Kirk Hammett, George Lynch, and ESP's Emergence on the Metal Scene

George Lynch, Kirk Hammett (photo by Jeff Yeager). Courtesy of ESP.

It's 1987, New York City, and Kirk Hammett along with his buddy Scott Ian are paying a visit to ESP Guitars. Kirk's band defined a sound on the previous year's Master Of Puppets album, and Metallica had been touring relentlessly since, sometimes with Scott's band Anthrax on the bill.

Following Cliff Burton's tragic death in a tour bus accident in Sweden, Jason Newsted had taken Cliff's place in Metallica's bass slot, playing his first shows with the band in November '86.

"We played a few shows, to break Jason in," Kirk tells me. "Meanwhile, I'd noticed that Scott had this really cool guitar, with a cartoon graphic painted on the front of it, which he told me he got from a Japanese company called ESP that had an office in New York. And just right off the bat he said: 'And they'll give you a guitar, too!'"

At that point, Kirk says with a smile, no one was exactly tripping over themselves to sign him up as an endorser. "Our band was still quite the bastard stepchild of the music industry, the media world, and just overall culture. So I said to Scott, 'Yeah, man, I'm totally, totally into it—no one has really given me a free guitar before.'"

And so here they were, Kirk and Scott, freshly arrived in the upstairs rooms that served as ESP's American headquarters, and excited as hell.

George Lynch & The Early Days of ESP

George Lynch. (Photo courtesy ESP.)

ESP (Electric Sound Products) began in 1975 as a small custom shop in the back of a Tokyo music store, established by Hisatake Shibuya. He gradually expanded the business to include manufacturing, retail, and music education. At first, ESP's Navigator-brand guitars were copies of the usual US classics, alongside a large and impressive line of parts—bodies, necks, hardware, and so on.

When Hisatake sent one of his employees to open ESP's first overseas office in New York in the early '80s, it gradually became clear that there was potential for a more original take on the traditional models—especially when key players like Kirk, Scott, and others began to provide input about their own particular tastes in modern high-performance guitars.

Matt Masciandaro was a tour manager and guitar tech at the time, working with Aerosmith, Motörhead, and the like. During 1985, he was hired by Dokken as tech for George Lynch. Matt remembers George finding an ESP neck he liked at a store and asking Kramer if they could reproduce it.

"The builder at Kramer said, 'Well, you're going on tour in Japan, aren't you—why don't you just go to ESP and get a neck?' Kind of dumb," Matt says with a laugh, "you know? But sure enough, George and I went to ESP in Japan, into one of the retail shops, and they said, 'You're George Lynch! We'd love the opportunity to build you a guitar!'"

George recalls that a number of ESP people were present at the Tokyo meeting toward the end of 1985. He'd had a short-lived endorsement with Aria, and Kramer had talked about signing him up, too. But here was a real opportunity. "ESP had their technicians there, in lab coats, pen protectors in their pockets, the micrometers, taking down notes," George tells me. "We sat around all afternoon riffing back and forth, working out what became my ESP Kamikaze guitar."

He told them exactly what he wanted. "Back then, bigger was better, heavier was better, more was more. So I said it had to be a high-gain pickup, a heavy piece of wood, very thick, a minimal amount of routing. And I wanted graphics: a Kamikaze pilot, some bombs, a couple of kanji characters. I guess because I was in Japan for the first time in my life, the first thing that popped in my head was a Kamikaze pilot. In retrospect, it seems like probably a little politically incorrect. But anyway, as a starting point we used my Tiger guitar, a parts guitar I'd put together."

George had built a number of parts guitars before Dokken and in the early days of the band, using necks, bodies, and bits and pieces by Charvel, Mighty Mite, Sandoval, and others. Not only for himself, but also for the students he'd teach locally. "Everything was pretty much Strat-based, superstrat, generally one hum but sometimes more than one, and graphics that me and my friend Irv Veech would come up with and paint in his garage."

The original Kamikaze. (Photo courtesy ESP.)

The first ESP Kamikaze guitars mimicked the Tiger body's weight and wood and, to an extent, the neck profile, along with a reverse hockey-stick headstock, a surface-mounted Floyd Rose vibrato system, a custom Duncan Distortion humbucker at the bridge, and an ESP single-coil at the neck. Those early ones were indeed very heavy, George reports.

"Nowadays we think of light guitars as the way to go, and that's true in a lot of respects, but sometimes there's something about a heavy guitar that does a really, really cool thing. It has a focus to it. You lose some of the big bloomy bottom end and so on, but you do gain something—when it works. Those early Kamis had that."

The custom Kami guitar arrived from Japan at the ESP office in New York a few months later, into 1986. George was delighted with the result, and his Kami became the model for ESP's first signature guitars for an American musician. "I'd tried to come up with something that was more in tune with my specific needs," George explains. "For example, I love having that single-coil fluid kind of legato tone at the neck, and then if I want to also just back it off, I can get a crystalline Strat sound—I know it's going to be in the neck, so not so bright, but still it gets you part way there."

He employed simple controls, too. "I had a push-pull volume—now I use push-push, but back then push-pull—and no tone, for as direct a signal as possible. I see more than one knob and I just get confused and stop playing," he says, laughing. "The wide-flat neck dimensions, too, were something that back then wasn't as common as now. Plus I had the personalized graphics. None of it was treading any new ground, but when you put it all together, I think it was really the predecessor to a lot of guitars that went on to try to fill that space."

ESP's New York Office on the Come-Up

After working with ESP on the Kamikaze project for George, Matt Masciandaro was told by the company's vice president that he could have a job at ESP any time he wanted. As it happened, Matt was beginning to tire of the life of constant touring, and in 1987 he took up the offer and went to work at ESP's New York office at 151 West 19th Street. It was a fabulous time to be in the thick of things in the city.

"The New York recording scene was probably at its peak," Matt recalls. "You had the Hit Factory, the Record Plant, Power Station, RCA, CBS. A lot of the great records of that period were recorded in the city, and a lot of artists were located there. It was a testing ground for ESP products, because we developed relationships with those artists, they'd give us feedback on what we were making, ask us to make something special for them."

Vernon Reid from Living Colour was one example from those early days.

Vernon Reid playing his ESP in Living Colour's "Cult of Personality" video.

"We worked with Vernon when the band was playing at CBGBs, about to get signed, going on tour with the Stones," Matt continues. "Well, Vernon could just take the train to 19th Street, walk into ESP, and talk about what type of guitar he wanted. Ron Wood was an early one, too. He wanted a Tele with a string-bender, which ESP was able to do, and he still plays the two he has. See, no other guitar company was located in the city, pretty much, unless it was a music store that had some sort of boutique manufacturing or repair. We were the only national guitar company located in the city."

When Matt came on board in '87, ESP was in the process of changing its focus.

"We were going from the original vintage guitar reproductions to creating our own identity, by making custom-color neck-through guitars with locking tremolos," he says. "We were just starting to become the guitar company that people would go to if they wanted something beyond what was traditional. I think that was the edge that we had, because people would come to us and get something that—and this might be a cliché now—that wasn't the guitar your father played."

There seemed to be a growing buzz about ESP. "Artists started to find out that if they had a vision or a concept or a dream for a guitar that wasn't a stock Les Paul or Strat—if they wanted a graphic on it, they wanted a Floyd Rose, they wanted custom inlays—ESP was the place to go," Matt recalls of this East Coast scene—and similar to what was happening at Charvel on the other coast. "One by one, the word would get out, whether it was Scott Ian in Anthrax who told his friend Kirk Hammett in Metallica, or whoever. The word was that ESP will make you what you want. They won't tell you that this is what you have to play."

Kirk Hammett's First Custom ESPs

Kirk Hammett with his "Caution" ESP. (Photo by Jeff Yeager, courtesy ESP.)

It was probably around April of '87 that Kirk and Scott showed up for their appointment at ESP in New York. At the time, the firm had about six people working in its US office, and Kirk stood among them, excited about the possibility of a good (and free) guitar. When Scott had showed Kirk his ESP, Kirk had no doubts that it was a good guitar.

"It seemed to have a good body, nice neck, the electronics seemed to be alright, and it seemed to be somewhat solid," Kirk remembers. "So at the meeting, I asked them, well, can you make me a neck-through-body Strat-style guitar with EMG pickups? I was putting EMG pickups in all my guitars at that point." (His main guitars were a '70s Gibson Flying V, a Jackson Randy Rhoads, and a Fernandes Strat copy.)

"I said, well, you know, there's a couple other specific things I want," he continues. "I always liked the look of upside-down Strat headstocks, the Jimi Hendrix thing. So I said to them, please make it with an upside-down headstock. I wanted the heel of the neck to be beveled a little bit, as well. And if you can, I would really like it if you can get a skull-and-crossbones kind of graphic to put in the fretboard as fret markers. I also wanted 24 frets, double octave, whatever it is. A Floyd on there, as well, and I wanted two volumes and a master tone, like a Strat kind of thing. For the style of music I was playing back then, one tone knob was good enough, but I definitely needed two volume knobs."

Kirk took a breath, glanced up at the ESP people, and wrapped up his wants list.

"Last, there was something I really wanted to do, but I didn't know if they were able to do it. I said I wanted to go through all their necks, the necks that aren't mounted on any guitar bodies, and just pick one out that felt right to me. So I spent like a good half-hour or so going through all the necks that they had on hand, in stock, feeling them with my left hand, feeling the radius and the fretboard and the frets. I found one that felt good, and I said can you make this neck-through-body? To me, neck-through-body guitars sounded a little bit fuller, a little bit heavier than bolt-on necks and glued-on necks."

Kirk Hammett's original "Zorlac." (Photo by Tom Watters, courtesy ESP.)

Kirk looked over to Scott, wondering if he'd asked for too much, then turned back around to check the response. "And they just said, 'Yeah, we can do all that stuff.' I couldn't believe it! They were so accommodating, and I couldn't believe that they were actually going to do all this stuff for me. So that's pretty much what I ended up getting."

A few months later, Kirk had his first ESP, delivered from the Tokyo custom shop to the New York office, exactly as he'd asked for. He was certainly playing it by the time Metallica visited Britain in August '87 to appear at the 100 Club and then the Monsters Of Rock festivals at Donington and in Germany.

Kirk recalls using his new ESP in the studio for the …And Justice For All sessions in early '88. It's the guitar that later became known as the Zorlac, thanks to a damaged-pirate sticker (designed by Brian "Pushead" Schroeder for Zorlac skateboards) that Kirk later added to its body, and it's the guitar that was the basis for Kirk's first ESP signature model, the KH-2.

"I remember taking it into the studio and recording a bunch of tracks with it, along with my Gibson Flying V that I've had for ever and ever and ever," Kirk says. "I just fell in love with my ESP right away. The neck felt amazing, felt real even, right from the first fret all the way up to the 24th. I loved the frets, big and high. And then I remember saying hey, can I get another one to take on tour? The idea was to take one on tour and leave one at home, but I ended up taking them both on tour because they just sounded so great."

That second guitar is the one that became known as Caution, thanks to another sticker Kirk added later, an orange one near the controls reading "Caution Hot," along with a piece of tape above the neck pickup identifying this as Kirk's Guitar.

"Those two guitars are super, super adorable!" he says of Zorlac and Caution, which collectively he calls his Skully guitars. "Made really strong, really well. I'm hard on my instruments, it's the way I play, a pretty heavy right-hand technique. And the way I keep them, too. I'm lazy: I never put a guitar back into a case. Once it's out of the case, it's out for months and months, so I can just grab it and play it. Anyway, the Zorlac is the one I wrote a bunch of riffs on. I wrote some of the stuff that ended up in 'The Unforgiven,' the main riff from 'Enter Sandman' was written on that guitar, as well as parts of 'Of Wolf And Man.' So, you know, in that regard that guitar is kind of important to me."

Metallica - "Enter Sandman" (Live in Mexico City, 2009)

Matt Masciandaro says that almost every guitar that ESP has made Kirk since—and there have been many—has been based to a large extent on the Zorlac original. At the time of writing, that guitar had just come back to Kirk via ESP's current US headquarters in Los Angeles. (In 1989, ESP moved to its final New York location, on 48th Street, and Matt was put in charge of the US operation. Today he is president and CEO of the company. They moved from New York to LA in 1993.)

"Kirk's Zorlac guitar had been on display at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland," Matt reports, "and Kirk asked that we could make him a reproduction of it, because he doesn't take this one on the road any more. It has the wear and tear, the stickers, all the things that 30 years and more on the road will get you."

Hammett's Cinematic Signature ESPs

Once ESP realized they had an avid supporter in Kirk, they continued to build him more instruments. There were some Flying Vs with EMG pickups and Deviled Ham fingerboard inlays, and a guitar with a Les Paul Junior-like body and a Pushead spider-and-web graphic. "They also gave me a blank Strat that wasn't finished," he says, "and I had my friend burn a bunch of stuff into it, but I think I traded that for a horror movie poster or something."

Hammett with his "White Zombie" ESP. (Photo by Jeff Yeager, courtesy ESP.)

More striking was a series of guitars featuring colorful movie-poster graphics. The trend started in the early '90s with a KH-2 decorated with elements from posters for the 1932 Boris Karloff film The Mummy. When the guitar arrived, with a big bold Boris between the pickups, Kirk was awestruck. "I opened up the case, I thought oh my god, it's as good as the movie poster—maybe even better. From that point on, I considered that guitar a fucking work of art! It started the whole movie-poster thing of me putting graphics on the guitars."

There were guitars with bodies that had Ouija-Board graphics, like the ones used to try to receive messages from the dead. "I thought it would be freakin' great to put this on a guitar," Kirk says. "I got one that had glow-in-the-dark lettering, and that's a phenomenal thing." Does he ever get any messages? He laughs, and says: "Well, sometimes my hands will magically go to the Yes or No when I'm working on a musical idea."

Kirk reckons ESP made him a guitar with a working theremin installed, one with a Randomizer effect built in, another with a Roland guitar-synth pickup. There were Wavecasters, with Tele-style clear plastic bodies made by George Fedden that contained blue oil and water, which would ebb and flow as the instrument was moved around. "I played one on tour, actually a great-sounding guitar, but when it went into storage something happened," Kirk says, "and it started to leak through one of the seams. It just became so rusted out, it wasn't playable any more. I do have more ideas for other ESP guitars, but these days, as Matt would say, I have to be careful not to overwhelm the custom shop."

The Enduring Appeal of ESP

That long relationship between Kirk and ESP is unusual in the guitar business, although as we've seen, George Lynch has been associated with the company even longer. After his original Kamikaze guitar, George had ESP make a few more custom instruments with arresting graphics, including one he called Skulls & Snakes and also some variations on his stripey Tiger guitar. Both Kirk and George have several signature models still in the ESP line today.

Looking back to those early days of ESP, George reckons there was some kind of movement. "Maybe that's just the benefit of hindsight, but it seems there were quite a few people thinking along similar lines, and wanting that kind of guitar. A faster neck and all that, but real high quality, that was the other thing. I think some of the guitars in that '80s era missed the mark, because although they had the hot pickups, the locking tremolo system, really fast necks, and so forth, they didn't really have the three-dimensional depth and quality that we loved about guitars from previous eras and generations. I think the Kamikaze and other high-end ESPs did have that—their own unique quality to their sound."

As you might imagine, George has a sizable collection of instruments he's accumulated over the years.

"It's crazy—all the different components come together and the guitar sounds like it should." - Kirk Hammett

"I have 12-strings and baritones and tenor guitars—you know: whatever I need for different sounds and layering and so forth," he says. "But my core has always been ESP, that's my signature sound and my signature guitar relationship. They've been family to me, and recently they even allowed me to do my own Mr. Scary Guitars project. So ESP have been there for me for—well, whatever that is if we count back to '85. Not a lot of things last that long in our lifetimes! Marriages, bands, not too many things last 35 years and counting. It's a very healthy, productive relationship, a great symbiotic relationship."

Kirk, too, values this constant through what has been a long career full of the inevitable ups and downs.

"I love that ESPs are super consistent," he says. "A lot of times I'll get a new one right out of the case, and I'll need to play at least two or three shows with it, bang on it, spit all over it, you know? And then something magical happens, and it kind of finds its voice after I do that. I guess all of those different parts need to congeal or something, for want of a better word. But it's crazy—all the different components come together and the guitar sounds like it should. Sometimes it's a bit of a wait for a new one, sometimes it can be a year, but when I get that guitar, when it finally arrives, I am so excited. You know? I am so excited."


About the author: Tony Bacon writes about musical instruments, musicians, and music. His books include Flying V/Explorer/Firebird, Electric Guitars: Design & Invention, and Sunburst. Tony lives in Bristol, England. More info at tonybacon.co.uk.

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