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ESP Guitars and the Big Four

ESP Guitars and the Big Four

Back in the mid-eighties, the top bands in thrash were dubbed "the big four": Metallica, Slayer, Megadeth and Anthrax. Many fans dreamed of the possibility of these bands getting together and touring, but it never became a reality until last year when the big four played all over Europe. There will only be one U.S. show, April 23 in Indio, CA, and as they have throughout the tour, Metallica and Slayer will be playing their ESP models in force.

This year Metallica have a brand new guitar model called the Snakebyte that both James Hetfield and Kirk Hammett will be using, and to commemorate the 25th anniversary of Reign In Blood (yes, it really has been 25 years), ESP is also putting out a special guitar featuring that seminal album's cover art. MadeLoud spoke again with ESP President and CEO Matt Masciandaro about the new models, the company’s long relationship with both bands, and how the guitar industry is hopefully recovering from the economy.

The James Hetfield Snakebyte is based on his beloved Explorer model. Hetfield has been using the ESP Explorer since he first hooked up with the company, but the ESP had to change their explorer shape after a settlement with Gibson (Gibson is notorious for going after other companies they accuse of copying their guitars). Hetfield stayed with the older Explorer shapes, but he recently contacted ESP and said we should give it another shot, to try making something with the same vibe as the traditional Explorer, update the shape a bit, but keep same feel as the original.

As Masciandro explains, “We went back and forth on a few shapes, and we came up with something very early in the talks that James really liked. We tweaked it a little bit, we changed the headstock, we changed some of the bevels on the body, and we came up with a shape that James liked. We came up with a prototype as soon as possible. James played it in Europe, he played it on some of the Big Four shows, and after using it for awhile I told him we were getting some calls from fans asking if they’ll ever be able to get one of those. He gave it the green light - he didn’t want it to be a limited edition, and he wanted it available to anyone who wanted it.

“We wouldn’t make a signature model until the artist has already road tested it,” Masciandro continues. “We want to make sure he’s really comfortable with the model before we put something out with his name attached to it. We’re not gonna come up with something until he’s used it himself. James will know pretty quickly if the guitar is gonna work for him. He knows what he needs. He’ll play it for a few minutes and know if it has the sound he’s looking for. I’ve seen him take a few guitars, go through them, and within a few minutes pick out the best one of the three by playing each one for a minute.”

The Kirk Hammett Snakebyte guitar is his signature ESP KH model with a much more radical paint job. “We took one of his Neck-Thru-Body signature models and we just refinished it in the green sunburst,” Masciandro says. “That’s the one he’s playing on the road. He has a signature Dunlop wah-wah pedal, and it’s got a two-tone black and green sunburst finish he really likes. So he asked us, ‘Can you make me a green sunburst finish matching this pedal?’, and we duplicated the same color, along with green skull and crossbones inlays instead of the white ones.”

As for the Reign in Blood guitar, Masciandro says, “We’ve been working very closely with Slayer for a long time. Tom and Jeff have been playing our instruments for quite a while, and we worked with them on many different levels. We wanted to do something special - we’ve been talking about something like this for a couple of years, and the timing was right. With the twenty-fifth anniversary of Reign in Blood coming up, everything fell together. The band was behind it, and it was a good way to commemorate the album. We actually made a deal for three different Slayer guitars that will be out in 2012 and 2013. We don’t know which cover art we’re going to use for the next two - that will be determined.”

Funnily enough, considering how much Slayer guitarists Kerry King and Jeff Hanneman abuse their whammy bars, the Reign In Blood guitar doesn’t have one. As Masciandro explains: “We went back and forth on that. One of the reasons it doesn’t have one is the guitar body is the canvas for the art, and a Kahler Tremolo takes up a large space on the body top. It would block a lot of the graphics, and we had to make the call. It was a commemorative guitar - and for some people buying it a collectable guitar - because it’s limited edition. We went with making the art prominent by not covering it up with a very large piece of metal. We made the strings go through the body. The Reign In Blood graphic came across better without the tremolo, and we decided to let the artwork show.”

Like everything else in the States, the instrument industry has taken a hit with the collapse of the economy. Masciandro says for the upcoming year he’s cautiously optimistic. “I can say looking how the Christmas season went and how our products were received at the NAMM show, the worst seems to be over for the guitar industry," he says. “Fingers crossed. Every guitar company got hit, the whole musical instrument industry did, but things seem to be picking up. We are well ahead of the same period last year, so it’s very encouraging.”

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