ESP History - Electric Sound Products

ESP Guitars History © Johnny AXN™ Guitars


With a small staff of 3 employees ESP (Electric Sound Products) was established in Shibuya Tokyo in 1975 by Hisatake Shibuya as what was called in Japanese a "Guitar Salon". The shop was concerned with guitar repairs and "one-on-one" custom order guitars.


Hisatake Shibuya

Hisatake started working for the music products industry at the age of 24 as a freshman of Electric Guitar Dept. of Kawai. Teisco and Guyatone electric guitars were coveted instruments of young players at that time. He loved his work, but 4 years later he clashed with his boss and left Kawai. He said “I know I was too bold and stubborn, but they are my nature anyway.”

Jobless for one year, Hisatake joined Nippon Gakki (later Yamaha). He left the company to launch His own business with 4 years of experience in product distribution. He worked with Shigeki Saito who had been a colleague at Kawai, and then ran Fernandes Guitars. He was one of Hisatake’s mentors and supported Hisatake in many ways during the year out of work.

Hisatake learned business through 4 years work each at Kawai, Yamaha and Fernandes which have different corporate cultures and product marketing styles.

ESP Guitars

Hisatake brought in machinery to operate as a guitar retail store/workshop and they started building Navigator high-quality hand-made electric guitars. The ESP Tokyo shop was the first professional shop in Japan to create a dialog with working musicians and interacted closely with players.

All the while ESP absorbed player level details that guitar makers usually do not notice. This led to ESP manufacturing custom order high-end guitars in Japan about the 1979. ESP eventually moved production facilities outside of Tokyo but kept it a policy to concentrate on high-ticket guitars.

Once Hisatake tried to triple ESP sales of one high-end model which sold 200 units a month to 600 units. The result was much extra cost generated in advertisement and marketing. ESP gross profit ended up remaining flat. In terms of operating risk the ambitious plan was far greater than selling 200 units. Hisatake took a lesson from this experience.

In regards to his lesson learned Hisatake was quoted as saying “we built expensive models with additional value under ESP brand, and sell mid-range and competitive models under second and third brands.” Later Hisatake was quoted to say “More than once, I put our competitors on trials. Every time I had to protect our business I told myself that I wouldn't get defeated. Some people in U.S. called me 'cobra' because I bite as I am prodded on my head. In one way, such my attitude has helped me to survive in the industry (laugh).”

Moving the story forward, ESP using its own brand name, set out to rival Fender and Gibson straight away. Instead of just flat out copying USA guitars and selling them at lower costs as ESP did at the beginning, ESP decided to take all the ingredients and surpass what Fender and Gibson did utilizing only the best materials and hardware in a true effort to make the best of the best.

Another fact in regards to ESP ( Electric Sound products ) is that they started manufactured guitars for other brands as referenced by Hisatake. Referred to in the guitar business as being a "ghost builder". This contract work obviously fueling financially the ESP dream to become a flagship brand of its own.

In the 1970s-1980s most of the well known Japanese guitar making companies including ESP we able  to produce runs of super highest quality guitars and runs of lower quality guitars simultaneously. Other manufacturer names that could also achieve this were companies such as such as Tokai, Matsumoku, Fujigen, Kawai, Chushin Gakki and others. ESP did that and did it very well.

Navigator Models
Vintage ESP Navigator guitars had many variations. ESP started here manufacturing these guitars by hand and from the best materials and hardware. We are talking the mid to late 1970s and many early Navigator guitars were based off of classic USA guitars but not limited to just those designs.

Navigator guitars are the highest-end of all ESP guitars. Many time the Navigator logo on the headstock will say something like "Navigator produced by ESP". Early on some Navigator Les PauL Type guitars actual said Navigator with Les Paul on the headstock in the same font style as a Gibson LP.

Today the Navigator series Fender and Gibson replicas are made at costs that exceed those even of Fender and Gibson’s own Custom Shops! They are the pride of ESP. Every Navigator is a quality guitar, made with the utmost attention to detail. Navigator guitars have the exact dimensions of Fender and Gibson’s, but have amazing details that Fender and Gibson have never put into their own guitars. There is very few guitars out there that can rival a Navigator.

ZEP-II Models
ZEP-II or "ZEP-2" guitars as I will call them were basically short production runs of ESP custom made guitars. The ZEP-2 guitar brand was in essence the precursor to the Edwards brand of guitars and ZEP-2 guitars were made in Japan between 1985 to about 1988. The designs were kindof all over the board with models that were signature guitars such as the Loudness models made for the band Loudness. ZEP-2 guitars were a brand of ESP but to confuse the issue these were considered a MAD Company product that was an offshoot company of ESP. I've owned many of these including a Kramer branded George Lynch bengal tiger that was a Mad Company creation.

The Japanese were very good luthiers and had much pride in their work especially when it came to making anything connected with ESP guitars in this period. Generally ZEP-II guitars are virtually the same quality as the best ESP guitars of the time. Yet there were some ZEP2 models in a lower price point and wood quality diminished a small bit and some colors and finishes were repeated to save $$.  Sometimes with ZEP-II Guitars ESP would release some off-the-wall weird guitar design as sort of an "experiment" or to test the retail sale-ability and label it an ZEP-II.

Edwards Models
Initially Edwards guitars we made in japan ( 1990s ) and later in the recent 2000's some were made in china and still some in Japan. The brand is the most under-rated guitar brand in Japan and virtually unknown in the USA. Many times they use bookmatched woods, nitro top coat finishes in ESP produced Edwards. They are designed as the lower-cost version of the Navigator series and the standard ESP Product but they are really not that much lower in terms of craftsmanship, only price. For Example I saw an artist model for a Japanese rock star that was branded Edwards not ESP and it was known to be just as high quality as a ESP custom shop guitar.

Some Edwards guitars are made as Gibson and Fender replicas yet many Edwards are just slightly lower cost versions of well known popular ESP high end original designs and popular ESP artist models. Like ZEP-II Guitars ESP would/will release some off-the-wall weird guitar design as sort of an "experiment" or to test the retail sale-ability and label it an Edwards. Im seeing that the Edwards brand are strictly being made in china and maybe asia now and not Japan.

Grassroots Models
ESP also makes a low end entry-level guitar brand made in china and now other places for beginners under the name "Grassroots."  These guitars are made well considering they are very low priced guitars.  They do look nice but have budget woods and budget finishes and budget electronics.  For a beginner, it is a great brand. That said some Grass Roots guitars are just about as good or maybe better than what we are seeing in mid-priced Gibson and Fenders right now here in the USA. they are like "good Chinese guitars" if you know what i mean.

Seymour Duncan Models
ESP luthiers also made a lesser-known brand under the name of “Seymour Duncan," from the mid-1990s until 2004. Seymour Duncan is written as the actual logo on the headstock of these guitars.  There are two different series of Seymour Duncans;  the "professional series," highest end and the "traditional series," which was marketed in a lower price range.  If a guitar is from the traditional series, it will say so on the headstock. If it just says “Seymour Duncan,” then it is the more expensive model.  ESP only made Fender replicas under the Seymour Duncan brand.  

ESP discontinued Seymour Duncan Fender replicas in 2004.  ESP continues, however, to make bass guitars using the Seymour Duncan logo, but these bass guitars are not Fender replicas like their predecessors.

Schecter Guitars
In 1987 Schecter Guitars was in negotiations and/or purchased by Hisatake Shibuya. He is the founder of ESP Guitars. In 1990 there was some shuffling around of the Schecter Guitar company and the brand Schecter that was famous for hand made stratocaster shaped guitars and guitar parts.

After all was said and done effectively Hisatake Shibuya owned the Schecter Guitars brand. Hisatake Shibuya also owned Musicians Institute in Los Angeles, Sunset Custom Guitars California and 48th Street Custom Guitars in New York. It seems that ESP was manufacturing Stratocatster bodies and necks as well as whole guitars in Japan at the ESP factory for a short period in the late 1980s and these were branded as Schecter and sold mainly in Japan. The ones I’ve seen are very hard to distinguish from the Authentic USA Van Nuys California Schecters.

in the USA Hisatake Shibuya put separation into the Schecter brand successfully making Schecter Guitars presence completely independent of ESP as far as marketing and branding in the US. Later ESP was also successful at finding ways to manufacture Schecter outside of Japan.

In My Opinion in Japan many models that were released Japan under the brand name Schecter Guitars from the late 1980s and more heavily in the 1990s that were Strat headstock guitars and appear to be 100% ESP Japan manufacturing. Even today Schecter Guitars sold in Japan are very similar to some ESP offerings and include what appears to be ESP craftsmanship. The lower end of Japanese only Schecters are more than likely made in china or possibly in Korea.

ESP - Timeline
1975- Founded as a manufacturer of high-end electric guitar, and to train guitar repair servicemen. Manufactured the First Navigator line of guitars.
1979- Started accepting orders for 100% custom-made electric guitars. 
1981- Established ESP-USA.
1983 - A Factory in Nagano Japan was opened with 40 employees
1983- A European ESP base was opened in the German city of Dusseldorf - 1983- Opened Guitar Builders' School in Japan.
1983 - The 48th Street Custom Guitars New York was founded
1986- Opened a 6,600 sq. meter factory in Sado Island, Niigata-ken Japan.
1990- Official purchased Schecter USA. 
1992- Launched ESP-China.
1995- Purchased U.S. Musicians Institute.
1997-2010 Acquired and opened more than 10 educational institutions and retail shops in Japan. 
ESP Co., Ltd. has 18 member companies, 1,300 workers and 13 billion yen annual sales as a group. The business expands from musical instrument manufacturing, distribution, sales, import/export, music and movie production, publishing, development and distribution of music software to multiple educational institutions.

Other Brands ESP has manufactured like Robin Guitars, Italia Guitars, Kramer Guitars and others I did not mention.. give it some time I will ;-)

ESP Guitars History © Johnny AXN™ Guitars