ESP LTD KH-202: Kirk Hammett's Metal Machine
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The ESP LTD KH-202 is an affordable heavy metal axe that's purpose-built for Metallica's lead guitarist, Kirk Hammett. With two ESP designed LH-301 humbuckers and a Floyd Rose Special bridge, this guitar is ready for shredding as soon as it's out of the box. The KH-202's basswood body and bolt-on neck ensure that every note you play is articulate and clear. Though it's a more basic version of its big brother, the KH-602, the ESP LTD KH-202 is a fantastic choice for the shredder looking to save some money. Keep reading to learn all about this metal shred machine.
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Even from across the room, you can tell this guitar screams 'heavy metal'. All-black knobs, pickups, and body combine with the signature Kirk Hammett skull inlays to create an aggressive and stylish guitar. Its sharp lines and contours add not only visual interest but functionality as well. The upper body contour keeps your strumming arm comfortable. The cutaways by the neck make accessing the upper frets super easy - perfect for players who want to use every single one of the 24 frets. A protective gloss finish keeps the guitar in top shape and gives it a nice sheen.
The KH-202's body is made of basswood, which is a relatively lightweight and inexpensive tonewood. However, don't think this is due to the guitar's budget pricing. Basswood is the go-to body wood for legendary shredders like Steve Vai and Joe Satriani because it emphasizes mid-range frequencies. More mid-range means more clarity and separation between notes for clearer, more articulate solos. As an added bonus, basswood is quite light compared to other tonewoods, meaning you'll be able to play for hours without straining your back. There's also the previously-mentioned contour on the upper part of the KH-202's body that eases the tension on your strumming arm. If you're a virtuoso-in-training, you'll love how comfortable and easy this guitar is to play.
The scale length of the KH-202 is a pretty standard 25.5 inches. If you're used to playing Strat-style guitars, you should feel right at home. However, if you're used to Les Paul style guitars with a 24.5-inch scale length, the KH-202 might take some getting used to.
Make no mistake: this is a shredder's guitar. The unfinished maple neck has a very thin, U-shaped profile reminiscent of the popular Ibanez Wizard necks. Due to import and export legalities, ESP is no longer using rosewood on their fretboards. Instead, they've chosen to use the more sustainable jatoba, also known as Brazilian cherry. Jatoba is denser than rosewood, which means it also feels a bit different. However, for all intents and purposes, jatoba and rosewood sound quite similar. Even if you could get a KH-202 with a rosewood fretboard, you'd be hard-pressed to tell any tonal differences between it and the original jatoba version.
The neck is bolted on, which gives the guitar a bright, snappy tone. The combination of bolt-on neck and basswood body is quite common on shredder guitars of all budgets. It gives the guitar a very present mid-range that's great for cutting through the mix and standing out during live performances without getting lost or muddy. Even if you don't solo much, you won't be able to help it with this guitar!
If you're a Metallica fan, you know that many of Kirk's solos contain a lot of quick bends, which can be quite difficult to play cleanly. To make things a bit easier on your hands, the ESP KH-202 has 24 jumbo frets. Jumbo frets make string bending a breeze thanks to their increased surface area. These frets, combined with the guitar's light gauge strings and thin neck profile, give you everything you need to play effortlessly. You'll play so fast that you might get whiplash!
The KH-202 comes with Kirk's signature skull and crossbones inlays, which are quite cool. They might not be everyone's cup of tea, however. If you like the guitar, but don't like the inlays, you can always buy some stickers to customize the fretboard to your liking.
The pickups used in the LTD KH-202 are a pair of LH-301 humbuckers designed by ESP. They aren't mind-blowing by any means, but they are good enough for stock pickups. Though these might look like active humbuckers, the KH-202's pickups are actually passive.
What's the difference? Passive pickups have good dynamic range, meaning your music sounds more fun, with well defined highs and lows. Active pickups, however, tend to sound 'flatter'. Though they have this drawback, active pickups are less susceptible to background noise than passive pickups. If you play more extreme genres of metal with tons and tons of gain, consider upgrading to the ESP LTD KH-602 - the KH-202's big brother. It has a pair of active EMG pickups that clean up your high-gain tones considerably. All of the other models in ESP's Kirk Hammett signature series are equipped with active pickups, so it's quite odd that ESP didn't include them on the KH-202. However, it is a budget model, so it makes sense that some sacrifices had to be made. Sad, but true...
The KH-202's bridge is an original Floyd Rose Special that's quite commonly found on budget guitars. Though it's not the greatest Floyd Rose bridge on the market, it will get the job done. The Special isn't as solid as the Floyd Rose 1000 found on the bridge of the KH-602, which has upgraded steel hardware instead of cheaper, slightly less durable zinc hardware.
While you might find a lot of complaints online about the Floyd Rose Special, we feel that they're mostly exaggerated. The zinc saddles and block on the Special are just fine. It's not as smooth as its more expensive counterparts, however, but that's to be expected. If this is the kind of thing that keeps you up at night, save yourself the upgrade fever and spring for the upgraded KH-602 instead.
The KH-202's tuners are standard 6-in-a-row ESP LTD tuners. They're pretty solid, adjustable tuners, but overall nothing to write home about. Since this a Floyd Rose equipped guitar, most of the tuning stability comes from the Floyd Rose locking nut rather than the tuners. The Floyd Rose Special will keep you in tune quite well no matter how much you wail on the whammy bar. Any minor tuning adjustments you need to make will be done using the fine tuners on the bridge itself.
You'll find this guitar comes with a total of 3 knobs: a volume control for each humbucker and a tone knob for controlling how dark your tone is. The knobs are made of metal, knurled for extra grip, and blackened to match the rest of the guitar.
A straightforward 3-way pickup switch is standard on the KH-202. The switch is fairly 'soft'. That is, there's no real tactile 'click' to let you know that you've gone from one pickup setting to another. However, this is a fairly minor point that is fairly cheap to fix if it bothers you. For those that are handy with a soldering iron, you can pretty easily install a different pickup switch.
Like most other Floyd Rose-equipped guitars, your ESP KH-202 will have a set of 9s installed and arrive ready to play. If you're looking to downtune, save yourself the headache and take your guitar to a local technician. Floyd Rose guitars are notoriously finicky, even when you know how to set them up correctly. Adding higher gauge strings will throw the whole guitar's setup out of whack. Regardless, be sure to buy some extra string sets in case you break one! Light-gauge strings are easy to break if you're not used to them.
Sadly, the KH-202 doesn't come with any extra accessories. However, if you need a case, ESP makes a custom case that will allow you to take your guitar with you wherever you may roam,
This isn't your grandpa's Stratocaster! The KH-202 is heavy metal through and through. Rather than explain it in words, we hope this video demo will make it apparent how great the KH-202 can sound.
Though this is the cheapest guitar in ESP's Kirk Hammett Signature line, it's still quite highly reviewed and praised. On Reddit, posters call the KH-202 a 'killer budget guitar' and 'absolutely worth it'. On Amazon, reviewers enjoy how easy the guitar is to play and how great it sounds for metal genres. There aren't many negatives about the KH-202. The one thing we have an issue with is that the pickups aren't the greatest, but they will still sound good plugged into a decent amp. We wish they were active pickups for a more authentic Kirk Hammett sound, but you can always step up to the KH-602 if you can't accept any substitutes for the real thing. To the tone enthusiast, nothing else matters!
Overall, the KH-202 is a fantastic guitar for the metal guitarist on a budget. It's easy to play, sounds great, and looks badass! Pick up a wah pedal and a Randall amp and you'll have everything you need to channel your inner Kirk Hammett. For Metallica fans looking for the perfect guitar, this is the one!