ESP Company, Limited is a Japanese guitar manufacturer, primarily focused on the production of electric guitars and basses. They are based in both Japan and Los Angeles, California, USA, with two distinct product lines for each respective market. ESP Company manufactures instruments under several names, including “ESP Standard”, “ESP Custom Shop”, “LTD Guitars and Basses”, “Navigator”, “Edwards Guitar and Basses”, and “Grassroots”. Their products range from Japanese-built custom shop instruments to lower end mass-production Korean, Indonesian and Chinese made instruments.
In 1975, Hisatake Shibuya opened a shop called Electric Sound Products (ESP) in Tokyo, which provided custom replacement parts for guitars and quickly gained a reputation for the high-quality of these replacement parts. At this time, ESP also began crafting guitars under the ESP and Navigator brand in the Japanese market. Ronnie Wood of The Rolling Stones and Akira Takasaki were users of these guitars.
ESP replacement parts were first introduced into the US in 1983 and began crafting custom instruments for local New York artists between 1984 and ’85. Among these artists were Page Hamilton (Helmet), Vernon Reid (Living Colour), Vinnie Vincent and Bruce Kulick (KISS), and Ronnie Wood (The Rolling Stones). At this time, ESP also introduced the 400 Series as the first production line to be distributed in the US.
During this same period, ESP began making the bodies and necks for Kramer Guitars and other manufacturers were using ESP as an OEM such as Robin Guitars, Schecter Guitar Research and DiMarzio. Many traits of the Kramer line are still visible including neck construction and body bevels. ESP tooled up for Tom Anderson’s shaved bolt on neck heel on the Schecter bodies and this has since become a feature of their house brand.
In 1985, George Lynch discovered ESP while on tour in Tokyo. Lynch walked into an ESP shop looking for a replacement neck and learned that ESP also built custom guitars. As a result, his famous ESP Kamikaze was made and ESP released George Lynch’s Kamikaze as its first signature model. ESP soon introduced the M1 Standard, MI Custom, Horizon Custom, and the Surveyor bass into the market.
At this time, ESP based its headquarters in a loft in downtown New York City on 19th Street. In 1989, the headquarters were moved to 48th Street near other famous music stores.
Between 1990 and 1992, ESP expanded its Signature Series as well as its standard product line. The US replacement parts business was discontinued in order to focus solely on their guitar and bass line, as well as the Custom Shop series. There are about 41 signature series guitars.
In 1993, ESP moved its headquarters again but this time to Los Angeles, on Sunset Blvd. in Hollywood. In 1995, the LTD series was created to produce ESP’s high-quality products at a more affordable price. Soon after the introduction of the Korean and Indonesian-made LTD lines, ESP stopped selling the majority of its Japanese made flagship guitars in the United States, due to the high prices involved in exporting to the Americas. The lone exception was ESP’s artist signature series, which remained ESP (rather than LTD) models. In the early 2000s (decade), ESP resumed shipping the standard Japanese made lines to the United States (where they are very popular among heavy metal and hard rock players), though at greatly increased prices compared to the early 90s.
Similarly to Ibanez, ESP’s chief competitor in Japan, ESP was initially known for making high quality and customized replicas of famous American guitars, including hot rodded Strats and Teles, as well as Gibson Explorers. The Explorer model, (known as the EXP/MX), shot to fame when avid ESP user James Hetfield‘s band Metallica rose to popularity in the late 80s/early 90s. Models similar to Hetfield’s black ESP even today sell for hundreds of dollars beyond the original retail price. However, just like with Ibanez, when the Gibson company realized the extent to which ESP was denting into sales of its own guitars, it filed a suit to prevent sales of these guitars in the Americas. ESP redesigned its lines to be less similar to the American models.
In 2002, ESP was ranked among the music industry’s fastest growing companies. This is largely due to the Fender buyout of Jackson Guitars, who ESP had struggled to compete with throughout the 1980s and 1990s. After the buyout, many Jackson endorsers switched over to ESP (this has ignited a feud between players, with Jackson players pointing out that ESP became known for copying popular instruments, including Jackson’s Soloist and Gibson’s Explorer models famously used by Jeff Hanneman, James Hetfield respectively, while ESP players cite the Fender buyout as casting a shadow on Jackson’s metal image and hail ESP as the new king). Some of these artists who left Jackson for ESP included Dave Mustaine (Megadeth, now using Dean Guitars, who at one point had expressed interest in buying out Jackson himself), as well as Adam Darski (Behemoth), Alexi Laiho and Roope Latvala (Children of Bodom), Jeff Hanneman (Slayer), Galder and Silenoz (Dimmu Borgir).
ESP introduced its Xtone line, beginning with the semi-hollow Paramount Series. In 2005, ESP celebrated its 30th Anniversary and released James Hetfield’s “Truckster” into its Signature Series. In 2006, ESP showcased 22 of its newest Signature Series and Standard Series models at Winter NAMM 2006. The Standard Series included such famous models as the ESP LTD EC-500 and the ESP LTD B-500. Among the signature artists showcasing their newest ESP models and signing autographs at the ESP booth were Dave Mustaine, George Lynch, Stephen Carpenter (Deftones), Michael Wiltonand Page Hamilton.
As of March 2015, ESP began distributing Takamine Guitars in the United States.
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