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.
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.”