ESP vs LTD – What’s The Difference!?

By Richard •  Updated: 04/12/22 •  8 min read

ESP and LTD guitars are both made by the same company, ESP, but the difference between the names can throw off some newer guitarists, so what is the difference between ESP and LTD?


You like guitars. You’re just getting into certain brands. And you’ve seen some of your favorite guitarists – guys like James Hetfield, Bill Kelliher, and Ben Weinman – using ESP, so you do a bit of Googling and discover that there are two types of ESP guitars: ESP and ESP LTD. Confusing, right?

It is, kind of; but what you have to keep in mind is that guitar brands like Fender, for instance, don’t just cater to millionaires and professional musicians. In order to stay in business, they have to sell guitars to those lower down the food chain, guys and gals like you and me. And this is why we have both ESP guitars and ESP LTD guitars.

ESP vs LTD – What’s The Difference

ESP is a guitar brand. ESP stands for Electric Sound Products. The company was founded in 1975 in Tokyo, Japan, by a chap called Hisatake Shibuya. Since then, ESP has grown massively. It now provides guitars to some of the biggest bands on the planet – bands like Metallica and Mastodon use ESP guitars.

ESP and LTD are the same company, ESP. The difference between ESP and LTD is that ESP-branded guitars are made in the custom shop and are WAY more expensive and aimed at professional users, while the company’s LTD models are priced more affordably and are mass-market guitars. Most popular LTD guitars on the market today, however, are based on the more expensive ESP models.

What-Guitars-Do-Mastodon-Use
Bill Kelliher of Mastodon Rocking His ESP Sparrowhawk

ESP guitars – the expensive ones – all come via the ESP custom shop, either in Japan or in the United States. They use the best materials, the highest quality components, tonewoods, and are finished to extremely high, exacting standards. They all also run killer pickups and are renowned for their reliability, tone, and playability.

This is why both James Hetfield and Mastodon’s Bill Kelliher – two of the best metal guitarists of all time – ditched Gibson for ESP. Steph from the Deftones is also an ESP artist; they actually made him a custom 9-string guitar which he used on the band’s latest album, OHMS.

ESP has been around longer than LTD. As a company, ESP has been making guitars since 1975. But the company eventually decided it needed a cheaper, more affordable range of guitars to better compete with brands like Ibanez, Squier, and Epiphone. And, thus, in 1996, the LTD guitar brand was born. And it has been pumping out amazingly affordable, beautifully crafted guitars ever since.

Why ESP Is More Expensive Than LTD

When you’re talking about guitars and how much they cost, you have to remember how guitars are made. Expensive guitars – those that retail for thousands of dollars – are not the same as those that retail for less than $300. They’re made and distributed completely differently. In this respect, the quality difference is like night and day.

The top-of-the-line models from Gibson, Fender, and ESP are all still made by hand in these company’s respective custom shops. And this is an extremely labor-intensive process. The attention to detail, the care they’re handled with, and the way they’re put together by expert craftsman is why they cost so much – it’s not just a case of paying more because it is a known brand, as it is with clothes.

The guys and gals that make these guitars, they’re called luthiers FYI, are very skilled individuals (which is a nice way of saying they don’t work for cheap). You then have to factor in the actual production process, the types of woods used (again, these aren’t cheap), and all the components and electronics which are hand soldered by technicians. None of this is cheap.

Another reason why ESP guitars are more expensive than LTD guitars, aside from all the hand-made stuff that goes into making them, relates to the types of woods used for their bodies and necks and the components used inside the guitars themselves, as you can see in the handy table below.


SeriesESPLTD
Body WoodMahoganyMahogany, Basswood,
Neck WoodMaple, MahoganyMaple, Mahogany
FingerboardEbony,Rosewood, Roasted Jotoba,
PickupsSeymore Duncan & EMGLTD Designed, EMG,
TunersLockingLTD Tuners, locking
ManufacturedJapan & USAKorea & Indonesia
Manufacturing ProcessHandmadeProduction line

In the end, though, when you buy a proper Gibson or Fender or ESP guitar, the bulk of the cost is going towards paying the salaries and wages of the people that made the guitar, the luthiers. All ESP guitars are hand-made in either Japan or the US, whereas its LTD guitars are made in China, Korea, and Indonesia – and the LTD models are “mass-produced” which is a nice way of saying they’re not hand-made by luthiers.

Pickups

One of the most important aspects of a guitar is its pickups, and whether you go with an ESP guitar or a LTD one, you’re going to get a pretty sweet deal either, pickups-wise. With ESP guitars, you’ll get either EMG or Seymour Duncan pickups – both are excellent and are favored by some of the best metal guitarists working today.

With LTD guitars, again, you have options that come with EMG pickups as well as LTD-designed pickups. The more expensive LTD models tend to come with EMG pickups, whereas the more affordable models tend to run stock LTD pickups, as you’d expect.

What Pickups Does James Hetfield Use
Papa Het With One of His Many ESP Guitars

If you’re on a tight(ish) budget, the LTD Designed pickups are more than adequate for beginner players. But if you want some REAL tone, pay a little extra and get one with EMG pickups. One of my favorite LTD models, the ESP LTD PS-1, comes with a set of ESP Designed LH-150 pickups and it sounds incredible. I love that guitar and the fact it is available in pink.

As you go up the pricing tiers, the pickups and tone just get better and better. You can pick up James Hetfield’s signature ESP model with his signature Het Set pickups for instance. And Mastodon’s Bill Kelliher has his stunning ESP Sparrowhawk guitar, again, with his own bespoke pickups, which is based on a Gibson Explorer design.

These signature models ain’t cheap, though, so be warned. But if you are looking for a premium, high-end guitar and you don’t want a Gibson or a Fender, then a balls-to-the-wall ESP guitar could be just what the doctor ordered. I mean, if they’re good enough for Papa Het, they’re going to be fine for mere mortals like you and me, right?

ESP vs LTD – Finishes That’ll Melt Your Face…

One of the things that ESP is VERY good at, the thing most people notice first about its guitars, is its finishes. ESP has its exotic, eye-catching, crazy finishes down to a fine art. You can pick up ESP guitars with all kinds of finishes from See-Thru Black Blue Burst, Magenta Blue Burst, to Cast Metal Andromeda II, and they all look positively amazing.

In this respect, ESP is leagues ahead of brands like Fender and Gibson which tend to be A LOT more conservative with their approach to finishes. For this reason, plenty of modern players now prefer ESP – or Jackson, Ibanez, and PRS – over the more old-guard brands like Gibson and Fender. The only thing to keep in mind is that the more exotic finishes are reserved for ESP models. LTD models do not get the same quality finishes, sadly.

Is An ESP LTD Guitar Worth It?

The average price of an ESP LTD guitar is around $500 to $600 and, for this amount of money, I honestly don’t think you’ll find a better quality guitar. ESP LTD guitars look great, pack in all the electronics and specs you’ll need, they run modern pickups, and they play beautifully. I’d take an ESP LTD over a Squier and/or Epiphone every day of the week and twice on a Sunday.

ESP LTD guitars are designed – for the most part – for metal and rock music. That’s not to say you cannot use them for blues or jazz or world music; you can use them for whatever you want. But most of ESP’s big-name clients are metalheads like James Hetfield, Bill Kelliher, Alexi Laiho, and Stephen Carpenter.

ESP and ESP LTD guitars, for this reason, are a great option for aspiring metal guitarists.

And if you want my 2 cents on what the best, affordable ESP LTD guitar is right now, I’d say go with the ESP LTD EC-256. It costs $599 and it plays amazingly well. It also runs two very impressive ESP humbucker pickups. The finish and fretboard are also divine; it plays so well you’ll almost think it was a proper ESP.

For less than $600, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better guitar.

Top ESP LTD Guitars With EMG and/or Seymour Duncan Pickups

ESP LTD James Hetfield Signature Iron Cross
$1499.99

The Iron Cross is based on James' personal custom instrument design and features set-neck construction of a mahogany body with maple cap, and a single-piece mahogany neck with ebony fingerboard, 22 extra-jumbo frets, and his EMG JH Set pickups.

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ESP LTD Deluxe
$1049

A near-perfect guitar in every way. The neck is rapid, it looks like a weapon when you're wearing it, and it sounds incredible, thanks to its Seymour Duncan JB/59 passive pickup setup. It ain't cheap, but this could well be on the best Les Paul-style guitars ever created.

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ESP/LTD Arctic Metal
$999.00

The ESP LTD Arctic Metal Series features guitars that are comparable in build quality to ESP's LTD Deluxe 1000 Series instruments. The ESP LTD M-HT Arctic Metal electric guitar features an all-white finish, single premium-quality white finished pickup, Macassar ebony fingerboards with stainless steel frets, no inlays and glow-in-the-dark side markers, and a metal LTD logo on the headstock. Features a single EMG81TW pickups with push/pull function.

Best Price!
ESP LTD Vulture

Superbly constructed in Japan, the James Hetfield Signature Vulture Electric Guitar features active EMG Hetfield pickups, set-neck construction, and a lighting fast thin U neck profile with ebony fingerboard and custom inlay

Pros:
  • Fast thin U neck profile
  • EMG Het Set Pickups
  • Tonepros locking tune-o-matic bridge
  • Gotoh locking tuners
  • Schaller straplocks
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Metallica!
ESP/LTD KH-602
$1349.00

The guitar that is made for metal! The Kirk Hammet signature has a legit Floyd Rose, and dual EMG humbuckers. This guitar is ready to shred the moment you pick it up!

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Richard

Richard has been playing guitar for over a decade and is a huge fan of metal, doom, sludge, and rock music in general – though mostly metal. Having played in bands and worked in studios since the early 2000s, Richard is a massive music production geek, a fan of minimalist recording techniques, and he really likes old-school guitars.

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