ESP KH-2 Electric Guitar Review: Ride the Lightning

esp kh2 kirk hammett guitar

ESP KH-2 Electric Guitar Review: Ride the Lightning

ESP KH-2 Review

kirk hammett esp kh-2

Photo by Alberto Cabello under CC BY 2.0

For whom the guitar tolls?

In this ESP KH-2 review, you’ll learn about the flagship guitar of the ESP Kirk Hammett Signature Series. It was created based on specifications personally requested by Hammett, long-time lead guitar player for thrash-metal pioneers Metallica.

Hammett has played ESP guitars for years, and is probably the company’s most well-known fanboy.

The KH-2 is a premium electric guitar model crafted in Japan, and based on the original ESP m-ii design. Kirk’s modifications include the sleek black design, flatter fretboard radius, extra-jumbo frets, and skull-and-bones inlays.

ESP also offers a limited-edition Vintage version.

You may also be interested in two guitar models quite similar to the KH-2 (but significantly cheaper) available through the ESP LTD line. They are the ESP LTD KH-602 and KH-202.

Read on for full details.

Done killing time? Check Out the ESP KH-2 on Amazon right now.

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Kirk Hammett

“I’m glad I made the decision to go with ESP, because they do not let me down. And they make us the best guitars.” – Kirk Hammett

Kirk Hammett is the lead guitarist in the popular thrash-metal band Metallica.

esp kirk hammett

Photo by Anna Hanks under CC BY 2.0

Hammett was born in San Francisco, and learned to play guitar in his mid-teens. In 1979, he formed the band Exodus at age 16, and they quickly became an influential member of the Bay Area thrash metal scene.

In May 1983, Metallica was preparing to record their debut album when they fired guitarist Dave Mustaine, who would go on to form the band Megadeth. Metallica had jammed with Hammett previously on several occasions, and invited him to audition. He joined the group shortly afterwards.

Hammett is a lifelong fan of horror movies, and several of his guitars are decorated with horror film and occult imagery. He created an annual horror convention called Kirk Von Hammett’s Fear FestEvil.

In 2002, Hammett published his first book, Too Much Horror Business, a collection of photos of his huge horror movie memorabilia collection.

Metallica released their latest album, Hardwired … To Self-Destruct, on November 18, 2016.

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ESP Guitars

ESP Guitars is a Japanese guitar manufacturer based in Tokyo, Japan.

ESP’s primary focus is on making electric guitars and basses, and their guitars (even the cheaper ones) are well-regarded for the excellent quality of their construction, and for providing amazing tone distortion for heavy rock music.

ESP is one of the top guitar manufacturers in the world for hard rock and heavy metal guitars.

In 1975, Hisatake Shibuya opened a Tokyo guitar shop called Electric Sound Products (ESP), providing custom guitar parts. They soon gained a reputation regarding the quality of their parts, and began crafting guitars as well.

ESP guitar parts were introduced to the U.S. Market in 1983 in New York City. They began working with several American guitar companies, including Kramer Guitars and Schecter, and in 1995, moved their U.S. Headquarters to Los Angeles.

The ESP LTD line was created in 1996 so they could produce versions of several ESP guitar models at a more affordable price than their premium counterparts.

The 1000-series ESP LTD guitars are factory-made in Korea, and the 401 series (and below) are currently manufactured in Indonesia.

In the early 2000s ESP purchased Jackson Guitars, and began handling distribution for Takamine Guitars in the U.S. in 2015.

kirk hammett guitar

Photo by DoD News under CC BY 2.0

ESP M-II

The ESP m-ii is a guitar model that has been produced in Japan for many years, and is known as a “Super Strat”, a term used to refer to any guitar that is built based on the design of the Fender Stratocaster.

These guitars often use a body shape providing easier access to the higher frets, plus flatter, thinner necks, hot humbucker pickups, and a Floyd Rose style of locking-vibrato for tuning stability, which is helpful for guitarists who employ extreme string-bending techniques.

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metallica kirk hammett

Collage by aerokay under CC BY 3.0

KIRK HAMMETT SIGNATURE SERIES

ESP KH-2 – Seek and Destroy

There are a lot of Signature Guitar series on the market these days, and it’s an interesting phenomenon. It’s obviously a fan-friendly way to enable guitarists to purchase guitars similar to those used by their heroes, but can also sometimes result in overpriced guitars with limited features.

You certainly don’t have to worry about sound or build quality with a premium ESP guitar, and the KH-2 is one of the better “Signature Series” guitars currently available. They look and sound cool, and are crafted in Japan in limited numbers.

Based on the ESP m-ii design, the KH-2 was created to accommodate Hammett’s request for a specific look, and it has separate volume controls, modified frets, and a flatter fretboard radius (16” as opposed to 12”). It’s also got different pickups.

Every KH-2 comes with a Certificate of Authenticity.

They are made using alder wood for the body and a flamed maple top, with a 3-piece maple bolt-on neck. They have a rosewood fingerboard with Kirk’s famous skull & crossbone inlays.

The guitar’s scale length is 25.5”, and it’s got 24 extra-jumbo frets, along with an extra thin-U shaped neck. The nut width is 1.65”.

Sound and Tone – Ride the Lightning

ESP KH-2 – Click Pic to Check Price on Amazon

The ESP KH-2 uses a Floyd Rose Original Bridge and locking nut, and includes 2 active humbucker pickups: an EMG 81 for the bridge, and an EMG 60 for the neck. This combination provides a wide range of tonal diversity.

It comes with standard Gotoh tuners, a pair of volume controls (one for each pickup) and a tone control, along with a 3-way switch.

The pickups play a little “hot” to more easily obtain that screaming metal tone.

The alder wood provides a brighter overall sound and sufficient punch. And a lot of musicians feel that the bolt-on neck allows for a more aggressive metal sound. Even people who don’t generally prefer bolt-on necks really like this guitar model.

The KH-2 has great feel and overall sound quality, plus a super fast neck that is designed for playing classic metal riffs and lightning-fast leads. It produces a distorted sound with a real bite to it, and an excellent clean, bright tone can also be achieved by adjusting the neck pickup.

The Floyd Rose bridge (with locking nut) enables the player to use the tremelo frequently while still keeping the guitar in tune.

The ESP KH-2 is primarily a metal guitar, handling thrash, progressive or death metal with ease. But it also provides quality sound for any kind of aggressive music, including hard rock, punk, or heavy grunge.

The KH-2 is a beast for shredding, divebombs and solos.

It has a nice crunchy clean sound good for rock, and overdrive makes it scream.

This short video provides a quick listen to the tone produced by the pickups:

The KH-2 can also be used to play rhythm guitar.

It’s got a lot of power, and as a result may sound a little awkward on cheap amps. Also be aware that some people find it a little harder to change strings and tunings when using a Floyd Rose.

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Build and Design – Fade to Black

ESP KH-2 guitars are crafted in Japan with high-quality wood and components, and a strict attention to detail.

The results are generally flawless, beautiful guitars that sound great and are comfortable to hold and play. They are not overly heavy, but do have some heft to them.

The KH-2 art style is simple: more black.

It has a sleek black body finish, and black hardware. The skull-and-crossbone inlays are skillfully applied, and it’s got a cool reverse headstock.

esp guitar kirk hammett

Photo by Rudolf Ammann under CC BY 2.0

The extra thin flat neck enables the player to shred up and down the guitar quickly, and the bolt-on neck allows for a clearer sound with added high-range.

Bolt-on necks can cause problems on cheap guitars, but the quality of ESP’s manufacturing process is top-notch, and many guitarists prefer a bolt-on neck for ESP guitars.

Vintage KH-2’s are produced with a neck-thru body, whereas the premium KH-2 uses a 3-piece bolt-on neck.

They are factory set with tight low action out of the box to help you play faster. They also have a whammy bar and high-quality Original Floyd Rose bridge, complete with locking nut.

Each ESP KH-2 also comes with a hardshell case included.

View the ESP KH-2 on Amazon.

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metallica hammett live concert

Photo by Andrew Skudder under CC BY 2.0

KH-2 Vintage – The Memory Remains

ESP has also created a limited edition series of Vintage KH-2 guitars. They are a little pricey, but exact replicas of the very first KH-2 guitar that Kirk Hammett purchased from the ESP custom shop many years ago. It’s a guitar that Kirk still sometimes plays during live performances with Metallica.

The premium KH-2 model is based on this guitar, so they are very similar.

This vintage option has an aged finish, and the same neck-thru-body setup as Kirk’s original guitar.

The Distressed Black art design provides the same battered appearance that can be found on Kirk’s original ESP KH-2. In addition to the wear and tear look, it also includes replicas of the same stickers that Kirk has applied to his guitar over the years.

Check Out the ESP KH-2 Vintage on Amazon.

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ESP LTD KH-602 – For Whom the Bell Tolls

Premium ESP guitars are made in Japan with immaculate construction and top-of-the-line parts. As a result, they can be a little expensive.

ESP began working with LTD in 1996, enabling the company to offer versions of several of their classic guitars at a more affordable price.

The ESP LTD version of the KH-2 is the KH-602. They’re the same size and shape, and both use alder and maple wood in the construction, along with a rosewood fretboard.

In addition, both models use the same EMG 81 & 60 active pickups, and include 2 volume and 1 tone controls, plus a 3-way switch.

The art style is also the same, with black hardware and black finish, and skull-and-crossbone inlays.

Click Here to Check Price of the KH-602 on Amazon.

kirk hammett esp guitar

Photo by Esparta Palma under CC BY 2.0

ESP KH-2 vs. LTD KH-602

Differences between the KH-2 and KH-602 include the use of a 1000 Series Floyd Rose bridge made in Korea on the KH-602 (as opposed to the German-made Original Floyd Rose found on the KH-2). This version of the Floyd Rose tremelo system helps them manufacture these guitars at a lower price, but the materials used and sound quality achieved are virtually identically to those found on the premium version.

In addition, the KH-602 features a neck-thru-body design (rather than a bolt-on neck), and uses LTD tuners instead of the Gotoh tuners found on the KH-2.

ESP LTD KH-602 guitars are factory-made in Korea, and you are more likely to see small flaws in the guitar as a result.

The 602 does not include the hardshell guitar case.

Overall, LTD is a popular company that produces high-quality instruments, and the slight reduction in build and sound quality is offset by the significant reduction in price.

ESP LTD KH-202 – Jump in the Fire

ESP LTD also produces a budget version of this guitar style, named the KH-202 (aka KH-202 Caution, as one variation of this model includes a replica of Kirk’s “Caution” sticker on the body).

Differences include the use of a licensed Floyd Rose Special Bridge (rather than the Original Floyd Rose), and passive ESP Designed LH-301 pickups (instead of the active EMG pickups found on the KH-2 or KH-602).

The KH-202 body is made with basswood (rather than alder), and a lower-quality bolt-on neck than the one found on the KH-2.

The size and shape are the same as the KH-2 and KH-602, and it also includes the rosewood fretboard, 2 volume and 1 tone controls, and 3-way switch.

The KH-202 is not as high-quality a guitar as the others discussed here, but it is still well-made with a similar look, sound and feel. It’s an easy way to get a Kirk Hammett style guitar and start shredding on a budget.

Check KH-202 Price.

ESP KH-JR – Metal Militia

There is a smaller version of this guitar model available for the young metalhead in your household as well.

It’s a 3/4 size guitar with a bolt-on neck and 22 frets, and it’s made using a basswood body, maple neck, and rosewood fingerboard.

The scale length is 20.5”, and it comes with a Tune-o-Matic bridge, LTD tuners, and ESP-designed LH-301 pickups.

Check KH Jr Price.

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Pros (KH-2)

  • premium guitar for hard rock and heavy metal
  • excellent build-quality
  • great for shredding, divebombs and soloing
  • super fast neck
  • impressive range of tone diversity
  • Original Floyd Rose keeps guitar in tune
  • includes hardshell guitar case

Cons (KH-2)

  • Signature Series guitars can be pricey
  • may overpower cheap amps
  • some people prefer neck-thru design

Kirk Hammett Guitars – Some Kind of Monster

kirk hammett guitar flying v

Photo by 6tee-zeven under CC BY 2.0

In the late 1970s, Kirk Hammett played a stock Gibson Flying V guitar while a member of Exodus, and on Metallica’s first couple of albums. He upgraded to EMG pickups in 1987.

In the 1980s, he experimented with a Fernandez Stratocaster, a Gibson Les Paul Custom, and a Jackson Flying V, which he used to record a good chunk of the album Master of Puppets.

In 1987, he obtained an ESP MM-270 guitar, known as “Zorloc” to fans. He later played an ESP MM-290, ESP KH-1 Flying V,  and KH-3 Eclipse as well.

In the 1990s, the ESP KH-2 was born, and Kirk has added several versions of this guitar to his repertoire with custom-designed Ouija, Frankenstein, Dracula, White Zombie, and Greenburst artwork.

Kirk also has a custom Boris Karloff Mummy ESP KH-2, which he has stated is his favorite guitar.

He also occasionally plays a see-through ESP Wavecaster filled with blue motor oil as well.

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Who Plays an ESP Guitar?

kirk hammett esp ouija

Photo by Ralph Arvesen under CC BY 2.0

Kirk Hammett is probably the artist most well known for their affiliation with ESP Guitars.

However, the company has produced Signature Series guitar models for a number of other guitar players including James Hetfield, Alex Skolnick, Alexi Laiho, Glenn Tipton, Jeff Hanneman, and Will Adler, along with several others.

The first Signature Series guitar they ever made was the ESP Kamikaze for George Lynch, who wandered into their shop in Tokyo one day in 1985, and was impressed by what he saw.

Ronnie Wood of the Rolling Stones is another famous guitarist with several ESP Signature Series guitar models available. He was one of their earliest customers.

Several others guitarists who have played an ESP guitar include Richie Sambora, Buckethead, Vinnie Vincent, Vernon Reid, Bruce Kulick, Page Hamilton, Dave Mustaine, Michael Wilton, and Stephen Carpenter.

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Verdict – Nothing Else Matters

metal guitar playerIf you’re into hard rock or heavy metal music, few guitars sound, look or feel better in your hands than an ESP guitar crafted in Japan.

If you’re a Metallica fan (or even if you aren’t!), the ESP KH-2 is a top-of-the-line premium guitar that will let you shred up and down the neck, producing waves of screaming notes and crunchy riffs.

If price is not an issue, consider the KH-2 Vintage for the authentic Kirk Hammett experience.

For significantly less money, the ESP KH-2 is an excellent option – it’s a great metal guitar with immaculate build quality, a cool look, and impressive sound.

If you want to do some headbanging but need to save some cash, you can also consider the ESP LTD KH-602. While not made in Japan, they are very similar guitars that are still part of the Kirk Hammett Signature Series, and they look and sound great.

If cost is a major concern, you can consider jumping into the fire with the budget ESP KH-202 model. It’s got a similar look, feel and sound, at a much lower price.

Bottom line: Shredder’s delight.

Click Here to Check Out the ESP KH-2 on Amazon.

Or you could save quite a bit of money and Choose the ESP LTD 602 instead.

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