If there is one band in the world that is known just about anywhere you go, it’s Metallica. They are among the oldest and most popular metal bands still around, with a legacy that is yet to be matched.
If we had to choose who among the band’s lineup has left the most impact on the band, we would definitely have to go with James Hetfield. His charisma, very specific voice, and overall skill on guitar have boosted Metallica to the level where they are now.
Hetfield is a Gibson man, always has been. His collection of Explorers is quite respectable. That affection to this particular body shape can be seen in his signature model guitars made by ESP. To be more specific, we are talking about the ESP LTD Snakebyte.
This guitar pretty much describes what Hetfield is all about, and what kind of tone he is looking to get in his instruments. Today we are going to take a closer look at this particular model, and see what it has to offer.
ESP LTD Snakebyte Review
ESP’s cooperation with Metallica has begun a fairly long time ago. We have already covered Kirk Hammett’s signature line which is extensive, to say the least. Since ESP is known for building guitars that deliver a rather heavy tone, they are a perfect match for someone such as Hetfield. In all essence, this particular guitar represents an ideal choice of tonewood, electronics, hardware and finally body shape that Hetfield prefers.
It’s not that hard to see where the body shape inspiration for this guitar came from. ESP obviously couldn’t use the exact Explorer shape due to obvious reasons, but the one they did come up with perfectly embodies the core of what Explorer represents.
With that said, the body of this guitar was made of mahogany, which is not all that surprising considering the tone ESP LTD Snakebyte delivers, and it’s overall configuration. Finish options come in from of a solid black or solid white. The neck is a three-piece mahogany design with a nice ebony fretboard and is actually a neck-through design. Inlays come in form of very detailed white Pearloid snake.
Watch this video from Rob Chapman to get an up close and personal look at the Snakebyte and what it delivers…
In terms of hardware, you are looking at a fixed Tune-O-Matic bridge with a stop bar on one end, and a set of ESP locking tuners on the headstock. There were some controversies regarding ESP’s locking tuners since they are relatively new, but those have proven to be completely unfounded. These tuners work just as well as the Sperzels which used to be the main choice of ESP for years. All of the hardware is colored black.
Now for the most interesting part – the electronics. As some of you probably already know, James Hetfield also has an ongoing relationship with EMG. One of the products that came out of this cooperation is a set of EMG JH pickups which were designed with a lot of Hetfield’s input.
The ESP LTD Snakebyte comes with two of these humbuckers, which are controlled by one tone knob, one volume knob, and a pickup selector switch. Considering that Hetfield is a long time fan of EMG’s 81/60 combo, one would think that his signature humbuckers would offer a similar experience, but that couldn’t be farther from the truth.
When you’re dealing with guitars that have unusual body shapes like this one, balance becomes something that gets put into question. In the case of ESP LTD Snakebyte, there is nothing to worry about. The guitar sits very nicely and is neutrally balanced. Since the neck is a thin U profile unit, it’s rather fast and smooth.
When it comes to sound, things are a lot more interesting. One of the best things about EMG JH humbuckers is their very unusual nature that is a direct result of Hetfield’s input. The sound is very passive in nature, but with all the output active electronics is known for.
In practical terms, you get a pretty expressive set of humbuckers that can be used for softer genres of music as well. These are a bit more aggressive in the mid-range, with pretty balanced highs and lows. There is enough crunch in there for driving rhythm riffs, as well as dynamic solo sections.
When paired with a decent tube amp, this guitar really gives you that Metallica tone in its source shape. If someone tells you that EMG JH is too similar to EMG 81/60, don’t believe that for one second. Those two configurations are worlds apart.
For an LTD model, Snakebyte is fairly expensive. With that said, the performance and overall tone this thing has to offer are just impressive. Even though this is a somewhat new guitar, Hetfield has used in on several occasions.
Check out this video showing off the powerful sound of this guitar and you’ll get a better sense of the sonic assault of this thing.
James Hetfield is one of those guys who values simplicity and is capable of doing more with less. That can be seen from the list of gear he used over the course of his long career. His guitars were always a bit odd, but mostly in shape. His input for the Snakebyte project was more than valuable and has ultimately resulted in it being one of the most interesting ESP models in recent years.
That hybrid Explorer shape looks both conservative and provocative at the same time, which might bother the Gibson purists. However, the rest of us find it pretty appealing compared to the already stale Explorer shape.
Whether or not this guitar is worth the price that is asked by ESP LTD is really not questioned anymore. When you put everything down on paper, you get a very capable instrument that isn’t burdened by the usual nature of active electronics.
Instead, there is a lot more range available, making it perfect for a variety of music genres and playing styles. Overall, even if you’re not a fan of Metallica, ESP LTD Snakebyte is something worth checking out if you are in the market for a decent active metal ax. You might just be surprised how good it is.