Price paid: $ 400
Purchased from: Sweetwater
Features — 8
The ESP LTD EC-256FM is ESP's take on the traditional single cut Les Paul. While the majority of the EC series have 24 frets and are clearly aimed at a more extreme metal crowd, the EC256 seems to be an attempt to appeal to customers who prefer the more traditional Les Paul look and sound. My guitar is a 2014 model made in Vietnam. It has a very attractive glossy lemon drop finish over its flame maple top. The back and sides are a transparent amber. The creme binding and chrome hardware helps complete the vintage-esque look. The fret board is a surprisingly nice cut of fairly dark rosewood complemented by ESP's pearl "flag" inlays.
The arch-top body is somewhat thinner than a standard Gibson or Epiphone Les Paul. There is a bit of a belly cut as well which is relatively unusual for a single-cut plank. On the plus side, these ergonomic changes make for a fairly comfortable guitar in the 8-9 lb range. On the other hand, there are times where its thinner appearance makes the guitar seem less legit compared to a proper Epiphone or Gibson Les Paul, at least in my mind. That said, I always forget about that once I strap her on and start playing.
The guitar features 22 HUGE frets and your typical import tune-o-matic copy. Tuners are standard ESP chrome jobbers that look sort of like Klusons. Pickups are chrome-covered ESP LH150's. Controls are volume/vlume/tone with amber knobs and a three-way selector. The tone-knob is push-pull to split the coils of the humbuckers.
Sound — 8
My primary style is metal & hard rock, occasional forays into blues and classic rock. Some of my favorite bands are Metallica, Anthrax, Alice In Chains, Iron Maiden, Judas Priest and Killswitch Engage. That should give some idea as to the variety of heavy tones that I seek. My amps are a Peavey 6505 Mini Head into a Blackstar 112 and a Blackstar HT5R combo. Effects are minimal - I use a TS-9 for tightening the metal tones, and occasional Wah or Chorus.
The LH150 pickup set is fairly solid given that they are stock pickups on a somewhat low-end guitar. The bridge unit checks out at a little over 14k on the multi-meter, while the neck pickup surprisingly comes in relatively blazing (for a neck pickup) in the 12k range. As far as output is concerned, this should be enough for most applications. If you are all about extreme metal and/or need something that will absolutely crush the front end of your pre-amp, you will need something more. I will admit that there are times where I would like just a smidge more push from the bridge pickup, but they are very usable for high gain nonetheless.
Of course, there's more to a pickup than just sheer grunt. What about the TONE, you ask? Well, I've been quite pleased actually (to my surprise even). The bridge pickup has a tight and crunchy sound with a decent balance of mids and highs. The neck pickup is fat and buttery. It's better for leads than cleans but is serviceable for the latter. The split coil function lowers the output naturally and makes the guitar sound somewhat Tele-ish. It's not a bad sound but split humbuckers are never as full and sparkly as true single coils. It's a useful feature nonetheless. Noise has not been a significant issue - splitting the coils results in 60 cycle hum, of course.
Action, Fit & Finish — 6
The EC256FM is a very attractive guitar for the price. The flame top is book-matched well. That said, close inspection reveals flaws. There is a random orange spot in the amber finish on the heel. Binding is decent but small irregularities can be found. Some of the hardware fit could be better. The curve of the pickup rings and output jack don't confirm perfectly with the body of the guitar, leaving small gaps.
I do my own setups (including truss-rod), so the action out of the box I can't even comment on as I immediately adjusted it to my liking. The neck itself is a meaty U shape with does not seem out of place at all on this sort of guitar. The fretwork is typical of an Asian import; i.e. a decent luthier would certainly find room for improvement. The nut seems to be cut reasonably well. I've been able to achieve decent action and play-ability without luthier intervention but I won't rule out a fret leveling at some point.
Reliability & Durability — 7
My EC256 seems pretty solid overall. The hardware may not last as long as high-end components but should be good for at least a decade of decent use. The strap buttons are large and solid - a plus for sure. The guitar holds tune okay - a luthier can probably improve on this. The tuners are functional; pros may want something better (then again, how many pros are in the market for a $400 LP copy?).
I am a hobby player, so this guitar will be pampered and likely will never see the inside of a bar or club (at least as long as I own it). That said, while it wouldn't be the first choice from my collection if I were to gig, with a little luthier TLC it should be workable for live use.
Overall Impression — 7
I have been playing for nearly 20 years and have amassed a decent collection of mid-range axes, many of which I have upgraded with my own mods (pickups, hardware, etc.). I actually did modify my EC256 - I replaced the stock pickups with DragonFire Screamers in an attempt to up the output a tad on the dirt-cheap. The Screamers are okay pickups, especially for the price ($28 for the set!). They did achieve my goal of a little more output. However, the bottom was just a touch mushier versus the stock LH150's. At one point, I grew a bit bored with this axe and contemplated selling her. Before doing so, I put the LH150's back in, and found myself pleasantly surprised once again at how lively they sound and I ended up deciding against selling the guitar.
If this guitar were stolen, I don't know if I would rush out to buy the same model again. I'm not even sure I like it enough to plunk down money for Seymour Duncans as an upgrade. It is what it is - a $400 plank trying to imitate much more expensive guitars. That said, I'm not ashamed to have it in my collection and I do play it regularly. If you are looking for a budget 22-fret LP-type guitar, the EC-256FM is worth considering as it is very competitive when compared to similar axes in the same price range.