REVIEW: ESP LTD EC-256 AHB

Aah, the relicing issue. Not since ‘tone is in the fingers’ has a topic generated such heated debate on guitar forums, in guitar stores and in dimly lit bars after gigs. Whether you like the idea of buying a brand-new bashed up guitar or you think it’s an abomination and an affront to real vintage guitars everywhere, everyone’s got an opinion. One way to look at it is: whether you’re into the look or not, a pre-aged guitar by its very nature has a few features that should make it a little nicer to play in some respects than a pristine off-the-shelfer.

FIGHT THE SIGNS OF AGEING

ESP has had a few goes at offering aged finishes at various price points, including the James Hetfield Iron Cross and Truckster models (the latter of which was available in ESP and LTD versions), the George Lynch’s GL-56 and, most recently, the LTD EC-256 AHB. Based on the company’s Eclipse model, this relatively inexpensive axe is of the classic twin humbucker, set neck, mahogany body variety. It’s given ESP’s own distinctive touches, of course, including subtle curving of the top (instead of all-out carving), a volume-volume-tone control layout, and a sharp cutaway which seems to say “Some of this guitar is traditional, but your grandad never would have played this back in the day.”

The first thing to look at on a guitar like this is the relicing. Does it look authentic like a real beaten up guitar that’s been mishandled or loved on stages up and down the country? Nope. The sanding marks are pretty obvious, and the tri of dings on the treble side of the lower bout look quite contrived. Some rough sanding marks on the headstock look more like scratches from an unfriendly gig bag than a few decades of knocks from a succession of feisty roadies. But that’s all somewhat beside the point, because after a few years of regular use the ‘shininess’ of these manufactured blemishes is likely to be dulled by and intermingled with real-life ones, and it will truly become the dinged up but well-loved instrument that it was designed to look like. The most important thing about the EC-256 for me was that the back of the neck felt comfortably aged and friction-free, which made for a very pleasant playing experience. It’s also worth noting that the thin finish of the top allows the sound to breathe, opening up the treble and adding a little depth to the guitar’s amplified tone.

SO LET’S PLUG IT IN

The EC-256 sounds best with mild overdrive playing relatively dark music (Tool fans take note). It doesn’t seem to want to be a high gain screamer, although the natural tone seems to work really well with lowered tunings. It’s just that the guitar’s natural character is best represented by more subtle distortion levels. There’s a coil split on the tone control which extends the guitar’s personality and adds versatility while maintaining the guitar’s own character. Again, the neck pickup in single coil mode doesn’t really like to be distorted: it’s more at home with some light bluesy overdrive. If you dig the visual vibe and the way it plays but you need gutsier tones, a pickup upgrade might be in order.

THE BOTTOM LINE

Despite the aggressiveness of the cutway, which suggested a heavier musical orientation, I don’t think this is a guitar for those who play blazing solos over metal riffs. It’s much more at home with crunchy rhythm sounds and bluesy double stops. Whether you like the relicing or not is up to you but this is a guitar that will find its fans for what it is, rather than what it tries to be.