ESP LTD Standard PB-500 Guitar
ESP Guitar Company, espguitars.com
Originally published in Guitar World, February 2009
ESP is one of the original guitar companies to focus almost exclusively on building instruments for shred-happy technicians. The roster of heavy-hitting professionals that presently make ESP their guitar of choice aptly demonstrates the company’s recognition.
Given the company’s reputation for creating radical designs, it’s easy to imagine a classic-looking guitar like the LTD Standard PB-500 getting overlooked. But that would be unfortunate. The PB-500 is a capable high-gain performer, but its set of Seymour Duncan P-Rail pickups vastly increases its versatility and exhibits the guitar’s acoustic properties more intimately than the high-output humbuckers that power most of ESP’s line.
Where so many of ESP’s guitars are diabolically shaped and rigidly pointed, the PB-500 exudes a classy vibe, with long flowing lines, conservative curves and a conventional headstock. If you want the P-Rail pickup model that I tested, it comes only in satin black (the other PB-500 model has a flamed maple top with Duncan Alnico IIs). The visually balanced all-mahogany body is quite lightweight and carved to a plateau for right-hand comfort. Fretboard access is also superb, thanks to a shaved neck heel and wide double cutaways.
All of these ergonomic attributes add to the now-famous ESP playability, but it’s the set mahogany neck that really allows fingers fly effortlessly to across the PB-500. The nut is a standard 42mm width, yet its special convex fretboard edges make this neck feel less wide than other guitars with identical specs. This nut is compensated and uses the Earvana system, creating intonation that is nearly perfect at all positions. ESP calls the neck carve a “thin U contour,” which does not aptly describe the palm-friendly roundness that is also a part of this fast shape. Players with average-size or small hands will find the PB-500’s neck to be an excellent match and especially accommodating to difficult techniques. The 22 tall-and-fat frets allow a light touch and help players create nuances of tone using the strings alone. Pearloid acrylic binds the board, leaving no exposed fret edges, and continues around the headstock.
The chrome Tune-O-Matic bridge and tailpiece add attack and brilliance to the guitar’s natural sustain and low-midrange punch, but the core of the PB-500’s tonal flexibility must be credited to Seymour Duncan’s P-Rail pickups. Their specialized split-coil design essentially joins a blade-type single-coil with a true P90 single-coil into a first-of-its-kind housing. A minitoggle selects the pickups’ operation as single-coil, P90 or a unique-sounding humbucking mode. Other controls include a three-way pickup selector, master volume and master tone.
Most players don't associate ESP guitars with superb clean tones, but the PB-500 excels in this department thanks largely to the Duncan P-Rails. Single-coil tones sound pure—neither overly warm nor glassy—and I was impressed by the amount of ring and resonance they exhibited in both positions. When they are combined, the PB- 500 produces sounds akin to a Strat’s “notched” fourth position, where the mids become hollow and deep.
The P90 tone is more aggressive through the mids, with a snarl and bite typical of the overwound-coil design. When any of these single-coil settings are combined with high gain, the ESP demonstrates a balance of brilliant highs and sharp lows that sounds more like an airy flute than a compressed violin.
Of course, the fattest tones come from the humbucking mode. Because these are not high-powered humbuckers and the combination of coils is so unique, metal licks and power chords sing beautifully but also deliver acoustic details that are not specifically produced by any other pickup. Humbucking or not, the P-Rails are pleasantly quiet and well behaved. I found the guitars match best with crunchy, medium-gain amp settings. This really brought the midrange bark to the forefront and illuminated the highest level of overtones.
THE BOTTOM LINE
ESP’S LTD Standard PB-500 is the definition of a modern classic guitar. It’s attractive in an archetypal sense but also fresh in design and replete with contemporary comfort-enhancing contours. The easy-to-grip U-shaped neck is fast yet round enough to satisfy players who like to riff and chord for long periods in a single position. Best of all, the Seymour Duncan PRail pickups can be switched between blade-style and P90 single-coils or used as full humbuckers. No matter what style you play, there’s something in this guitar for everyone!
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