Metallica‘s James Hetfield has used many different guitar models over the years, but during Metallica’s big commercial breakthrough era in the early 90s he had an ESP signature model based on the classic Explorer shape. This was a very popular axe at the time, but rumour has it that the owners of the Explorer design weren’t too happy, and ESP discontinued the model and tweaked its Explorer-type guitars into the more aggressive EX shape. Whatever the truth, pretty soon prices for the ESP and its similar models on the used market skyrocketed.
Cut to 2010, and Hetfield shows up on stage with the Snakebyte. This guitar carries on the spirit of that classic and much-lusted-after early ESP model, but with enough difference to be distinctively ESP/LTD. Much of this styling takes place at the guitar’s extremities. For example, the treble side horn has a kind of ‘arrow’ thing going on. The back has a scoop taken out of it which orients the strap button at a more user-friendly angle. The headstock is an entirely new shape that kinda reminds me of Lazerbeak from Transformers. And there’s a snake/S logo centred on the 12th fret (but extending from the 11th to the 13th). There’s also a subtle degree of bevelling; the entire lower bass-side bout is shaped down in a similar fashion to the forearm contours of Strat-type designs, while a subtle scoop on the treble side of the neck/body joint improves access to the highest frets.
The body and neck are both made of mahogany, with the neck joining the body via a set (glued) construction. The fretboard is ebony, with 22 extra jumbo frets and Sperzel locking tuners. The back of the neck is a thin U contour, while the fretboard ends in a 42mm bone nut. The scale length is 24.75″.
The black hardwear includes Tonepros locking TOM bridge and tailpiece, and the electronics are a pair of EMG active humbuckers: the 81 in the bridge position and a 60 at the neck. There are two volume controls but no tone control, which is kinda interesting. The volume pots are laid out in the same order that they appear on the guitar, with the neck pickup’s volume at the front and the bridge volume further back, which feels a little counterintuitive since most metal players tend to use their bridge pickup as the main pickup, and are used to having a master volume right there by their picking hand. Personally, I’d probably switch these around if this was my guitar instead of a loaner.
By the way, EMG recently announced the JH HetSet, a Hetfield signature set designed to add the clarity and punch of passive pickups to the familiar active tone. It’s anyone’s guess if those models will eventually come as stock on the Snakebyte, but right now they don’t. I’d love to try them. [geo-out country=”Australia” note=””]CLICK HERE to buy a set from Musician’s Friend.[/geo-out]
The Snakebyte’s tone is a little bit rougher and angrier than you might expect from a guitar that bears such structural similarities to the axe that made “Enter Sandman.” There’s punch, sizzle and bite in abundance courtesy of that bridge pickup, and it responds with extreme aggression when you lay in with some hard picking and palm muting, but there’s a kind of roughness around the edges, a bark that makes it even more aggressive than I expected it to be. I think I played all of “Holier Than Thou” about three or four times straight through when I first plugged the Snakebyte in, just because it was so much fun hearing such tight, cutting articulation, compared to some of the more muffled, compressed EMG-loaded guitars I’ve played recently. Perhaps the Snakebyte’s larger body plays a role in this: the string energy certainly has a lot more wood to be transferred in.
Meanwhile the neck pickup is great for bluesy bends with oodles of sustain, a la Hetfield’s “Nothing Else Matters” solo, but it also tracks particularly well for high-speed alternate picking licks too. One doesn’t normally associate Hetfield with shredding leads, but this guitar is great for it. Speed picking, sweep picking, tapping – it can do it all. The treble side cutaway is perfectly positioned to really grab that 22nd fret note by the balls for screaming bends. It actually forces your hand into the ideal angle to bend that highest note up to E and hold it there. But it’s not really sculpted for unfettered upper-fret access at all times, and if you’re playing a lick that requires you to zip around the 19th to 22nd frets a lot, you might find it a bit cramped.
No doubt about it, the Snakebyte is a metal guitar. It sounds as tough as it looks, and it’s as useful for shredding as it is for rhythm riffing. It’s hard to play this guitar without blasting through a Metallica riff or ten, but it offers a lot more than just Metallica-in-a-can.
[geo-in country=”Australia” note=””]This is an extended version of an article originally written for Mixdown magazine.[/geo-in]