LTD Elite ST-1/M STBC
It's all change on the good ship ESP. 2013 sees a major realignment of the myriad lines and ranges the company produces under both the ESP and LTD banners, ostensibly to simplify things, and this new LTD Elite ST-1/M STBC model is a big part of the new order.
The potted version of what's happening is this: ESP's Japanese Standard Series is being phased out by the end of the year, to be replaced by the E-II Standard Series in early 2014. The instruments will be basically the same as what's available now but simply rebranded, and ESP has told us that it expects to be able to lop something in the region of £200 to £300 off the price of each, which is good news because, fine though the instruments undoubtedly are, they're certainly not cheap.
What's more, the ESP logo will now be reserved for just custom shop models and the Original Series, as well as the lion's share of the Signature Series, which will also be put together in the Japanese facility from now on.
So, where does the LTD Elite banner come in? Todd Binder, an integral part of ESP's product development team, brings us up to date with what's happening.
"LTD Elite bridges the gap between LTD and ESP Standard by offering a high-performance instrument priced slightly lower than the Standard brand," he tells us.
"Unlike other LTD models that are manufactured in Indonesia and Korea, the Elite line is made in Japan at the same facility as the ESP Standard Series. The LTD Elite brand is for players who would love to own an ESP, but simply can't quite justify the price tag that comes with our top of the line premium brand."
The production of LTD guitars will be overseen by ESP USA and the result is that the Elite series, irrespective of what's written on the headstock, can be considered as proper ESP guitars, simply because they're built in Japan by the same luthiers who are involved in the current ESP Standard Series.
Okay, that's enough business: let's get to the guitar…
We've previously looked at the ESP Snapper, a double-cut solidbody electric with a lovely a bolt-on maple neck, and as we familiarise ourselves with it, we wonder if its sleek lines had inspired the design of the ST-1.
"Yes, the idea for the ST-1 did come from the Snapper," Todd confirms. "It shares the same body shape and overall concept, but is a more affordable production version."
In fact, with the pearloid pickguard, natural body binding and a deep finish to its bookmatched quilted maple top, the ST-1 is a truly gorgeous guitar to gaze upon. It's not easy to spot where any corners may have been cut to keep the price in check, but one is with the Floyd Rose vibrato: it's loaded with a Korean-made FR 1000 bridge rather than a Floyd Original unit.
Across the Elite range is the choice between specific Seymour Duncan and EMG pickups with little, if any, adjustment in price between the two. The Duncans used here include the Duncan Custom Trembucker, a ceramic-based PAF-style humbucker, alongside two Classic Stack Plus single coils.
The single-piece hand-finished neck is up to ESP's customary high standards, with a wide fingerboard and a flattened U shape to the perfectly smooth maple. It'd be perfect for more technical guitar styles, and we're not at all sure we'd be able to pass a blindfold test between the Snapper and the ST-1, which is a credit to the latter.
The bridge Duncan Custom is well suited to modern styles of rock and - if it weren't for the Floyd making such an exercise something of a chore - sounds great for drop tunings, too.
With a beautifully squishy midrange and plenty of upper harmonics, it gives a more airy version of Satriani's rhythm crunch, while the stacked single coils provide a wide range of more jangly tones without hum.
It plays really nicely, too, and there's no reason why rockers, modern bluesmen and even seasoned sessioneers shouldn't check it out for its tonal versatility, lovely neck and high-end vibe.
Whether you consider ESP's branding jiggery-pokery to be merely an interesting distraction or an unnecessary and impenetrable over- complication, there's no getting away from the fact that the new Elite range presents the best LTD-branded guitars yet.
The ST-1 is over £1,000 cheaper than the ESP Snapper, its inspiration, and is a genuinely impressive addition to this area of the market.