When you’ve been playing guitar long enough, you can pick up a quality instrument and know right away when the company knows what they’re doing.
Speaking of which: the quality control of ESP guitars are excellent, which isn’t easy for big companies to maintain. In an often tough and competitive business, ESP has survived a lot of ups and downs, and are still going strong. To go over where the company’s been, and where they hope to go from here, MadeLoud talked to Matt Masciandaro, ESP’s President and CEO, and Allan Steelgrave, ESP’s director of Marketing and Artist Relations.
Since ESP first started in 1975 as a replacement guitar parts company in Tokyo, Japan, guitar manufacturing has gone through a lot of changes. Players were demanding more than they could get from an off the rack instrument, and at first they could modify their guitars with replacement parts. Then once Eddie Van Halen created a guitar revolution, many followed in his footsteps trying to piece together their own unique guitars out of replacement bodies, necks and pickups.
Soon a new breed of guitar company created their own line of axes that incorporated the changes players kept asking for: thinner, faster necks, hotter pick-ups, and flashier paint jobs. With metal’s big comeback in the ‘80’s, and the added visual element of MTV, the “hot rod” companies like Jackson, Kramer and B.C. Rich really took off, and the established brands like Gibson felt the heat.
The eighties were an incredible era of guitar heroes. Eddie Van Halen was the benchmark, and countless guitarists practiced their collective asses off hoping to reach his level of virtuosity. Guitar companies were keenly aware of the power of endorsements during the eighties, because whatever Ed used, his legion of guitar gods in waiting had to play as well. Having a hot player endorse your instrument was crucial, and George Lynch, lead guitarist for Dokken, would be the first high profile American guitarist that put ESP on the map in the States.
Also thanks to George, Matt Masciandaro got a job with the company in 1987. Matt was Lynch’s guitar tech, and he also worked for Aerosmith and Motorhead. When Masciandaro went to work for ESP, their American offices were located in a tiny loft on 19th Street in Manhattan. “When I joined up with ESP, the whole company was maybe five people,” he explains. “I was doing a little bit of everything, and we made less than 200 guitars a month. I was given a lot of responsibility right away, and all of us were learning as we went along.”
ESP soon gathered more high profile endorsers like Ron Wood of the Rolling Stones, Kiss’s Bruce Kulick, Living Colour’s Vernon Reid, and the company got a big boost when Metallica’s Kirk Hammett came aboard in 1987 - right as the band was exploding into the big leagues. Kirk was turned on to the company by Anthrax riff master Scott Ian, and what Hammett and Lynch immediately liked about working with ESP was their open-minded attitude and flexibility.
“We became known as the company that was not your father’s guitar company,” Masciandaro says. “We were an alternative to the more traditional companies that existed at the time. We had the ability to build almost anything on a custom basis like shapes, graphics, inlays, and do a quality guitar that will hold up on the road. Many other companies were not as flexible as us. Kirk was looking for someone to build him a guitar that he couldn’t get any other company to do, he heard that ESP would do whatever he needed, and they’d do it right.”
James Hetfield also followed Hammett’s lead and became an ESP endorser (ESP is the only company for which James will appear in ads). When Masciandaro first met Hetfield at a NAMM show, he asked James if he wanted anything special on the Explorer model the company was making for him. Hetfield stuck out his middle finger, and ESP made inlays of a hand flipping the bird for the guitar’s fretboard.
ESP has a lot of metal artists on their roster, and Masciandaro says, “We never made a conscious decision to commit ourselves or focus strictly on metal. The thing about metal is it’s a natural because it’s 100% guitar driven music, so if you want your product to be played and seen by the right people, they’re gonna be metal people 90% of the time.” To help expand ESP’s roster of artists and increase the company’s visability, Allan Steelgrave came aboard in 2006. Steelgrave worked for Kiss, and was recommended for his ESP gig by Bruce Kulick.
“I had ideas, and I finally came across the right company that was willing to try them,” Steelgrave says. “What I was able to bring to the table is marketing ideas to bring the name ESP more to the forefront. With our website, Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter, we’ve been able to expand our market base. We sponsor tours, and ESP is being seen more visually, not just from the touring realm, but we’ve also developed ESP TV. There aren’t many companies that have gone to the extent of visual marketing and social media like we have. My job has been to create more opportunities for ESP to be seen. It’s been great to watch it grow.” With the advent of Guitar Hero, ESP has also working with the video game companies Activision and Neversoft as well. “We’re not missing any real target that we’re looking for,” Steelgrave continues. “We found those holes, and we fit ourselves in.”
Like Ibanez, ESP originated in Japan, which prides itself on some of the best guitar craftsmanship in the world. “Japan has been making guitars longer than most, and the level of skill in guitar making is unsurpassed in almost anywhere in the world,” says Mascinandaro. “There are still people that say, ‘My guitar has to be American made,’ and that’s wonderful if that’s how they feel, but they’re not always getting the better instrument.”
The competition to get the best players to endorse your instruments is still tough, but ESP has survived that game well. As Matt and Allan explain, there’s about half a dozen companies that are pretty much the same size as ESP competing for wall space at the music stores, and in recent years companies have become more organized about going after hot players, with teams of people coming to the shows trying to woo them. These days, artists also expect endorsements to be part of their deals once they reach a certain level.
“We might have one upcoming artist, and there’s three or four companies that would love to get their hands on them,” Mascinandaro says. “We have to be a little more protective, and maybe a little bit more aggressive, because we know a handful of guitar companies are trying to get their guitars in their hands. But we’ve been pretty fortunate that not too many people have left ESP.”
Steelgrave says, “The endorsement game these days is about visibility, touring, and what the artist is doing as far as in-stores, signings, meet and greets, etc. There are varying levels to an artist relationship depending on where the band is at the stage of their careers. Some bands may not have a label, but they’re doing 270 shows a year, so we have different deals that are available to our artists, which could go from a discount deal, all the way up to signature artists like Metallica, Will Adler of Lamb of God, or any one of these people we do signature models for. Some bands can start off at a discounted rate, and from there we move up to some bands getting two or three instruments. Some companies, without naming names, say, ‘If you’re not a national guy, forget it, don’t even call us.’ We’re open to receiving packages and making the determination from there.”
And as a point of pride, ESP doesn’t buy their artists. Some guitar companies pay their players to endorse their instruments, and as Mascinandaro explains, “Some companies feel that’s a worthwhile investment. The player has to decide, ‘Well, Company A may make a better product, Company B may not have as good a product but they’re willing to write the check.’ It’s up to them. Some artists may go with someone that might write the check, but there’s other times where that guy might come to us and start to realize, ‘I’m touring eight months a year, I need something that’s gonna work for me, and that’s becoming more important than the fact the they’re paying me some money.’”
As far as where ESP hope to go in the future, the company’s flexibility and willingness to experiment should serve them well down the road. Mascinandaro says, “The way things change these days, and the way they change so quickly, we try to keep the ability to turn on a dime, make changes very quickly, and try to stay a little bit ahead of the curve. Because we’ve stayed small as far as the operation and the management, there’s really only a couple of people here that make key decisions. If we see an opportunity, we can make it happen almost immediately. Some of our competition - some of the larger companies - it may take them a year or two. You have to monitor what’s going on, what the trends are, what the demands are, and also try to create some of those things yourself.
“We’ll never grow beyond where we can’t keep control of the quality. I believe we have higher standards than most of our competitors, and the reason we have that is we keep very close control over quality. Expansion is not so much a priority for us as delivering a good product.”