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ESP/LTD Signature Guitars: James Hetfield Iron Cross vs. Kirk Hammett White Zombie

Wesman Todd Shaw started playing the guitar when he was 12 years old. He loves nothing more than to pick one up and pluck some strings.

James Hetfield playing his Iron Cross guitar.

James Hetfield playing his Iron Cross guitar.

James Hetfield, Master of Heavy Metal Rhythm Guitar

I first became aware of Metallica while I was in junior high school. I made quick note of the fact the people who had Metallica T-shirts were a bit on the scary side. They were the folks who could get you into trouble.

I'd often been a troublemaker myself in school, so I had to check out this Metallica thing, and I certainly was not disappointed. By the time I got to high school the only friends I had or wanted also listened to Metallica. The year I graduated it was all over. Everyone knew about Metallica by then, as they'd gone mainstream.

I have to say that I and my like-minded pals felt a bit betrayed by all of this. Metallica people had been a special sort of clique, and now they were the band of all the jocks and rich kids too. Alas, it was impossible to hold a grudge against James Hetfield and the boys for very long. He'd been our super-masculine and mega-pissed off hero during our growing up years. He earned a place in our souls forever.

Through his music, James has expressed well his inner turmoil. He'd experienced some things involving religion and the death of his mother which would have likely driven lesser persons completely mad. His mother had died for her belief that taking medicine was wrong. Imagine having to live through something like that, and watching it all go down from a position of helplessness.

What about James the guitarist? He started taking piano lessons at the young age of nine, enjoyed playing his brother's drums, and finally wound up taking up the six strings when he was fourteen years old. Arguably the single finest heavy metal rhythm guitarist to have ever had such a role, Hetfield says he sometimes thinks of his guitar playing as playing drums on the guitar.

James Hetfield is worth, in dollars, upwards of three hundred million. James can do whatever he pleases, and it certainly appears he's not looking to get out of making music.

Kirk Hammett playing his White Zombie guitar

Kirk Hammett playing his White Zombie guitar

Kirk Hammett, One of the Greatest Metal Guitarists

Kirk Hammett was ranked eleventh on the list of the one hundred greatest guitarist of all time. This was published in Rolling Stone magazine. A book on the exact same topic by Joel McIver ranked Hammett as the fifteenth greatest guitarist of all time. It is clear Kirk has grabbed some ears with his music making over the years. My two ears are among them, and some of his soloing work will likely be imprinted into my brain until the day I die.

America is the great melting pot, and Kirk was born in beautiful California to a Filipino mother and Irish father. California produces lots of great music and musicians, and massive numbers of fine guitars are built there; but one of the things California is most notable for are its film industries. Kirk at a young age fell hard for films of horror. Monsters and such.

Kirk would work fast food burger joints and save all the money he could so as to purchase professional gear. People who'll do that are the people determined to do something with that gear. It's true some folks have more of a knack for things like playing guitars than do others, but it doesn't matter so much, you have to put the work in to get anywhere with whatever it is you've got.

From 1979 through to 1983 Kirk would help pioneer thrash metal guitar playing and music with the band Exodus. He quit in 1983 to join Metallica, and the rest is pretty much history. Kirk remains friends with, and has recorded some things recently with Exodus' other guitarist, Gary Holt.

Hammett had joined Metallica to replace the great Dave Mustaine. Dave was having some issues with substance abuse, and he had some violent sorts of tendencies. Well, Dave would go on to form Megadeth, and it would be another fabulous success itself. Kirk would wind up with his own substance abuse tendencies.

Kirk Hammett had the good fortune to take lessons from the great Joe Satriani. Many Satriani students have went on to great success, and it is so telling how they all have their very own unique sound on the guitar. None of them sound like Satriani at all. Hammett does more than just solos with Metallica, he's always wrote some of the riffs, and some of the most notable ones too. Sometimes when you hear a guitar solo in Metallica, it's actually Hetfield, and while Hammett is playing the rhythm.

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The ESP/LTD James Hetfield Iron Cross Guitar

James tends to play Gibson style ESP guitars. He's got a few Gibson guitars too, but he's seen very often with his ESP Iron Cross. It's definitely one of his favorite guitars.

The ESP/LTD James Hetfield Iron Cross guitar is very much a modified ESP/LTD EC1000. This is to say it is an LTD 'eclipse' guitar, built in the vein of a Gibson Les Paul. You've got the mahogany body with the maple top, the set neck, the 24.75" scale, and two humbuckers. There are some differences though. You can have an ESP/LTD EC1000 with or without active humbuckers, but this guitar is an EMG guitar, and our pickups are James Hetfield models.

The fingerboard is ebony. My opinion is always going to be that ebony is superior to rosewood for a fingerboard. Ebony is getting to be more and more rare, and Gibson has even said they may discontinue its use. I just want folks to understand ebony is pretty darn special.

The Iron Cross on the body is not paint. That's actually a cut piece of metal affixed to the body. I don't think this detail is especially important, but one can't discern this bit of fact from images on the internet.

The neck is a thin U profile. James is a tall fella, but I don't think this neck would prove too difficult to work with for more average sized persons. As always, you need to know what neck profiles you prefer. I do find that if one has average to above average sized hands, and a desire to play a guitar, the person can typically adapt to most necks.


Though James isn't known for being a soloist, there is a body contour to allow for access to the upper register of frets with more ease than what you'd find on a typical Les Paul. Mr. Hetfield downplays his abilities in conversations, but don't be fooled, he can and does do guitar solos, and if you've not seen him do them live, you've definitely heard him on albums, although you may not have realized it.

Affix your gaze upon the controls of this guitar. Do you see the 3-way toggle switch up top in the place Les Paul style guitars always have one? That switch is a dummy. It doesn't do anything at all, except that it completes the traditional look.

The real controls are all under the strings. There is a much more plain Jane 3-way toggle switch there, and that is the one which you will use to select pickups. Then you also have two volume controls, and one master tone control.

Iron Cross Guitar Specifications

  • Set-neck construction
  • 24.75" scale
  • Mahogany body
  • Maple top
  • Mahogany neck
  • Ebony fretboard
  • 1.65354" standard nut
  • Thin, U-neck contour
  • 22 XJ frets
  • EMG JH Signature set (B & N) active pickups
  • Vol/Vol/Tone/Toggle Switch
  • Black hardware
  • LTD locking tuners
  • TonePros tune-o-matic bridge & tailpiece
  • Included Accessories: ChromaCast Pro Series Gig Bag, Guitar Stand, 12 Pick Sampler, Chromatic Tuner, 10' Pro Series Instrument Cable, Guitar Strap, & Polish Cloth

ESP/LTD Kirk Hammett White Zombie Guitar

You think of all those long haired glam metal guys, and their super Strat guitars from the 1980s, and well, this is a super Strat. Kirk Hammett, however, was not doing glam metal in the 1980s. He was busy pioneering thrash metal. Glam metal is pretty much dead. You might catch some geezers doing some reruns of old hits on the concert circuit, but you won't see them putting out new hit records like Metallica still can do.

White Zombie is also a band, and I'm sure Kirk and James both approve of Rob Zombie's music, and his films too. Long years before any of that, however, came the film named White Zombie, which stared Bela Lugosi. The year was 1932, and White Zombie was the first full length zombie film produced. It should be obvious here Kirk Hammett liked the film very much.

This White Zombie guitar is full of great graphic artistry, including but not limited to, the image of the late and great Bela Lugosi. If you were to ask me what the thing I like most about this guitar is, I'd not hesitate to tell you it is that awesome bat inlay at the twelfth fret, and beyond. That bat seriously rocks. The very pointy headstock also goes a long way towards making this guitar look like medieval weaponry. The thing just screams metal music before you've got it plugged into anything.

EMG 81 sets are some of the most tried and true of EMG pickups. If you're ever somewhat confused about the difference between active and passive pickups, just remember the active pickups are what you hear when you hear Metallica. They certainly sound different from what metal guitarists from the 70s sounded like.

ESP LTD Kirk Hammett KH-WZ White Zombie

ESP LTD Kirk Hammett KH-WZ White Zombie

Our fretboard on this guitar is exceptionally flat. Aren't they all flat? No, most fingerboards have a definite curve to them. This one is curved too, it's just machined to have far less curve than normal. The flatter the fingerboard, the more easily one can do lots of single note shredding. That's the thinking here.

You've got a Floyd Rose and locking nut so as to do dive bombing whammy bar stuff. The frets are extra jumbo so you can also bend the heck out of those strings. The guitar case is made to look like a tombstone. Shut up and take my money.

White Zombie Guitar Specifications

  • Bolt-on neck construction
  • 25.5" scale
  • Alder body
  • Maple neck
  • Rosewood fingerboard
  • 13.779528" fingerboard radius
  • 1.653543" nut width
  • Molded nut
  • Thin, U-neck contour
  • 24 XJ frets
  • Black hardware
  • Standard strap buttons
  • LTD tuners
  • Floyd Rose bridge
  • EMG 81 (B) and EMG 81 (N) active pickups
  • Volume/Tone/3-way switch
  • Bela White Zombie graphic
  • Tombstone Graphic Hard Case included
James Hetfield in London, October 22, 2017

James Hetfield in London, October 22, 2017

Choosing Between Two Outstanding Instruments

So what's the point of all this, if these guitars aren't really that much alike? Look, I grew up when Metallica was something you had to hide from your super Christian parents, and then as I got older, they somehow turned into international superstars. I'm saying these guys are super representative of my generation, and lots of their music made a big impression on me. Hope I never get so old I forget about any of it.

ESP's LTD line of guitars are straight up professional level at working class prices. These are both fabulous guitars, and they're both priced really close together. What kind of damages am I talking about here? I've got nine hundred and ninety nine bucks on the Kirk Hammett White Zombie, and one thousand, one hundred and ninety nine bucks on the James Hetfield Iron Cross.

Why does the Hetfield guitar cost more when the Hammett guitar has the special graphic paint job, the super cool tombstone case, the Floyd Rose, and that terrific inlay on a shredder's dream radius fingerboard? Well, it could have to do with the fact mahogany and maple cost more than the alder used for the body of the Hammett guitar.

Also, as I already stated, the Hetfield guitar has that glorious ebony fingerboard. Kirk's guitar has rosewood. Rosewood is fantastic, but ebony is like something above and beyond great. Another major factor is the Hetfield guitar, being an adaptation of the Gibson Les Paul, has a set neck. This is something much more time consuming to produce than would be a bolt on neck, like the Hammett guitar has.

The Iron Cross comes with a lot of goodies. You get a guitar stand, a chromatic tuner, a gig bag, some picks, cloth and polish. There is also a strap so you can stand and play, and a cable for you to plug into your amp. It's a nice goody bag that comes with a fabulous guitar.

So what about your playing style? If you're a whammy bar user, the choice is clear. If you love an especially flattened out fingerboard, the choice is also clear. Just don't think for a minute you can't shred like a beast on the Hetfield Iron Cross guitar. That's very close to the guitar persons like Randy Rhoads, Zakk Wylde, and Alex Skolnick play. The Hetfield Iron Cross, because of the mahogany and maple, will sound a little different from the Hammett thrash super Strat.

You couldn't lose either way. If I were a rich man, I'd have one of each. Thanks for reading.

© 2017 Wesman Todd Shaw

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