Guitar Aficionado

Tokyo's ESP Custom Shop Is a Guitar Collector's "Dream Atelier"

Guitar Aficionado explores the unique artistry and dedication of Tokyo’s ESP Custom Shop.
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Guitar Aficionado explores the unique artistry and dedication of Tokyo’s ESP Custom Shop.

This is a feature from the January/February 2017 issue of Guitar Aficionado magazine. For this complete story and more photos, plus features on Kentucky Headhunters lead guitarist Greg Martin and his fine vintage guitars; MLB pitcher/guitar collector/musician Jake Peavy and his efforts to help local musicians, disadvantaged youths, and military veterans; producer/guitarist Daniel Lanois and his passion for pedal-steel guitars, motorcycles, and recording technology… plus much more, pick up the new issue of Guitar Aficionado at your newsstand, or online by clicking anywhere in this text.

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EXOTIC. SOULFUL. PROVOCATIVE. Exploring the unique artistry and dedication of Tokyo’s ESP Custom Shop.

Story and Photos by Chris Gill

The ESP Custom Shop in Tokyo really should be called a “dream atelier” or maybe the “guitar concept/reality workshop.” Whereas most major manufacturer custom shops today are specialized extensions of their regular factories, where a select group of the company’s highest skilled craftsmen produce high-end variations of standard models with premium-quality woods, non-standard finishes, and a wider variety of hardware options, the ESP Custom Shop may be the only major manufacturer that will build absolutely anything a customer can imagine. It’s rare these days to find even small boutique luthier workshops willing to take upon such ambitious and challenging projects.

“If you have an idea in your head and you want to make a guitar, whether it’s a detailed graphic finish, a unique body shape, a new headstock design or anything, our custom shop will build it,” says ESP USA president and CEO Matt Masciandaro. “Our doors are open to anyone. If anyone has a question about what type of custom guitar we can build, they just need to contact us directly. We’re happy to talk to customers about anything, and we do it all the time.”

The creations that have come out of the ESP Custom Shop range from impressively hot-rodded versions of their popular models to intricately carved works of art in the shapes of angels, demons, and various otherworldly characters. Some of the guitars have stunning, sophisticated inlay work and gold-leaf finishes that resemble museum-worthy Rinpa school masterpieces, and a few particularly stunning examples were crafted almost entirely out of metal to resemble a samurai’s suit of armor. More modern influences appear in the form of carbon-fiber bodies, flamboyantly shaped metal hardware parts, and intricate wooden marquetry in dazzling geometric patterns.

In addition to building dozens of custom order guitars every year, the ESP Custom Shop allows its craftsmen to develop their own creations. These guitars are called the Exhibition Series, and they’re built primarily for display at trade shows like the Winter NAMM convention in Anaheim and the Tokyo Guitar Show. Every year, ESP has built an increasing number of Exhibition Series instruments. For the 2016 NAMM convention, the ESP Custom Shop built more than 80 instruments, most of which occupied an entire wall of ESP’s exhibit.

“For the last four NAMM shows we’ve allowed our builders to come up with their own ideas for the Exhibition Series guitars,” Masciandaro says. “Many of those guitars are designed to show their artistry, skill, and technique, but sometimes they have an entirely new concept that they want to present. Previously our custom shop only built what customers asked for, and we still do that. But now our builders also have unlimited freedom to express themselves. Most of the Exhibition Series guitars we display are sold to dealers, and customers can buy them. Prices start at $5,000, but more the more exotic guitars can go for $10,000 to $20,000 or more.”


Finished custom guitars and wood options on display at ESP’s Ochanomizu Big Boss store.

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The ESP Custom Shop craftsmen share the same facilities in Tokyo where every ESP-brand guitar is built. In fact, the shop’s craftsmen also build many of ESP’s Artist Signature models as well as a few of ESP’s regular production instruments. “If somebody sees James Hetfield playing an ESP guitar, they can contact us and get the same guitar made by the same exact pair of hands,” Masciandaro explains. “Most other custom shops don’t make the guitars that their artists play available to the average consumer. Often those custom shops’ top level people won’t be accessible at all to the average consumer, but we don’t discriminate like that.”

Part of the reason why the ESP Custom Shop is inconspicuously integrated with ESP’s regular production is because the company essentially started as a custom shop from the beginning. ESP’s history begins in 1975 when Hisatake Shibuya opened the Electric Sound Products shop in Tokyo. Shibuya—who still owns ESP today and has built an impressive musical instrument empire that also includes Schecter, the Musicians Institute, 14 retail stores in Japan, and various ESP Guitar Craft Academies as well as the United Television Broadcasting station—started his business by offering custom-made, high-quality guitar replacement parts that guitarists used to modify and improve their instruments. These parts included bodies, necks, hardware, and electronics—just about everything needed to build a guitar.

Thanks to demand from guitarists who weren’t satisfied with the quality of mass-produced guitars that were on the market at that time, ESP started a small production line in the shop and began to build guitars to a higher standard than what was commonly available. Initially, Shibuya’s company introduced the Navigator brand, which produced very high-quality reproductions of classic vintage American models. Soon ESP noticed that many guitarists actually wanted instruments that were different than what was already available, so by 1979 they also started to offer custom instruments built entirely to guitarists’ specifications using ESP parts. This was the beginning of what eventually became the ESP brand.

“For its first 10 years as a company, ESP only sold guitars domestically in Japan,” Masciandaro says. “In the mid Eighties, ESP started an overseas division and rented out a loft space in Manhattan on 19th Street. They started there with only three or four employees. ESP imported the replacement parts that they made as well as a line of Strat- and Tele-style guitars, which were known as the 400 Series. In 1989, two years after I started working for the company, the overseas division moved to 48th Street in the heart of Manhattan’s guitar and recording studio district. That’s when ESP really started to develop its own identity.”

Back in the late Eighties, 48th Street in Manhattan was arguably the world’s epicenter for professional guitarists. The block of the street between Sixth and Seventh Avenues was home to big retail stores like Manny’s and Sam Ash as well as a variety of independent used and vintage guitar shops. Manhattan’s biggest recording studios as well as the Studio Instrument Rentals rehearsal stages were within a few blocks, so studio guitarists, aspiring bands and established artists became regular customers of the businesses on Music Row.


(from left) Shinigami (God of Death) and Scape Goat

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“It was the heyday of the New York studio scene,” Masciandaro recalls. “We were the only guitar company that a lot of New York guitarists had direct face-to-face access to. Artists, bands, and session players who lived or worked in New York came to ESP because we could put together whatever guitar they wanted. They could select the exact neck and body or build a custom Strat with any option that they wanted, such as an ebony fretboard, 24-fret neck, and a pair of humbuckers. We were very open minded, and we would build anything.”

Rolling Stones guitarist Ron Wood was one of the first big name artists to order a guitar from ESP’s 48th Street store, and he still uses his first black Tele-style ESP guitar (as well as a number of similar backups that ESP has built over the years) with the band today. Soon the biggest metal bands of the time followed suit, including guitarists from Anthrax, Megadeth, and Slayer. James Hetfield and Kirk Hammett from Metallica started endorsing ESP guitars in 1988, and they remain some of the company’s biggest endorsers.

“As we met with professional players day in and day out,” Masciandaro says, “we started to develop our own identity. The custom shop grew considerably at that time too, because we realized that if we wanted to progress to the next level we needed to be able to build players whatever they wanted. We didn’t want to limit ourselves to building only certain lines of guitars and telling people that this is only what we sell. We realized that would make ESP different than most of the big companies. You could get a guitar that wasn’t your dad’s guitar. A lot of younger players wanted something different than the classic Strats and Les Pauls that their parents played. They wanted something cooler, perhaps with a Floyd Rose, a graphic finish, or custom inlays. If you wanted those things, ESP was the place to go…”

This is a feature from the January/February 2017 issue of Guitar Aficionado magazine. For this complete story and more photos, plus features on Kentucky Headhunters lead guitarist Greg Martin and his fine vintage guitars; MLB pitcher/guitar collector/musician Jake Peavy and his efforts to help local musicians, disadvantaged youths, and military veterans; producer/guitarist Daniel Lanois and his passion for pedal-steel guitars, motorcycles, and recording technology… plus much more, pick up the new issue of Guitar Aficionado at your newsstand, or online by clicking anywhere in this text.

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