Review: ESP LTD Elite ST-1 Duncan and EMG Electric Guitars

Nine times out of 10, your workhorse guitar is going to be a midpriced instrument—not so spectacular that you’re afraid to take it out of its case but also not so inexpensive that it suffers from compromised performance.

ESP’s new LTD Elite Series guitars are designed to fit this special niche, building on the success of the company’s budget-minded LTD Series and delivering high-end tone and playability with a price-balanced complement of features and finish. They’re built in Japan, right alongside ESP’s high-end creations, and they’re based on some of ESP’s most popular models.

The LTD Elite ST-1 imbues an idealized superstrat-style ax with custom-shop playability and tone, and is expressly designed for the modern shredder who likes a retro vibe.


Only the fingerboards, pickups and hardware color differ between the two LTD Elite ST-1 models: one has a set of active EMGs (81-SA-SA) and black hardware with a rosewood board, while the other sports a maple fretboard, chrome hardware and Seymour Duncan pickups (Custom humbucker and two STK-S4 Classic Stack Plus single-coils).

The alder bodies are topped with book-matched quilted maple and feature natural wood binding, which adds to the top-shelf aesthetic. ESP uses medium to heavy slabs of alder for these ST-1s, so that they provide the fullest midrange and maximum bass weight. As expected, the double-locking Floyd Rose tremolo system is recessed and back-routed, ready for the wildest cirque-du-whammy pitch acrobatics. A few other points that illustrate the ST-1’s thoughtful engineering are the low-friction control pots and an upward-angled input jack that’s intended to please stage players who run the cable to a strap-mounted wireless system.

The LTD Elite ST-1’s thin, U-shaped maple neck obviously takes its cues from the fastest, hallmark shredder guitars of the Eighties. It’s not too wide, doesn’t rest too deep in the palm and utilizes an almost unperceivable bevel to soften the fingerboard’s edge. Upon closer inspection, I noticed that ESP is cutting the extra jumbo fretwire short and then side filling the fret slots, so that there will never be a problem with protruding, sharp wires. Bravo! The heel is angled and faceted for unobstructed upper-register access, and the rotary truss-rod adjustment is properly positioned between the neck butt and pickup. The quilted-maple headstock veneer is matched to the body color, and the EMG-loaded ST-1 includes an ingenious, flip-type battery door.


Each of these guitars has its own tonal signature, but the playing experience and feel are otherwise identical. On one hand, the maple fretboard and Duncan pickups produce particularly bright sonics, sometimes exhibiting the slicing cut of a dreadnought-sized acoustic. Bass notes were especially resonant and metallic from this model, and using the Duncan single-coils brought forth an aggressive, vintage demeanor.

Flipping to the Duncan Custom bridge pickup and running it through a Mesa Mark V’s rich high-gain circuitry delivered the best results, clear and punchy with a teeth-gritting, razor-sharp zing of harmonics trailing every note.

The rosewood- and EMG-equipped LTD Elite ST-1 was quite a different animal. Its sweet acoustic nature and earthy midrange inspired Malmsteen-esque arpeggios and Gary Moore–style soaring solo lines. For high gain, it matched best to one of my modified Marshalls or a Hughes & Kettner TubeMeister, augmenting each amp’s brilliant sting with the sinister warmth of an alligator’s smile. In this platform, the EMG’s delivered more kick than I’m used to hearing from active pickups, and their extreme harmonic content, combined with the ST-1’s powerful midrange, allowed me to turn the amp’s gain down without reducing crunch or sustain.

List Prices ESP LTD Elite ST-1 with Duncans, $2,350; with EMGs, $2,520

Manufacturer The ESP Guitar Company,

Cheat Sheet

The LTD Elite ST-1’s beautifully engineered neck is among the most playable and fastest ever designed, offering a thin, U-shaped contour, side-filled fret slots, beveled edges and 24 extra-jumbo frets.

Players can choose from an active set of EMGs with a mellower-sounding rosewood fretboard or a trio of Seymour Duncan pickups with the sharp attack of a maple fingerboard.

The Bottom Line

ESP’s LTD Elite ST-1 is one of the very few midpriced planks that truly offer a shredder’s paradise of speed, custom-shop quality, old-school styling and blazing modern tone.

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