’ mainline consumer models. 

Players will find LTD models that are reminiscent of a Gibson Les Paul, Telecaster, SG, or Schecter.

LTD guitars go through a rigorous quality control process in their Indonesian factory to ensure they’re of exceptional quality. 

Most players start somewhere in the LTD series when entering the ESP ecosystem.

ESP LTD EC-256 

ESPLTD EC-256. Great among beginner ESP guiats.

Pros

  • Competitive price
  • Flawless finish
  • Exceptional neck

Cons

  • Players report the finish will pick up fingerprints.

We took a look at the ESP LTD EC-256 when we looked into Les Paul copies. It is a beautiful guitar and requires virtually no set up out of the box. ESP guitar necks are legendary for their comfort and playability. Despite its modest price, it shares its much more expensive siblings’ comfort. 

For being a Les Paul copy, this is a light guitar. It will surprise you, and please your chiropractor. You can play the EC-256 for hours without discomfort. 

The hot pickups (ESP Designed LH-150s) along with the superb neck give this guitar unparalleled sustain in its price range.

If the black finish isn’t your thing, the ESP LTD EC-256FM features everything that makes the EC-256 rock, with a unique see-through purple burst finish.

• • •

ESP LTD EC-1000

The ESP LTD EC-1000. One of our favorites exemplars from ESP giutars.

Pros

  • Outstanding EMG pickups
  • Evertune bridge models available 

Cons

  • Pickups pigeonhole this guitar into aggressive rock genres.

The ESP LTD EC-1000 is an aggressive guitar. Tonally, sure. The EMG 60 and EMG 81 active humbucking pickups mean this axe can scream. But the satin vintage black finish also contributes to its aggressive look and feel.

This guitar would scare Ozzy. Or at least 2020’s Ozzy. I don’t think anything could scare 1980’s Ozzy. 

This LTD deluxe model is put together in the South Korean factory which has a slightly better reputation than the Indonesian factory, and that’s saying something.

The price won’t break the bank either, which is why the EC-1000 made our list of best electric guitars under $1,000

The EC-1000 is a popular option from ESP which is why they’ve made variations on the vintage black. The ESP LTD EC 1000 FR and its see-through black are something to behold under the lights.

The ESP LTD EC-1000QM has a rosewood fingerboard and a violet shadow burst that stands out.

The ESP LTD EC-1000 EVERTUNE sports a see thru black finish and an evertune bridge if you’re using bends. 

Fan of the MH body style? The ESP LTD MH 1000 features the same evertune bridge and pickups. There’s also an ESP LTD EC-1000 Deluxe with an MH body and brown burst finish. 

• • •

ESP LTD TE-200

ESP LTD TE-200 guitart.

Pros

  • Accessible price.
  • Body and forearm contours on a tele

Cons

  • Can’t get as heavy as other ESP’s.

This is the type of guitar from ESP a guy like me can really get behind. There are times I want to play really heavy riffs, and even with the dual humbucking telecaster deluxe, I just can’t.

That’s where the TE 200 shines. It’s basically an ESP LTD telecaster. That means the same slim neck and ESP humbuckers as the EC-246.

It looks great as well. The alpine white finish with black binding looks crisp and extended to the bolt on neck and headstock. A rarity at this price point.

Design flourishes, like the fretboard inlays, show how ESP puts in the time when reimagining electric guitars.

It’s priced slightly higher than the ESP LTD EC-10. But the value you get for that extra couple hundred bucks from the TE-200 found us leaving the EC-10 off the full review list.

• • •

ESP LTD Vulture

The LTD Vulture. A beautiful axe by ESP guitatrs.

Pros

  • Very comfortable to play sitting or standing.
  • Arm contour on a flying V
  • Balanced when playing with a strap.

Cons

  • Some reports of flaws in the finish.

How can you tell Metallica is getting older?

James Hetfield designed a flying V you can play sitting down.

Hetfield has been playing V shaped axes for years, and the Vulture is his latest take on the shape. This ESP V is well balanced and feels light hanging off your shoulder. Most Vs have a tendency to slide around making fretting difficult.

That’s not the case here. 

Both of these features are down to the uneven wings and sharp lines of the body. A body packed with two active EMG humbuckers for deadly tone.

The design feels slightly like the ESP LTD Arrow-1000. Another ESP V, but more angular, and I’d say, less comfortable than the Viper.

• • •

James Hetfield ESP LTD Signature Snakebyte

James Hetfield Signature Snakebyte, produced in partnership with ESP Guiitars.

Pros

  • Excellent price for a Signature Series model
  • EMG electronics are hot
  • Finishes are flawless

Cons

  • Nothing. Nada. This thing is spectacular.

In the Snakebyte you get all of James Hetfield. It’s his signature series model under the LTD label, and as such, it’s an excellent value for an ESP signature guitar. 

With the signature series, ESP and the artist in the spotlight go through every inch of the instrument and every detail together. It’s truly a co-designed work. The Snakebyte is James Hetfield’s Explorer model of choice. 

For an Explorer style, it plays light and fast. It’s an ESP after all. The onboard EMG humbuckers are loud and crunchy. Just like you’d expect from the Metallica frontman. 

There are a few other ESP artists that have LTD versions of their models. There is the ESP LTD Kirk Hammett Signature KH-202 which is the only ESP left-handed guitar we recommend. As well as the ESP LTD George Lynch GL-200MT

ESP has an entire line of Signature Series guitars that are significantly more expensive than the LTD models.

• • •

ESP LTD F-200

The LTD F-200 by ESP guiters.

Pros

  • Floyd Rose Tremolo 
  • Coil Splitting 

Cons

  • Can be uncomfortable to play sitting down.

This axe is evil. It’s part of the ESP LTD F series of guitars that feel like they were bred to spread eastern European dark metal across the globe.

The F-200’s coffin body shape is striking. It’s a mid-range entry for the LTD series that is feature packed. 

The ESP-designed electronics are powerful, but can be dialed back for a glistening clean tone. The bridge is a double-locking Floyd Rose tremolo system which is nice in this price range.

All in all, a terrifyingly good deal for a killer metal guitar.

• • •

ESP LTD EX

The LTD EX by ESP gutairs.

Pros

  • Satin black finish
  • EMG 81 pickup
  • TOM Tail piece

Cons

  • Single bridge pickup can be a turn off

I’ve always been a fan of Explorer guitars. That stems from U2’s Edge. But the ESP LTD EX is too edgy for him.

The body is an offset explorer style with ESP’s angular stylings. It looks mean, yet elegant, with its satin matte finish.

A single bridge position active EMG 81 humbucker makes this rock. There’s no tone control, just a volume knob begging to be cranked. The fixed bridge helps it stay in tune, no matter how many octaves you want to drop tune.

This is a newer entry from ESP, but I’m excited about the single humbucker direction. It plays to a market that Gibson has dominated for years. This LTD EX would play as well in punk rock as it would in speed metal. 

• • •

ESP LTD EC-401

The EC-401 by EPS guitars.

Pros

  • Excellent bank for the buck
  • Excellent sustain

Cons

  • None. No legitimate flaws at this price.

Another model featuring a Les Paul style body, the EC-401 is often described by owners as “their first real electric guitar.” That’s due to a combination of how good an instrument it is, and its digestible price point.

So good is this guitar, in fact, that it made our article about the best Les Paul copies

If you aren’t ready for the EC-1000, the EC-401 is an excellent choice. Its EMG active  pickups, thin U set neck, and bridge make it a formidable player with excellent sustain.

It’s attractive too with an olympic white finish and pearloid fretboard inlays.

• • •

ESP LTD Bass Guitars

While not widely known for their bass guitars, the ESP LTD series of basses is made with the same exacting standards as their guitars. 

The bass players from Anthrax, Slayer, and Lamb of God all rock ESP basses. Again, ESP is at home in the hard rock community. 

ESP LTD B-204SM

Pros

  • Dual humbucking pickups produce powerful lows
  • Thin neck is great for transitioning guitarists

Cons

  • Some reported flaws in the finish

If you’re looking for a mid level bass guitar that punches above its weight class, and aren’t a fender fan, this is likely your bass.

Far too often bass players feel like they need to stand out instead of standing in the groove. The B-204SM puts function front and center.

It features two ESP humbucking pickups that produce the lowest of lows when playing with your fingers. They also have the potential for a really sharp attack when playing with a pick.

The muted transparent black finish is attractive without being flashy. A true workman’s bass.

• • •

ESP LTD AP-5

Pros

  • 6 bolt on neck
  • Active P/J pickup combination

Cons

  • Only available in 5 string

The AP-5 is ESP’s take on Fender’s Precision bass. True to form, ESP’s take is modern and upgraded in most every way.

It features a bolt on neck like the fender, but with six bolts instead of the standard four. It’s a testament to ESP’s innovation. 

Those two additional bolts produce ridiculous sustain on their own. But when paired with the active EMG P/J pickups, there’s no comparison to even the highest end Fenders.

This may be the last bass you’ll need. Not the last you’ll buy, but the last you’ll need.

• • •

E-II Guitars

The E-II line by ESP is their upgraded, more expensive, “standard” series. In fact, a few years back ESP combined their LTD Elite and ESP Standard lines into this new E-II line since they were made to the same quality standards by the same luthiers.

ESP E-II Eclipse

Pros

  • Fishman pickups
  • Locking tuners
  • Finish is stellar

Cons

  • Price is steep

The Eclipse body is the iconic ESP shape. This particular iteration is really a work of art. 

It’s a premium version of the LTD EC-1000 reviewed earlier. In terms of feel and playability, they’re quite similar. 

The tobacco finish really pops and the fishman open coil humbuckers are a significant upgrade. These can produce any tone from single coil twang to full humbucker growl.

The Gotoh locking tuners are helpful for anyone playing hard rock. The bone, instead of plastic, nut is a noticeable tone upgrade.

• • •

ESP E-II EX NT

Pros

  • Dual active humbuckers
  • Ebony fretboard
  • Locking tuners and bone nut

Cons

  • Not cheap

The Japanese made ESP E-II EX NT is a tonal beast. It’s a premium and more capable version of the LTD EX reviewed above. 

This EX carries a full suite of electronics. Two active EMG humbuckers with tone and volume control. A three-way switch lets players have greater range than an LTD guitar.

The same thin U-shaped neck is coupled with a mahogany neck and ebony fretboard for extra sustain.

Gotoh tuners and matching bridge make sure you stay in tune through the most aggressive riffs.

• • •

ESP Acoustic Guitar

When MTV Unplugged calls, you need an ESP acoustic. Assuming you’re not located in the United States, ESP has a full line of acoustics. In the States they’re the distributor brand for Takamine acoustics. While Takamine has fantastic acoustics, we’re going to focus on the ESP brand itself.  

ESP LTD TL-6

Pros

  • Thin U neck on an acoustic
  • Excellent tone wood choice

Cons

  • Have to unscrew battery compartment

When you need to split the acoustic and electric world down the middle, you’ll want to look at the ESP LTD TL-6. It’s a true electric acoustic. As opposed to a full size dreadnought with onboard electronics. 

The TL-6 has the same thin U neck that ESP fans love. Here they’ve attached it to a thinline hollow body with a spruce topped mahogany body for bright, punchy, and most importantly, loud tone. 

The TL-6 can just as easily be plugged into the PA for an acoustic set as it can be plugged into an amp for a full distortion set. 

• • •

ESP Custom Guitars

ESP Kirk Hammett KH-3 Spider 30th Anniversary Edition

ESP’s custom shop was something of a revelation for a new guitar player in the late 90s. If you could dream it up, ESP’s custom shop could turn it out.

Ian’s SG style screamer or my surf green strat were both a few clicks away. 

Today the ESP custom shop has evolved into one of the most respected on the planet. Their luthiers make your wildest aspirations come to life. 

Their custom order form will tax your imagination. Its granular choices will have those brain juices flowing. 

Stay hydrated.

Once you’re finished, submit your form for a personalized price quote. 

Buyers Guide

ESP attracts quite a following in the hard rock and metal scenes, and for good reason. The brand has a solid history in making quality instruments designed to rock. They’re more than guitars you merely like… they make a statement as to who you are. Study up.

History

In 1975, in Tokyo, Hisatake Shibuya opened a shop making custom electric guitar replacement parts. He called his shop “Electric Sound Products.” ESP was born. 

Hisatake would take ESP guitar parts to the US in 1983 where he was a hit in the hard rock scene. ESP made custom models for KISS (1), Living Colour, and Helmet. Among others. The 1980s also saw ESP endorse some of the biggest bands in the burgeoning heavy metal scene to compete directly with Jackson. 

The LTD series was introduced in 1996 to compete with every other manufacturer in the industry.

What Makes ESP Guitars Unique

No matter where you enter the world of ESP guitars, they are exceptionally well-made. From their entry level offerings to their flagship models, you’re going to have an excellent playing experience. ESP guitar necks are unparalleled for face melting solos. They’re fast, with unbeatable action which improves accuracy and speed. 

ESP’s also have an aggressive design ethos. While it’s easy to see that a certain body style is “inspired” by another legendary electric guitar, the ESP is sharper, angular, and angrier than its source material. They’re born to shred at 11.

FAQ

Where are ESP guitars made?

ESP guitars are handmade in Japan. The LTD series by ESP is manufactured at factories in Indonesia and South Korea.

Are ESP guitars good?

ESP guitars are exceptionally well made, so, in most rock scenarios, yes. The best guitar for thrash metal is going to be an ESP. 

Can I play genres other than metal with an ESP guitar?

With their hotter pickups and aggressive body styles, ESP guitars are perfect for metal. That said, with modern amps and effects ESP’s are ve

rsatile.

Who plays ESP guitars?

ESP has picked up quite a few converts in the past 20 years. ESP guitarists include Alexi Laiho (2), Stephen Carpenter and Slayer’s Jeff Hanneman. Oh and the Metallica guys made the switch from Gibson to ESP as well… although Kirk Hammett recently announced a new collaboration with Gibson (3).

Plug In and Turn Up

ESP is an exciting brand for hard rock and metal guitarists of any persuasion. The 1996 LTD series opened up ESP to an entirely new world of players. Including me. As mentioned, the LTD TE-200 is superb, and the LTD-EX is on my shopping list.

Ska Punk guys like Lars Frederekson, to metal royalty like Kirk Hammet are playing ESP’s. If you haven’t been, maybe now’s the time to give them another look.

• • •

References

  1. “Bruce Kulick,” retrived from: https://kiss.fandom.com/wiki/Bruce_Kulick#with_ESP
  2. “Alexi Laiho, Frontman for Finnish Metal Giants Children of Bodom, Dead at 41,” retrieved from: https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-news/alexi-laiho-children-of-bodom-dead-obituary-1109338/ 
  3. “Kirk Hammett Of Metallica Announces Collaboration With Gibson Guitars,” retrieved from: https://wzlx.iheart.com/featured/carter-alan/content/2021-07-30-kirk-hammett-of-metallica-announces-collaboration-with-gibson-guitars/

Image Credits

Bruce Kulick image: Carl Lender, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons; James Hetfield image: Pingaiadadocrack, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons; ESP guitar necks image: halfrain, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons; Jeff Hanneman image: ozz13x, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons; Alexi Laiho image: Frank Schwichtenberg, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

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