Most famously, you've probably seen ESP guitars being played by Kirk Hammett and James Hetfield, Stephen Carpenter and Alexi Laiho and many other metal guitar players. The company has become one of the preeminent builders of electric guitars and not only boasts a Signature series representing over 20 gifted players-including the names mentioned above-but provide low-end instruments starting at $200 that are astonishingly good.
The company-founded in 1975 by Mr. Hisatake Shibuya
- began in a shop in Tokyo and was known as Electric Sound Products. They built custom replacements parts for guitars and just a year later began crafting their own line of instruments under the ESP and Navigator brands.
Fast forward to 1985 when George Lynch is touring in Japan with Dokken. He wanders into an ESP shop looking for a replacement neck for one of his guitars and realizes the company is crafting custom one-off instruments. Dokken is flying high and there's money in his pocket and he ultimately ends up ordering what will become the ESP Kamikaze - the company's first Signature model.
ESP would continue to flourish and expand and would design instruments for Metallica, Slayer, Megadeth and Anthrax. Their attention to detail and the aesthetic beauty of their instruments has not been lost on both amateur and pro players who gobble up the guitars each months by the thousands.
Here, though they were slammed for time and getting ready for the NAMM Winter Show
coming up in January 2013, several ESP executives carved out an hour in their day to talk about the company and what their future looks like.
The key players:
Matt Masciandaro - President and CEO
Jeff Moore - Senior Vice President
Tim Carhart - Artist Relations Manager
Todd Binder - Vice President of Production
Makoto Suzuki - President of ESP Japan
They talked about the requirements of sustaining a guitar-building company in 2012 and
how thinking outside of the box will propel them into new and unexplored markets. And
a whole lot more.
UG: Was it a big change moving from making custom replacement parts into actually building guitars? What were the early guitars like?
Matt Masciandaro: Speaking only from the development of ESPs overseas division, which opened in 1984 in NYC, here's the short version of how we developed from our beginnings as a replacement parts company. Initially ESP Japan sent one person to NY who would taxi up to 48th Street where all NYC music stores were at the time, and sell miscellaneous ESP parts to the stores on the block. Around the same time we began supplying bodies and necks to Kramer Guitars, then located in New Jersey. The first complete guitars sold in the US by ESP were vintage reproduction models called 400 Series. They are renowned for their quality to this day, and can currently be found on eBay for more than their original selling price. In addition to the 400s, we soon began introducing our own product designs, headstocks and body shapes around 1986. The first Horizon was built at that time, and it remains a strong seller today.
"The first complete guitars sold in the US by ESP were vintage reproduction models called 400 Series."
In 1985, George Lynch had the Kamikaze guitar built - did this start it all?
In certain ways, yes. George ordered the Kamikaze while on a 1986 tour of Japan. He heard about ESP necks from his local music store but couldn't find one, so when he visited ESP in Tokyo they offered to build him a guitar. He had the idea for he Kamikaze in his head for a while so he was ready, and it was delivered to ESP NY a short time later with the paint barely dry. It was not the first custom guitar or first signature series model, but George certainly put ESP on the map as a true guitar hero and as one of the most popular and respected players a that time.
Before George we had some high profile players but not many, with the exception of Ron Wood and mostly NY based players. Since we were based in NYC we had access to the top session players at the time, and we worked with many of them. We received invaluable input from them while being able to provide them with quality customized instruments. Eventually ESPs strengths became our ability to offer quality alternatives to traditional designs, and to build guitars to a player's own specifications. These remain our primary strengths today.
What changes have been happening with ESP recently?
Jeff Moore: Within in the last 14 months there have been some significant changes and improvements in the company as it stands today. The challenge is to look at the way this industry does business in 2012 and moving forward and not only in the way we'd done it. It's an ever-changing retail landscape and we need to take into consideration economic and competitive factors. We're building an infrastructure now that's going to be able to react to those changes. We just brought in a product manager for the first time in the history of the company. Previously you had key individuals here all sharing the role of developing product. We are also bringing in a Director or Marketing who is very web-savvy.
What else has ESP been doing?
We're exploring new channel distribution and new opportunities outside the four walls we know as MI [music industry]. Most recently was our participation at Comic-Con. We had three one-of-a-kind art guitars at Comic-Con this past summer and it was a really exciting opportunity to be in front of over 150,000 people that otherwise would not have been exposed to our brand.
You really are looking for different outlets for your guitars?
I was fortunate enough to be on a panel discussion for one of our license partners, Famous Monsters of Filmland. They're one of the oldest, largest horror magazines dating back to the late '50s. We have a strategic partnership with them going on in 2013. We signed a license deal with the Bela Lugosi family and we're going to be offering three very limited edition Bela Lugosi models that are highly collectible. We just launched one in October.
Are you going after players with these types of one-off guitars?
The beautiful thing about that is these guitars are being sought after and collected by people that aren't necessarily guitar players.
What was that like working on the Bela Lugosi guitar?
Me personally as a horror fan, it's been so much fun to be able to create these guitars working with the Lugosis and Famous Monsters of Filmland but also working with our creative and technical team.
What other new licenses have you signed?
Most recently we just signed a license agreement with the owners of Heavy Metal, the magazine. Kevin Eastman who is the owner/publisher and also the creator of "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles". We'll be launching all these guitars by the way at 2013 Winter NAMM.
You are trying to expand the character of what ESP is most well known for.
It's really fun to be able to look outside the scope of what we're known for, which is heavy metal, hardcore rock and roll. Of course Kirk Hammett and George Lynch, we're very blessed to have those people in our camp for decades upon decade. They're very loyal artists and their family to us and we enjoy working with them.
Kirk Hammett is ESP's biggest endorser and George Lynch was the first endorsee.
Even though we've been working with them for 20 or 30 years as a company, we're still doing things that are relevant in 2013. With George Lynch we're introducing a brand new Signature model acoustic guitar-actually two models that we just wrapped up.
ESP has never been known as an acoustic guitar company.
That's really exciting to be able to offer acoustic guitars that we're not really known for. We have exciting new designs that we'll be working with in 2013.
Are you doing any new guitars with Kirk Hammett?
We're working on a very special project with Kirk Hammett. I can't talk about it right now but it's relevant to his latest venture, which you're probably aware of. He just came out with a book ["Too Much Horror Business"] chronicling his deep history and love of horror. He's got quite an extensive collection. Of course we've done several one-off guitars for him that helped him celebrate his love of horror and let's just say we've got some exciting things to introduce in 2013 along those lines.
You mentioned that ESP is expanding beyond the character of a metal guitar
company. How are you doing that?
Tim Carhart: You're gonna see that in a lot of the bands we've now started working with and a lot of focus on these bands. I got some of the guys that play with some of the biggest rap stars in the world-guys that play with Lil Wayne, Sean Kingston and Kid Cudi. Some big country guys now like Jake Owen, Eric Church and Jason Charles Miller. Then we have all sorts of reggae guys from Slightly Stoopid to Toots And The Maytals and almost the entire Marley family. In the sort of pop punk world, there's All Time Low, Pierce The Veil and New Found Glory. Why stay chasing what you already lead?
This is the first time ESP has ever really ventured outside the metal market.
We're gonna be focusing on the diversity of what our company is and can do because we have a wider line of products that have never been sort of the highlighted items.
"We have exciting new designs that we'll be working with in 2013."
What attracts you to a specific artist? What criteria do you look for in signing up an endorsee?
There's no specific formula. It's on a case-by-case basis. However, I could point out the main things. First and foremost, it truly does come from visibility. Artists that are headlining worldwide and playing 200 shows a year and having TV appearances.
Record sales will have to come side-by-side with that. But the main thing is how many shows they're playing a year; possible TV and magazine appearances and all press opportunities that they got; mixed with the credibility of said group.
Talking about credibility, certainly having players like Kirk Hammett and Stephan Carpenter using your guitars gives the company a lot of influence.
We have a lot of legacy guys and will continue to build that since they bring a certain history and credibility with them even if they don't play out as much as they
used to. It's still having them associated with the brand. Some artists are sort of what I call artist's artists and they might not play as many shows but other artists respect 'em so much that we can use them to get guys that are more relevant today. But I'm looking for guys that are hungry, hard working and have a lot of visibility at the moment. 'Cause that's really what I'm trying to do is have our products in front of people.
What about the amazing guitar player in a band that doesn't have much visibility.
If they're very, very talented guitar players in their own right. Maybe their
band or whatever they're doing at the moment isn't playing out live a lot or whatever but they might be more studio guys, those guys I do take on as well. If they're just absolutely incredible and knowledgeable on product because instead of them going out and naturally being in front of people, I will put them in front of people.
Are you talking about clinics?
Making content and videos where they're doing product reviews or lessons or
things of that nature and put 'em out that way. Again there's no specific formula but it's just really guys that are out there and can be influential.
How do you cultivate that relationship with an ESP endorsee?
I never have to take on the role of used car salesman. Our greatest testament is
our artist. I always like to consider myself only one degree from anybody. If there was
somebody I really wanted to get to and I don't know them already, I know somebody that
can connect me directly to them. Sometimes I will reach out and offer that but it doesn't usually seem to happen that way.
How does it happen?
It usually happens naturally by word-of-mouth. It doesn't surprise me because
we treat our artists so well and our communication is so wide open and such a two-way
street. We treat everybody with respect and we're proactive with marketing and helping
them build their careers as individuals and whatever respective bands they're playing in. It's usually, "I was hanging with so and so and tried out his guitar and he spoke so highly of you, would you be interested in meeting with me?" That's probably the number one way I get guys and the second would be personal relationships. Thirdly would be sort of me going, "We really need such and such a person so let me get a hold of him and see if they're interested."
Once you've reached out to a player, what kind of discussions do you have?
I talk to them about what do they want? What kind of guitars do they play
now? What would they like to see improved in what they're playing? Usually I have
something I can put in their hands off the production shelf that can match what they're
looking for or pretty damn close to it or exceed their expectations. From there on out it's a real family-styled relationship that forms.
What does that mean?
A relationship where when artists come into town, I'm always the stop they
make. We always catch a meal. They will always say, "Do you want me to come in and
film some cool videos?" Some of our more developing guys are sleeping on my couch.
It's a 24/7 kind of thing.
Can you talk anecdotally about any of the artists you've been working with in the
Back in the '80s, Frank Bello from Anthrax had a falling out with ESP from what I hear now was a miscommunication. He left and he went to Fender which is by far the biggest instrument company in the world. We recently got back in touch and rekindled the love that has always been there.
You opened up communications with Frank Bello again?
Yeah, he said, "Listen, I just found my old bass I played during Among the
Living. Can I show you that bass again?" It was always his favorite. He pulled it out and within a month's time we had replicated the bass he pulled out and we said, "We want to make this for you as a signature bass." It was enough to make a guy like that-a living legend in the metal and thrash world who had developed a new loyalty over at another brand-be so excited and I've seen a recharged drive in him and he's out there as one of our number one ambassadors at the moment. He is great at what he does and great at spreading the word for a product he truly believes in. I love him for that!!!
That must have felt great having Frank return to ESP.
It was great having a guy that helped build the company with us back in the
day and to remain a legend in the metal world and to come back and now be one of our
number one champions for the company.
What has it been like working with some of your other Signature artists like Gus G
and Stephen Carpenter?
Gus is newer but guys like Kirk and James from Metallica and Stephen
Carpenter are in some of the biggest bands in the world in their respective genres. They started playing our guitars and have stuck with 'em ever since. Both Metallica guys have been with us 25 or 30 years.
Are James Hetfield and Kirk Hammett your most significant endorsers?
Let's call a spade here - Metallica is probably our largest driving marketing force. The fact they've been with us for so long and played mostly nothing but ESP is our biggest flag waving out there.
"Metallica is probably our largest driving marketing force. The fact they've been with us for so long and played mostly nothing but ESP is our biggest flag waving out there."
What's it been like working with Stephen Carpenter?
Steph from the Deftones is the easiest guy to work with. He's been with us for so long and he knows what he likes and we give him what he wants. He's almost one of those guys that's on auto-pilot. He doesn't need a lot of ttention from us. They're off and running and the band's been successful for so many ears that he can kind of just do his thing and we continually release Signature odels for him every year and they continue to sell.
Stephen is one of the main proponents of the 7- and 8-string guitars.
He is an 8-string player so there is more of a niche market for what he does. He's one of the OG and most respected 8-string players even though he's not a shredder. We often joke about the fact that there's a whole register of the guitar that he's never even messed around with. But you know what? He's got his own sound and that's always an important thing with any band or musician.
What about the guys from Slayer-Jeff Hannemann and Tom Araya?
There's a long, long history there. I haven't worked with them as direct as some of the other guys. One because Jeff Hannemann has been out and non-touring for medical reasons for the past six-plus months. Tom the bass player has also sort of been on auto-pilot in a way. His Signature bass has remained the same for a bit because it works and he's happy with it and it sells. He sticks to one certain sound and doesn't need a whole diversity within his own sound. So there hasn't had to be as much personal interaction.
On a personal level what has it been like working with Slayer?
The great thing about guys like that is you've got a satanic metal band but they couldn't be nicer guys in the world. They have always been willing to go above and beyond for us. They appreciate their fans and are loyal to us, so we get to do lots of cool events and meet and greets with them. It's been so much more of a giving relationship than a taking that when we need stuff from them they are so happy to give it to us and accommodate.
What about Alexi Laiho?
Alexi is one of the more respected shredders in the world and his band's been
continuing to do what they do. He's more often than not on the road or sort of back home overseas so I don't get all the time in the world with him. He's just another proud player and he's a wild man himself but he'll always be there for us. He's continued to attend NAMM and doing signings for us there and we continue to sponsor their headlining runs and always do all sorts of contests with them.
We have a band Suicide Silence and we have Mark Heylmun and Dan Kenny and unfortunately they lost their singer [Mitch Lucker]. It is a really tough situation because you get close with your guys and their whole band. I went out and did a few days on their last tour with them and getting close with their singer and their singer's daughter and family. It's just a sad situation and to be there for them. They couldn't be nicer guys. Again it's funny because Mark has long hair and a long beard and hesher looking and scary persona but you know what? When we're doing photo shoots he snaps into this tough guy thing but then right off camera we're laughing and joking and he's ripping on his guitar. He couldn't be any more genuine so it's great to know some of these guys on a more personal level. What comes with that is I feel the pain they're feeling with their recent loss-we laugh with the artist and we cry with 'em.
The ESP Custom shop is very unique. Can you talk about that?
Moore: We get people from all shapes and sizes. The Custom Shop orders come in through our exclusive dealer network so we're not usually dealing direct with the consumers. It's usually with one of our dealers and typically these are very loyal ESP customers and collectors. It could be that 18-year old player that is saying, "You know what? I'm gonna sell everything I have to build my dream guitar" and everything up to the serious collector.
Your custom shop is located in Japan?
ESP Japan, which is a very prestigious custom shop, the brand in Japan is probably one of the top three brands globally. The guitars are not inexpensive and they keep going up more and more every year. Not that we get orders in every day but we're certainly not seeing a shortage of custom orders coming in on a regular basis.
On the ESP site it says it can take up to eight months for a custom order to be completed.
It can take up to a year depending on the specifics of the guitar and the level of difficulty. They truly are all custom one-of-a-kind pieces so anywhere from six to twelve months is how long it'll take for the ESP Custom shop to build the guitar of your dreams. Again there really is no cookie cutter customer. There's a lot of fans out there that just want the guitar the way they want it. If you think about it, there's not that many custom shops out there that can do the kind of work ESP does.
Can you talk about what the average cost of a Custom shop guitar is?
I've seen guitars as low as $5,000 up to $15,000 come across our desks and everything in between. We'll do anything the customer wants. Something out of the catalog with some additional features-pickups, inlay work, graphics-will obviously determine the price. But $5,000 for basic and minimal changes-color and simple inlays like I said-up to anything anybody can dream. Matt Masciandaro, our president and CEO, who has been with the company from almost the very beginning, looks at every custom quote and actually does the quote with our Custom shop. He personally handles every single quote that comes in here so there's a real personal level of detail involved in building these guitars. We appreciate the fact like I said that this might be somebody saving up for a year or two years and selling off every guitar they own to have this instrument built and we want to make sure it's done right.
When you're making your production guitars, are certain instruments more difficult to build than others? For example, is it harder working with ash than bassword? Certain pickups or hardware?
Not really. One pickup manufacturer to the other or hardware company, we have great relationships with these OEM vendors so I wouldn't say any one particular type of wood or type of product is more difficult. It really comes down to the combination of what the guitar is going to represent. A lot of the cost and a lot of the craftsmanship and time is really put into inlay work-fretboard, headstock and body inlay. These are all handcrafted guitars so like anything else, the more people touching it and the more handcrafted work that is done, the more expensive it's going to cost. I can't say there's any one particular wood or configuration that's more difficult than another.
Carhart: It's kinda cool to think about when you order a guitar from the Custom shop, you're pretty much getting one guy that's building your guitar from start to finish. From picking out the wood; cuttin' it; to every final last detail of assembling it and painting it. Every detail is monitored by a human eye and touched by a human hand.
"We're gonna be focusing on the diversity of what our company is and can do because we have a wider line of products that have never been sort of the highlighted items."
How many guitars does ESP typically build?
Moore: Let's just say it's thousands every month.
That's a lot of guitars.
We're a global company and we do business in over 50 countries. We're building and trying to sell a lot of guitars every month.
The ESP production factory is in Japan?
Our ESP factories are in Japan including the Custom shop and we deal with factories all over the world-Indonesia, Korea, Vietnam and China. We have people both here and over there constantly monitoring the production quality.
The problem with guitars not built in America has always been the quality.
We have probably one of the most extensive and trained QC [quality control] departments of any guitar company I've ever seen and I've worked for several companies over the years. Every guitar that comes through this building regardless of the country of origin and regardless of the cost-whether it's a $200 guitar or a $20,000 guitar-are being gone over with a fine-toothed comb by highly trained-in many cases -luthiers and guitar builders. We don't use just use technicians to put new strings on it and send it out the door. These are all really fine-tuned instruments and every guitar that comes in and leaves and regardless of the factory of origin is quality-controlled extensively every day.
Carhart: Our tech team is going through those thousands of guitars every month. It's non-stop with those guys. I can't remember what the exact number was but somebody once told me our return rate was super minimal.
Can you talk about some of the specifics of the Japanese factory?
Makoto Suzuki: We have about 75 workers at the factory: 20 at wood working, 20 at painting, and 30 at assembling. There are five skilled craftsmen working at the Custom shop only building custom orders.
What is the process like in building a guitar? Cutting wood; shaping; inserting inlays/pickups, et al?
The first process is seasoning the woods. All the woods used on our products are naturally seasoned at least three to four years. Then we severely select the woods to be used on our production. It is a very important part of building ESP guitars. There are two different ways on the production process: one is the regular production process and the other process is the Custom shop.
How are those processes different?
A CNC machine is used for cutting outlines on regular productions. But it is all done by hand for the Custom shop products. At the custom shop, all the woodwork on one custom guitar is done by one craftsman. On the other hand, regular productions are done by several workers in several different process. The Custom inlay job is done first on the fingerboard then it's glued onto the neck. The process is of course different depending on its construction and whether it's a Bolt-on, Set-Neck or Neck-Thru. Mostly a neck is made first and then the body is made to match the neck. After cutting out the body and neck outlines, they are then shaped and curved into the final design by hand. Then they go into the painting process.
What is the most difficult part of the assembly process?
Todd Binder: The assembling process is not a job of just putting parts together. It is the decisive part of building guitar to make it a real fine musical instrument or not. Bringing out the best of the body and neck's potential is the key of the assembly job. You of course must have all the knowledge of electric guitars to assemble a decent guitar. But the final point to make it a fine instrument is your sensibility and feeling. That may be the most difficult part of assembling and you can get that only from thousands and thousands of experiences of working on guitars.
Talk a bit about making 7-string guitars vs. 6-string guitars? Basses?
Suzuki: Once you have the right knowledge on building guitars, there's not much difference on building 6-string or 7-string guitars or basses. But you have to pay attention that these all should have different string tension and requires different strength depending on the numbers of strings and string gauges.
What was the craziest guitar anyone ever wanted built?
We've worked on so many crazy products in our 38-year history. It's really hard to say which one was the craziest. We did a two string bass, a guitar with 100 frets, triple - neck guitars, and guitars with even four and five necks. We've done guitars with two necks on the left and right side of the body. But sometimes those crazy customs would bring us innovative ideas. But if you insist that I tell you, I would say the craziest custom was the one we built for a Japanese actor/artist, which had hundreds of diamonds built into it. In total, the cost was $200,000.
What are the various ESP production models now available?
Moore: We start at the very top end with Custom shop and these are all custom -ordered instruments from Japan. Below that we have the ESP Standard line which are production ESP models also coming out of Japan. Then of course our LTD line.
The LTD guitars are ESP's bread and butter?
LTD is our bread and butter line. It's everything from entry level to pro series - $149 all the way up to $1,000. Then LTD Elite will pick up where LTD leaves off. You kind of have your good, better and best scenario.
Tim Carhart: I have pro artists that play LTDs 300 days a year and love 'em. Even ones that are in our 200 Series, which are guitars under $500.
Moore: Some of the best stuff we're putting out right now is actually well under $1,000. I think people understand that the LTD is an ESP product that's designed and built by ESP. Everything that goes into our Custom and Standard product in Japan -those design elements and the level of craftsmanship and passion-goes into these guitars that are not only a great value but are just amazing instruments.
"Steph from the Deftones is the easiest guy to work with."
You want to go after that kid who wants to buy an iPhone and put an ESP guitar in his hands?
Kids have a limited amount of disposable income so are they gonna buy the new version of the iPhone or are they gonna buy a brand new guitar and amplifier. Chances are they don't have enough money for both.
Carhart: We understand how important youth is and we actually have gotten involved and partnered with a charity called the Traveling Guitar Foundation. It goes around to schools with ever-growing cuts in the music programs that are almost non-existent at this point. We go around and donate guitars to these schools so their music programs can flourish and they can learn stuff. Because it's from a young age that we inspire that kind of music bug.
That is very cool.
Carhart: Where we're competing with video games, I can't announce it yet 'cause we're still in the stages of confirming stuff but we have possible partnerships with some gaming companies that will incorporate real instruments.
It really is a new day in terms of selling guitars. There are a lot of companies out there looking to sell their instruments to the next Jimmy Page.
Moore: We do metal well and we're facing new opportunities and new artists. The industry as a whole is saying, "How do we get more guitar players wanting to learn how to play guitar?" The only way this industry is going to grow is to create more excitement and expose more people to it. That's why we're working very closely with other industries to try to generate that interest. Once we get people in, we know how to hook 'em.