ESP LTD SnakeByte review

  • £1199
  • $1427
The SnakeByte is Hetfield's latest signature model for ESP.

MusicRadar Verdict

A pure metal beast, this brings Hetfield's axe closer to the masses.


  • +

    Build. Decent price. Playability. Crushing yet clear metal tones.


  • -

    No choice of Hetfield signature pickups.

MusicRadar's got your back Our team of expert musicians and producers spends hours testing products to help you choose the best music-making gear for you. Find out more about how we test.

Over the years, we've been fortunate to get our mitts on many of the ESP James Hetfield signature guitars that have been made, often in limited numbers, for the metal-loving public.

Although we missed out on the JH-1 - a Flying V with pinstriped neon flames - we were successful in securing the likes of Truckster.

"The bite of the bridge EMG 81 hitting a Boogie's high-gain mode takes you straight to the Hetfield ballpark."

The vibe and design of these guitars reflect Hetfield's passion for sleek hotrods and customised hogs, and the SnakeByte is a brand new body design for ESP that's equal parts Ibanez Destroyer, Ibanez Iceman and Gibson Explorer.

Best of all, as well as featuring in the full Japanese-made ESP catalogue, it's also being made under the LTD banner with no reported restrictions on production numbers.

Available in this snow white or a gloss black finish, the body is mahogany and features some subtle contouring, not least a slight forearm taper and some minimal sanding inside the lower cutaway and on the upper horn. The curved back edge echoes the serpentine theme - also a concept Hetfield came up with - and, as a whole, the guitar is well turned out.

Pickups comprise Hetfield's usual active EMG humbuckers - an 81 in the bridge and a 60 in the neck (the JH Set wasn't quite ready to roll when the SnakeByte went into full production) - and a TonePros bridge and tailpiece plus Sperzel tuners keep everything secure and in tune.

The neck is lovely to get to grips with: a flat-backed 'U'-shape that boasts a slippery ebony 'board loaded with 22 perfectly finished frets and an eye-catching pearloid inlay. A bone nut, sleek headstock and brand new logo tops off what is a very nice instrument indeed.


Of course, after plugging in any signature model the first thing you always do is see how close you can get to the tone of the player in question, if only to see if its recreation is even practical in the real world.

Hetfield has used Mesa/Boogie amps for the majority of his career and the bite of the active EMG 81 bridge pickup hitting a Boogie's high-gain mode takes you straight to the tonal ballpark.

Hetfield tends to use his custom SnakeByte for the modern songs in the band's live set, but there's more to the Metallica rhythm tone than simply setting the amp drive to full and reducing the mids, as the saturating gain is nothing without clarity and bottom end.

The SnakeByte's big mahogany body gives the oomph, with the 81 providing the high-end cut and, together with the Boogie's 6L6-loaded power stage, the tone is truly crushing yet perfectly distinct.

Although revered as one of rock's greatest ever rhythm players, Hetfield's no slouch up the dusty end either, and lead lines sear and cut with clarity and ferocity.

The neck-loaded 60, although still a high-output pickup, is better balanced, so you get the warmth of, say, a Les Paul but with plenty of cut in the high mid-range that gives clean passages just the right sound. Adding more gain simply increases the girth and, even with Metallica levels of amp gain, it never mushes up.

We also had the chance to test the guitar through a Roland JC-120, a combo that Metallica use to obtain their iconic recorded clean tone live, and the neck pickup is perfect in this application. Almost acoustic in nature, the trick is to have as little chorus dialled in as possible while retaining the sonic spread - the pickup does the rest.

For more subdued gain settings, the mahogany continues to temper the sharp treble edge inherent of the active pickups. If you actually wanted to play blues on the SnakeByte, the neck pickup is the one that gives the best mix of natural body and treble - the 81 is just too hot for traditional old school tones.

The SnakeByte isn't going to win any versatility awards, but it is an attractive mix of a great neck, sleek looks and massive metal tones. The association with Hetfield won't do its appeal any harm either.

Some guitars can realistically be used in all manner of situations, but that's not the case with the SnakeByte. It's a sleek machine of metal and doesn't care who knows it, and the albatross-like associations inherent with owning any signature model notwithstanding, this is an excellent modern guitar at a more than reasonable price.

Simon Bradley is a guitar and especially rock guitar expert who worked for Guitarist magazine and has in the past contributed to world-leading music and guitar titles like MusicRadar (obviously), Guitarist, Guitar World and Louder. What he doesn't know about Brian May's playing and, especially, the Red Special, isn't worth knowing.