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This article was originally published in issue #25
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Metallica have been some of the most loyal artists on the ESP roster, having used the guitars for well over 20 years. As such, both Kirk Hammett and James Hetfield have had a slew of signature models over the years ranging from full scale, mass produced models to limited run, exclusive collector editions. ESP sent the Guitar Interactive team the latest signature models to check out - the KH-WZ Kirk Hammett and the LTD Iron Cross SW James Hetfield model. These two guitars are both in the mid to high price range, with high quality hardware and custom finishes that certainly stand out from the normal black designs you might have expected!
KH-WZ - Kirk Hammett Signature
If you’re a horror movie buff, which Kirk Hammett must be, you’ll immediately recognise the superb design on the front of Kirk’s latest signature ESP. This is a stunning looking guitar, featuring Bela Lugosi as a Voodoo Master in control of a crew of zombies from ‘White Zombie,’ filmed in 1932 at Universal Studios. White Zombie was considered the first full length zombie movie and is thus considered pretty iconic and the artwork looks fantastic on this guitar, having huge appeal to horror and zombie movie fans, whether they're fans of Kirk Hammett as well, or not.
The guitar construction is pretty standard for the Metal and Rock genre with a solid alder body, 25.5” scale maple neck, rosewood fingerboard and bolt-on neck joint. The neck features a 'Thin U' shape contour, 24 extra jumbo frets, Floyd Rose bridge, locking nut and LTD tuners. The pickups are active EMGs, with an EMG60 in the neck and an EMG81 at the bridge, matched with a 3-way switch and standard volume and tone controls. The neck features very cool and intricate spider inlays with a large bat covering the 10th to 13th frets.
Overall, the design is very much in the superstrat vein but features softer horns and less aggressive look than some other companies have gone for of late and whilst it would certainly look out of place at a Jazz gig, it’s a design that is more widely appealing than other ‘Metal’ guitars. Completing the package is a superb, custom design case made by The Tombstone Case Company, although bear in mind that this appears to be specific to certain territories and may not be available everywhere.
The workmanship on the KH-WZ is right up there with other mid to high-priced LTD models - and that means it is excellent. Particularly striking is the superb quality of the top graphics and intricate inlay work that really make this guitar stand out from the crowd and ensures it will stick in the memory of all those who see it. The black finish on the rest of the body is flawless and this extends up through the neck and matching headstock which is the only part of the guitar with any Kirk Hammett reference, courtesy of the subtle signature crowning the design. The fretwork on our sample was also superb, with high quality fret finishing and a totally professional feel across the neck. The XJ frets feel well polished and smooth with no grinding whilst bending or performing vibrato. The factory set-up is also very good with a suitably low action but no buzzes to speak of and enough height to get underneath a bend when required. If there was anything to complain about perhaps it could be argued that the Floyd Rose springs were setup a little too tight but this can be adjusted to the individual player's preference and the bridge performs flawlessly for all manner of craziness with no tuning issues at all. The LTD tuners are good performers too, with a sensible ratio and accuracy, though you shouldn’t need them too much given that the tuning stability is so good on these Floyd Rose locking nut combinations.
Playability on the LTD range, even at the bottom of the budget line, is universally good and the KH-WZ is no exception. The neck is supremely comfortable throughout its range and the XJ frets make for an easy and tension free playing experience that allows maximum efficiency of your technique whilst retaining a good tone. The KH-WZ body shape is a classic Kirk Hammett design and is very comfortable for extended playing sessions whether stood up or sat down. The deep cutaways make upper fret access a breeze so extended excursions up at the 24th fret feel accessible and controlled for the left hand.
Tonally, the KH-WZ sounds pretty much how you’d expect thanks to the pair of EMG active humbuckers. As we’ve mentioned before at GI, these pickups can be more subtle and versatile than you might initially imagine and the EMG60 and EMG81 are prime examples of this, offering chimey and dynamic clean tones, especially with the volume control about 2/3rds up. Output levels are high though and with the volume on full an average amp is going to struggle to remain clean unless the player’s attack is very soft indeed. The neck pickup offers some lovely, warm clean tones that are easy to control and can even move into Jazz territory with the tone rolled off a touch. The middle position is useful but don’t imagine you’ll be coaxing Strat-like single coil tones out of these pickups. Kicking in the overdrive reveals a superbly tight and responsive set of tones that can really scream or chug well with palm muted downstrokes sounding aggressive and immediate and saturated lead tones singing and sustaining for days.
The KH-WZ is a great Rock/Metal guitar with high quality hardware made even better by a super-cool top and inlays. Its ‘White Zombie’ design should appeal en masse to horror movie fans and I could see Bela Lugosi and zombie movie fans buying it even if they don’t play guitar (Bela Lugosi won't be buying one Tom. Hate to break it to you but he's dead. Um, really dead this time - Ed)! ESP has been clever in minimising the Kirk Hammett association on the design, thus making the appeal as wide as possible - I’m even somewhat tempted myself.
LTD Iron Cross SW - James Hetfield Signature
The Iron Cross SW is available both as one of the super high-end ESP range and also in the company's Far Eastern produced (and thus more affordable) LTD series. Our review version was the LTD model and right from the start let me say it represents superb value for money. Bear in mind that the ESP original retails for around the price of a second hand car, while this LTD version is just over four figures, yet features almost identical hardware and construction. That's great value!
The LTD Iron Cross is the latest James Hetfield signature model and features a single cut LP-Style solid mahogany body with a maple top, 22-fret mahogany neck with ebony fretboard, set-neck design and moulded nut. The guitar features a pair of active EMG JH signature humbuckers, with a three way switch, volume and independent tone controls. A further three way switch sits onto of the upper bout of the body in a traditional LP-style but is redundant and purely for visual flair. Hardware is completed with a Tonepros Locking TOM bridge and tailpiece, 22 XJ frets and LTD locking tuners. For reference, the ESP version features a bone nut and Schaller locking tuners - in all other respects the hardware is identical.
The Iron Cross SW features a very memorable white finish with three back stripes across its top, black scratch plate and the large, metal Iron Cross attached to the back behind the tailpiece. The single cut body is bound with a double black line around its circumference that adds an extra level of class to the design. It’s certainly a memorable look, although I can see a number of buyers being put off by the use of the Iron Cross. The fretboard features some very well executed flag inlays that culminate in a further Iron Cross design across the 11th, 12th and 13th frets.
As with the KH-WZ model, this James Hetfield signature features a very subtle JH logo on the headstock that doesn’t scream 'signature model' and thus limit the potential market for the guitar too much. This more subtle approach to artist branding looks far more classy and widens appeal far more than a name sprawled across the neck or 12 fret ever would!
The body design is more compact and modern looking than a traditional single cut shape and seems very sleek and contemporary, especially when matched with the wave topped headstock design.
Construction quality is right up there with the best of the LTD range and the Iron Cross SW certainly feels like a much more expensive guitar. As with the KH-WZ, all aspects of the guitar are flawlessly finished with fantastic paint and fret work, matched with a great setup and hardware fitting. Everything is tight and well put together with a feel that lines up well or even better than the price of the guitar suggests. As such, playability is very good indeed with a fast thin, U-shaped neck and XJ frets allowing for easy and effortless technique application, perfect for power chords or lead work across the whole range of the neck. Obviously, upper fret access isn’t up there with the double cut KH-WZ but reaching the 22nd fret isn’t an issue and the addition of the belly cut on the back of the body allows for more comfortable playing experiences than with a traditional LP-style guitar.
Tonally, the Iron Cross SW is a beast thanks to those great sounding (and great looking) EMG JH humbuckers. The JH pickups have a lot of output thanks to the active design but they aren’t just about their bark and bite and can quite happily handle lower gain and clean tones with style. Heavily overdriven tones retain lots of clarity and tightness, perfect for low tuned power chord chugging or palm muted single notes and lead tones are just as silky smooth as the EMG81 in the KH-WZ model. Of course it can scream too if required and can really push a lower gain amp into impressive break up tones by pushing the front end hard with the volume all the way up!
Very few Metallica fans will ever be able to afford the ESP version of the Iron Cross guitar and the LTD version does an extremely impressive job of producing an affordable alternative that matches almost all of the hardware and ethos of the original while retaining much of the high quality build of the original. Of course this can’t match all aspects of the ESP version but I’m sure it’ll come close enough for most people to justify its respectable and very fair asking price. The design, hardware and playability all add up to a very appealing guitar that’s well worth checking out for both fans and non-fans of James Hetfield alike. Oh, and you get a case with this one, too!
We've given the Iron Cross an extra half star on account of the more complicated construction involved in this style of guitar and the way it compares with a far more expensive original but, to be fair, both guitars were so good that it was a really close call. Either would be great value.