ESP Page Hamilton Signature

Glynn is probably the biggest Helmet fan there is (he runs the official Helmet web site). This is the story of his Page Hamilton Signature ESP.

In September 2005, shortly before the release of his first ESP signature model, I was perched at a sticky table in the insalubrious, legendary hole that was CBGBs while Page Hamilton restrung and tuned his legendary pink – sorry, magenta – ESP Horizon. “Always stretch the strings…”, he advises; “…and then stretch them some more”.

Frankly, I was having a bit of a moment. I’m a big Helmet fan, I’m a big Page Hamilton fan, I love New York and, yes, I’m more or less in love with that guitar. Have been since I was 16. I even wrecked my first electric guitar (a black Yamaha RGX, fact fans) trying to make it look like Page’s with a lousy spray can paint job. So, yes, safe to say the moment was ticking a lot of the right boxes for me.

Naturally enough, as we discussed his debut signature model, it wasn’t long before I was broaching the subject of a copy of the guitar he was holding. “Man, I’d love to do that”, grinned Page, still stretching his guitar strings with alarming force, before going on to lament the fact that, in all probability, the only people who’d want a beat up pink guitar with one pickup and a pointy headstock were currently sat at the same table in a dank New York rock club. Fair point, I thought.

Years ago, when I realised that ESP will gladly build more or less any guitar you’re willing to pay for, I had looked into the possibility of ordering a copy of Page’s Horizon. Standard production model Horizons were still being made; all I wanted was the addition of an inverted headstock, a slanted single coil sized neck pickup and a magenta paint-job. How scary could the invoice for that be? Scary enough, as it turned out.

Lucky for me, then, that in 2004 a friend, fellow guitar nerd and Helmet fanboy tipped me off about an eBay auction for a spookily familiar looking guitar. Not an entirely selfless act – he had a wife to contend with – but, in any case, I bought it.

Sure, it’s not quite right – the neck pickup isn’t slanted, it’s got a non-inverted “Jackson lawsuit” style headstock, chrome hardware, bolt-on neck – but it was as close as I was going to get and, with the addition of a DiMarzio Air Zone and the subtraction of a very rusty ESP “rails” pickup, more or less identical if you squint and lie to yourself a little.

Then, In January 2009, the impossible happened. ESP announced the release of two new Page Hamilton signature model guitars — the Page Hamilton MG and its slightly more accessibly priced sister model the LTD PH-600 MG – both detailed replicas of Page’s actual, honest to goodness, battered and bruised ESP Horizon Custom, copying every detail of the original right down to the chipped finish and comedy built-in “reverb device” (yep, that’s an old bridge spring jammed in the empty pickup cavity).

Needless to say, I wanted one badly. I even (half) jokingly asked Page for one. “Your life-size poster of the guitar should have arrived weeks ago….”, offered Page, before moving swiftly on to discuss the unseasonably warm weather in Scandinavia and his desire to get drunk. Back to saving up, then.

One of the perks of running Helmet’s website, other than hanging out in CBGBs getting tips on how to stretch a guitar string from someone with an Emmy nomination, is the occasional parcel of merchandise – the odd t-shirt, hat, deleted vinyl, a biscuit they found down the back of the filing cabinet, what have you – so it wasn’t anything too out of the ordinary when, having let Helmet’s management know I’d be incommunicado for a few days while moving house, they wanted to check I’d be around to sign for “a hoodie or something”. What was out of the ordinary was picking up my mail a few days later and finding a UPS “Sorry we missed you” card with “£50” scrawled in the customs and taxes box. That’s a big hoodie.
The following day, I answered the door to a UPS guy wielding a large, white, guitar proportioned box emblazoned with the ESP Guitars logo. As you might imagine, this set my mind racing somewhat. I’ve certainly never before paid a tax bill so quickly nor so cheerfully, and I doubt I’ve ever felt so well disposed to a UPS employee, either.

This being an article about the ESP Page Hamilton MG, you already know what was in the box. I, on the other hand, couldn’t believe it until I finally got the thing out of the case and, even then, I struggled to comprehend it. The usual ESP Signature Series certificate of authenticity was replaced with a note from Page explaining that he’d asked ESP President Matt Masciardo if he could maybe hook me up with a guitar, and Matt had said “sure!”.

For a week, maybe two, I was in a state of near constant disbelief. I hardly dared play the thing, not so much for a fear of dinging it, obviously, as for fear of somehow wearing off the magic. I’ve had it for a year now, play it more or less daily, and it lives on a stand in the corner of my living room, and it still raises a grin most days. If the 16 year old me, jamming along to I Know through a Rocktek practice amp in front of the mirror, had known what was to come, I think he would quite simply have died of shock.

Replicas of well known artists’ instruments tend to stir mixed feelings. A simple signature model is one thing – Page’s own first signature model, being essentially a slightly modified stock Horizon model, has a an appeal beyond those who know or care who Page Hamilton or Helmet are, simply because it’s a good looking and well specified instrument – but a detail for detail facsimile of someone else’s guitar is another thing entirely. It smacks of fanboyism, and you’re probably not going to get away with using it live with your own band without drawing criticism, unless you’re in a cover band or the guitar isn’t widely recognised.

But here’s the thing: as I see it, a replica instrument like this is an indulgence. For those moments when you’re in your spare room or garage, noodling along with a Metallica record pretending to be Kirk Hammett or whatever, a copy of Kirk’s “ouija” ESP is just the thing. It’s an unashamed expression of fanboyism, an enjoyable extravagance for a fan of an artist or band. You could maybe even call it a piece of art that you can actually use: I keep my MG in my living room, and I get as much of a kick out of looking at it as I do playing it. Of course, for me, it has a lot of personal resonances which the regular buyer won’t share; how could I not enjoy it?

Still, guitars like this will always divide opinion on some level but, viewed simply as an instrument, I doubt anyone could deny that its quality is immediately apparent. It looks great, it feels great and, even unplugged, sounds great. ESPs reputation for quality is well deserved, and their high production standards shine through on this guitar from the moment you open the case.

The body, neck and headstock are all finished in what ESP are describing as magenta. Page has always called his pink, or fuchsia. I really don’t know what to call it. It’s not quite a metallic finish, but it has a similar lustre which tends to produce quite different colours depending on the lighting: deep red, magenta, a dark pink. Take your pick. And of course… it’s distressed.

Now, distressed finishes upset some of people (“Why would I pay more for a damaged guitar?” etc.) and, to a certain extent, I can see why. The issue of damage as a design feature aside, distressed finishes often look, well, fake. But wherever you stand on the issue, it can’t be denied that ESPs luthiers have done a fine job; this guitar doesn’t suffer that immediate ring of inauthenticity that some other “relic” style guitars have.

The paint looks exactly like it’s been worn through, with gradated wear through the undercoat to the wood which, somehow, has been made all grubby and smooth like a well worn desktop.

Where binding has been chipped on the headstock, there’s a dark grimy substance where the glue would’ve attracted dirt.

The unused tone pot and toggle switch routings have been filled with wood from behind, painted to match the finish, and topped off with a little bit of black gunk and grime in the recesses. Even the scratches and dings look right.

Like Hamilton’s own guitar, it’s fitted with a corroded bridge spring in the neck pickup cavity, held in to place with the two pickup screws. The story goes that it was an “onboard reverb unit”, fitted in jest by one of Page’s guitar technicians and, given that he has recently been touring with a candy pink Fryette Valvulator with a Hello Kitty sticker on it, I’m inclined to believe it.

Aside from the deliberate knocking around it’s taken, the Page Hamilton MG feels and looks gorgeous. Everything has been finished beautifully and, though the bridge had been knocked off its mounting posts in transit, the factory set up survived the trip from Japan to LA to the UK surprisingly well. My only adjustments, other than to put the bridge back where it should be, were to raise the action slightly and put a little more “give” into the neck relief.

One of the first things I noticed about my old Horizon is how spacious and flat the fingerboard felt. That’s partly because I was at that time used to playing a Les Paul, which has a short scale neck with the proportions of a baseball bat but, still, there’s something about the Horizon neck that feels just right to me. The PH MG is the same: a relatively flat radius with just the right neck profile to feel very precise and conducive to bends, slides and other such articulation. It feels fast and slim, but not so much so that it tires the fretting hand or feels uncomfortably insubstantial.

I first plugged the MG into my software guitar amp modelling software which, good as it is, is susceptible to unwanted noise when using high gain amp models. Yet the MG was very, very quiet; barely any extraneous noise at all, even with the gain cranked up to silly levels. My old ESP Horizon has the same DiMarzio Air Zone pickup featured in the MG, so I wasn’t expecting anything too different from what I’m used to hearing yet, somehow, it is quite different. Both have a rich, heavy tone with a pleasingly precise top end and satisfying mid-range. Both manage to retain a good deal of clarity when playing Hamiltonesque extended chords through thick distortion – even digitally modelled distortion – yet the MG sounds somehow more precise, crystalline and glassy, especially on  single note lines. The sustain is incredible, too, and this coupled with the great feel of the neck makes it a breeze to play very precisely yet expressively.

Plugging in to my Fryette Pittbull head, which is about the quietest and most precise sounding amplifier I’ve ever heard, allows the MG to really shine. The Fryette’s famously “dry” gain is a good match for the precision of the MG, and the addition of a clean boost to coax a little more saturation out of the amp, really brings it to life for more expressive passages. Some tweaks to the mids with the amp’s 6 band EQ really bring out that characteristic Helmet mid-range growl, which has me instantly bashing out staccato power chords.

Cleaner tones sound a little lifeless, just a little too cold and thin for my tastes; not awfuly bad, by any means, but it wouldn’t be my “go-to” guitar for clean sounds. But of course, this guitar isn’t designed for clean, and it’s range in other areas is impressive; it’s never going to beat my Les Paul for classic rock tones, of course, but it sounds rich and full, and lower gain classic rock tones reveal a good deal of sensitivity to dynamics and playing style.

The really striking things, though, are minor details. Things like little accidental (or even deliberate) harmonics, a certain timbre to certain chords, which immediately evoke Helmet recordings. All things that you could replicate on another instrument, but just seem to happen without trying on the MG. It’s quite eerie, and I can’t quite escape the feeling that I’m playing someone else’s guitar…