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ESP James Hetfield Snakebyte Electric Guitar Review

Metallica’s James Hetfield, who began using their guitars extensively in the late ’80s while in the twilight of the band’s thrash-metal era, often championed ESP’s quality, playability, and tone.

Electric Sound Products, better know to guitarists as ESP, started humbly enough in Tokyo, Japan in 1975. The company rose on its reputation for high-quality, custom-made replacement guitar parts and components, but it didn’t take long for ESP to start crafting their own instruments. Entering the American guitar market only a few short years after inception, they began building custom guitars for the likes of Vinnie Vincent and Bruce Kulick. By the ’80s, their hand built axes had started to grab the attention of high-profile players from Ron Wood to many of the shredders riding the ’80s-metal wave.

Metallica’s James Hetfield, who began using their guitars extensively in the late ’80s while in the twilight of the band’s thrash-metal era, often championed ESP’s quality, playability, and tone. And in the years since, ESP has produced a plethora of Hetfield signature models. But their newest offering, the Snakebyte, merges them into one unique instrument with a flair and character all its own.

Tweak & Destroy
Hetfield designed the Snakebyte’s body shape, headstock, and other aesthetic elements. There’s an obvious Gibson Explorer influence—no surprise given that he’s wielded Explorers since the Ride the Lightning era and it’s the Explorer that inspired most of Hetfield’s ESP guitars. But the Snakebyte is built around several, evolutionary alterations to the shape, including a carved bout on the back edge, a beveled cutaway, and a hook-like end on the headstock.

The first thing that struck me when I took the Snakebyte out of its case was how light it was. On a shipping scale, the guitar weighed only 7 1/2 pounds, even though the body and neck are built entirely from mahogany. The case alone weighed over twice as much as the guitar at 19 1/2 pounds.

Metallica’s rhythm king has long been synonymous with EMG’s 81 and 60 pickups— two humbuckers that have likely remained in favor thanks to their association with Metallica’s classic-thrash era. Dual Volume knobs and a 3-way switch control the active, molten-hot fire breathers in the Snakebyte. And the pickup battery compartment sports a cool-looking metal door—located on the back of the body— that resembles a car’s flip-out ashtray.

Crushing All Deceivers, Mashing Non-Believers
Hetfield’s sound has always been primarily about power—leaving comrade Kirk Hammett with the effects and extreme guitar-wizardry duties—and the Snakebyte definitely reflects his focus. It’s built to pummel, and make the player feel comfortable doing so for extended gigging and recording sessions.

What struck me initially was how compact the neck felt in my fretting hand. When I first saw the Snakebyte, my first impression was that I would probably have an easier time hanging out from the 5th fret up than I would at the lower reaches of the neck. I was proven wrong when I plugged the guitar directly into a 2011 Mesa/Boogie Multiwatt Dual Rectifier and Emperor 4x12 cabinet, and laid down the meanest rendition of Ride The Lightning’s title track I could muster. With 22 “XJ” jumbo-sized frets set into a deep ebony fretboard, the neck’s 24.75" scale length and thin, U-shape felt super-comfortable—putting every single note within easy reach.

Hetfield’s sound has always been primarily about power— leaving comrade Kirk Hammett with the effects and extreme guitar-wizardry duties—and the Snakebyte definitely reflects his focus.

Playing in a seated position resulted in the neck jutting out a little further when I placed my knee in the middle of the lower body-carve. When standing though, the guitar sat perfectly square against my waist. The entire fretboard felt accessible and perfectly placed, ready for the taking at a moment’s notice. And since the weight is only 7 1/2 pounds, there wasn’t a major strain on my shoulder, making the Snakebyte one of the most comfortable, effortless, metal-oriented guitars that I’ve ever played.

In terms of brutal tone, the Snakebyte comes as you’d expect. Metalheads have long known about the magical pairing of EMG’s 81 bridge pickup and a healthy Dual Rectifier. The Snakebyte delivered handily on that promise with solid, percussive lows and razor-sharp highs as I laid down a flurry of palm-muted triplets with interspersed pull-offs and hammer-ons. This is the tone realm in which the Snakebyte truly excels.

After plugging into an Orange Dark Terror head with the gain set around 10:30, a juicy mid-range became more prominent, bellowing along with the EMG 81’s stinging high-end. Typically, I’ve found the best way to tame excessive mid-range presence with the 81 is to drop the tone control on the guitar. Unfortunately, the Snakebyte has no tone controls, which forced me to walk over to the amp and drop the treble. I’m definitely one for simplicity, but this is an irritation that could have easily been avoided with the addition of a master tone knob.

On the other end of the spectrum, cleans from the Snakebyte’s EMG 60 neck pickup are quite stunning. The tone from the Mesa’s clean channel was smooth and crisp, with bright attack characteristics that likely come from the humbucker’s ceramic magnets. The kind of bone-cold, sharp tone that embodied the intro for Metallica’s searing epic “...And Justice for All” was easy to imitate in all its foreboding glory—with stoic lows, scooped mids, and an unrelenting high end.

The Verdict
The ESP Snakebyte is a guitar fit for one of metal’s reigning rhythm kings. But it’ll get along with any player with thrashier tendencies in their music and playing style. The neck and fretboard couldn’t get any more comfortable, and the weight is perfect for those long gigs that put demands on your hands, shoulders, and stamina. Make no mistake, it’s wholeheartedly a metal-oriented instrument, and won’t replace your favorite Tele or Les Paul during those classic-rock or blues moments. But for straight-up aggression and power, it’s one of the finest ways the ride the lightning.

Watch the video review:

Buy if...
you need a guitar that can muster the muscle for the heaviest riffs and remain comfortable over extended playing sessions.
Skip if...
tones with a vintage, warm vibe are essential to your music.

Street $3499 - ESP Guitars -