If you’re into Metal guitar, you know that it requires, at times, a completely different set of skills and gear. While there’s no set rule that defines what you should be playing the genre with, there’s a limit to what an average mean-looking humbucker-packed guitar can do. As you progress and the stakes get higher, you will eventually need to make the jump to a high-end instrument.
Having played with metal bands as a session musician and a long-time member of a Metallica tribute band, I often felt let down by my guitars in the heavy realm until I got hold of the ESP Horizon. It is an expensive instrument, but owning a guitar of this caliber is sometimes not an option if you’re asked to deliver.
To help those still determining if they need a guitar of this quality, I’ll not only dissect my Horizon NT II in this ESP Horizon NT II Review, but also help you understand if it’s the right time for you to invest in one.
Bottom Line Up-Front
The ESP Horizon is a reliable workhorse if you are a professional guitarist, whether playing session or with your metal band. You can show up at any gig with it and rarely need a spare guitar. It’s expensive, but it only just enters the premium price mark, standing right at the threshold of where the high-end professional range of instruments starts.
A Tough Gig That Sealed a Deal
The decision to buy the ESP goes back to a single ‘aha’ moment I had during a festival. Unfortunately, it was not a pleasant one, but an almost disastrous stage failure that turned people’s heads around.
A few years back, we had just booked our first festival gig abroad with my Metallica tribute band. It was a short flight, but it meant I could only carry one guitar with me on board. Obviously, I chose my best heavy guitar, the Ibanez JRMJR, and my most trusted pedalboard.
Touring is challenging, especially if you don’t have a tech, and the unexpected can always happen. As we were sound-checking, the singer lost his voice and could not catch any note on the mid-register; therefore, in the panic, we opted to tune everything down 1 step. The guitars were already half-step lower, so we went from Eb to C#.
Performing a doom-metal version of Metallica was the least of our worries. The vocals are always a priority when it comes to playing it safe, while guitars are the easiest to sacrifice.
Adding to the harrowing experience of down-tuning a Floyd Rose bridge before a set, the string tension was not set right, and the action needed desperate adjustment. With no other way around it, I went on stage and hoped for the best, even though the E string wobbled like spaghetti, and there was no way to bend above the 15th fret without hitting a dead note.
We somehow pulled it off due to the help of my fellow second guitarist and a lot of sliding, yet it was apparent our guitars were never in tune when playing the same riff. What’s more, my tone had drastically muddied up; therefore, I learned the hard way that if I was serious about playing metal, I needed a more reliable guitar, able to handle anything.
I always thought it was best to have one great instrument than three average ones, and while I had my US-made Strat and Les Paul, I needed a guitar of that caliber when metal knocked on the door.
My fellow rhythm guitarist is the ultimate hero of the story, as I bought his used ESP Horizon NT II as soon as we landed. Considering he played with James Hetfield’s Iron Cross signature ESP, the band was happy with me going for a Kirk-like ESP style. I won’t deny that I was thrilled as well to seal the deal, especially after that gig.
What Did It Change For Me?
It hurt spending $2000 on a guitar I’d only use sparingly as a starting professional musician; the payoff though was immense. I never had to make any compromises and could deliver any heavy tune live or in the studio, not worrying about anything else but my performance.
The best part is that I only ever sent the guitar once at the repair shop for a professional setup in 3 years!
It saved me money and time and gave me the confidence to play anywhere. The investment paid itself off in saving hours of tuning, intonating, and getting a tight tone more than I ever imagined it would. Plus, there’s nothing better than packing only one guitar whenever a metal gig appears.
Why The Pros Like The E-II Series
ESP is a huge name in the metal scene, with Metallica being their most prominent signed artist among the other big shots. They know how to make exceptions guitar for metal guitarists and make any possible imaginable design you would want to shred in. The company lays in front of players a range of instruments from the crunchiest to heaviest with no limit to how low, heavy, or pricy you can go.
The ESP Horizon is part of the ESP E-II Series and arguably the best factory-produced ESP guitar in Japan, standing right between the affordable LTD series and high-end premium instruments. The series is a continuation of the ESP Standard, which won the hearts and pockets of countless metal guitarists.
The Horizon model in the great ESP world, it’s not particularly expensive; however, for the average player, professional or not, it is still a big investment, no matter the benefits.
You can choose between 9 different E-II guitar models and multiple variations for each. If my Horizon NT (Non-Tremoolo) doesn’t do the job for you, you can opt for a Floyd Rose bridge or even add the extra 7th string modern metalheads can’t live without.
Overall I have nothing to say against ESP and their quality control on every instrument. During their golden period, which might still be going on, Japan-made guitars were the image of precision, exactly what you need for highly technical genres
With a branch of premium hand-made guitars being built in the US and other models going for sky-high prices, the company has sealed its place at the top of the metal world.
- Reliable for the studio and stage with superb tuning stability and intonation
- It can easily change tuning and keep its stability in tone and feel
- Easy to play neck
- Fairly versatile in the metal realm
- It’s a moderately light guitar
ESP Horizon Cons
- It’s a costly instrument
- The EMG pickups set can sound boomy, especially in the neck position
- The split coil sound is good but not great
Built Quality & Tonewoods
In guitars of this range, built quality is not a section that’s even fair to be included if not put into context. Everything on the guitar is smooth and impressive, with nothing that can’t be fitted to your preference with a setup. I included this section because I see many people getting turned off by the ‘factory-made’ label.
I can tell you with absolute certainty that a huge part of the process is still handmade, and the difference with the hand-crafted original series guitar lies in that 10% that is the customization of parts and looks. If those are worth hundreds, if not thousands of dollars more, that’s for you to decide.
Regarding Tonewoods, In my experience, their impact fades the heavier the tone. The Horizon is though made of quality Mahogany, Maple, and Ebony if that is important for you. The main difference they make for me is that the guitar is not heavy to carry and solid.
Playbility & Reliability
The main quality that every guitar should have and that a high-end one definitely has is tuning stability. The Gotoh locking tuners and bridge do a perfect job and even look cool with the extended tailpiece.
For a Metal guitar, the scale length, string tensions, bridge, and tuners must work so that the guitar not only stays in tune and is intonated but also feels almost the same independently of the tuning. If the G string goes out of tune or the E string wobbles like mine did on the Metallica show, all the fancy electronics are worthless.
How Low Can You Go?
An important concept you should know if you’re into downtuning is that there’s a limit to how low an instrument can go and retain its tone.
Up until drop A, the guitar sounds and plays exceptionally well. A few hours to adapt to the new string tensions, and you’re good to do. A is the no-turning point if you want to be 100% intonated and sound well-defined. Below that, you should try the NT-7B version and rely on the 7th strings.
I recommend passive brighter-sounding pickups for tighter low-tuned sounds. More gain will not make your guitar sound heavier if you go very low; a more defined pickup will. That’s why I use JB humbuckers on my ESP-Horizon.
How Does It Play?
The guitar plays as well as it looks, and it just matches its price. Since I mostly play Strats in my everyday work, whenever I pick up a metal guitar after a while, I need some time to adapt. The necks usually feel bigger, the 24 frets too much, and everything is different. It’s the same as going from 1 month of playing electric to strumming an acoustic guitar.
With the ESP Horizon, I can safely say that things look bigger than they feel! The thin U-shaped neck is a shredders dream and not that far from my Strat’s Thin C. I enjoy Metal guitars that feel more like ‘normal’ instruments considering I come from the classic rock world.
The only reason you might not like this guitar’s feel is if you are into thick baseball bat neck profiles, which are rare in the metal world. If you’re new to neck shapes, check out our detailed guide.
Here we will get into the land of taste and sound engineering, as there’s no other way to talk about good heavy tones. My goal in metal was to have a guitar that cuts through the mix and sounds good in a band context; after years of work, I realized that more distorted, muddy, and dark doesn’t mean heavier.
Depending on where you stand on the heavy spectrum, whether dark or bright tones, you can choose the following pickup with your Horizon.
- Passive Seymour Duncan Sentient
- Active EMG pair
- Active Fishman Fluence Modern Humbucker Alnico versions.
All work well for different things, yet to choose the best for you, keep in mind the following.
You get an ideal heavy guitar tone when your guitar complements the bass and drums to deliver one single punch to the ear. With this logic in mind, I removed the EMGs from mine for a pair of hot Seymor Duncan JB.
I’m not suggesting that there is no use for EMGs. However, I’m not a fan of their low end, especially on the neck pickup, which for my studio needs, becomes useless except for solos.
If my ESP originally had the passive SD Sentient, I might have kept those considering how similar they are to the JBs. Considering I play mostly fast metal, thrash, and prog at a moderate and fast bpm, there’s no point in having too much low end as it fights with the bass and the other guitarists.
When you record, you will notice that you can’t take enough low end out of a guitar and that you always need less gain than your ears first suggest.
Even for big arena shows, the low end is not important as the guitars tend to lose their high end. In your monitoring, the guitars sound harsh; in front of the house, they will muddy up more than you imagine.
Going to the split coil option, it’s handy, but for that limited scope of playing clean tracks in metal. It works well on creating clear soundscapes with tons of delay and reverb. Don’t expect the same dynamic range as a Strat, though.
It’s hardly surprising to anyone that this costly instrument is a riff and lead machinery. However, considering how much it’s worth, can you use it for “softer” rock? If you come from the world of drop C tuning, anything from 80s glam to Queen would fit the ‘soft’ label. One can argue that even grunge is ‘pop’ if extreme metal is the alternative.
The ESP Horizon is a double-edged sword depending on the pickups and what you use it for.
If you go for active pickups, you will have little versatility for crunchy stuff, and it will sound compressed. In metal, it’s great to have a sterile compressed clean like the intro of Metallica’s “One,” for other genres, you do need a more dynamic tone that cleans up with the volume knob.
A simple rule to keep in mind is that more bass and compression generally mean less versatility.
Passive pickups will give you less sustain but more versatility, especially using the split coil option. Your strumming will sound slightly compressed but more natural and articulate. I do combine guitars when I double track on the session and always prefer the tighter, lower gain, the more aggressive approach that works best.
If you practice your ears to hear a good tone. By that time, one volume, one tone, both with a push/pull option and a 3-way, is more than enough to get all out of the best high-gain amps.
ESP Horizon Alternatives
The number of alternatives for guitars in metal overshadows every other genre. Big and small brands keep experimenting with new features and yearly release quality instruments. The more bands invent new sub-genres, the more guitar builders respond with the adjacent improvement.
Here are a few impressive guitars that match up to the Horizon
Long story short, I’d never have got the ESP if I had this Ibanez instead of the JEMJR. It’s a much more versatile instrument that sounds and plays better for my taste, even if it is not ideal for extreme down tunings. The split coil option is phenomenal sounding on this guitar if you like clean tones.
The Horizon has an edge on heavy rhythms, but the JS signature is a better lead instrument you can get for a few hundred extra dollars.
Schecter is notorious for keeping costs low and still delivering exceptional guitars. This model, in particular, feels like Horizon’s little brother as it’s so similar, yet much cheaper.
The ESP naturally justified the extra 1000$ with better electronics and hardware, yet I put them almost on pair in terms of reliability and getting a great heavy tone. If you’re not ready for a big spend, this is an ideal option.
If you’re into djent or any similar genre, this guitar is good enough to fit most studio and live needs unless you want to go entirely professional and reach beyond the 2-2.5k mark. The guitar is not a jack-of-all-trade, yet it’s exceptional at ultra-low tunings.
Question: Which famous guitarists play ESP Guitars?
Answer: James Hetfield, Kirk Hamett, Alex Skolnick, Alexi Laiho, George Oynth, and many other legendary players endorse ESP guitars.
Question: Are ESP guitars suitable for Beginners?
Answer: The LTD line of instruments offers affordable versions of high-end ESPs that are still reliable for the stage and fit beginner and intermediate players’ needs.
Question: What are the advantages of Superstrat shapes?
Answer: Supestrat shapes are the basis of most modern heavy guitars as the middle ground between a body that sits well against the player and an easy-to-access neck. They are also easy to modify and customize.
Final Thoughts: Should Your Upgrade To an ESP Horizon or any high-end Metal Guitar?
Hopefully, my experience helped you reflect on whether it’s time to invest in an ESP Horizon or any similarly high-end guitar. It’s not an easy decision, so it’s due for a recap.
You know by now that many intermediate guitars can be downturned and have fast shreddy necks; however, only a selected few manage to sound tight and deliver on all situations where guitar acrobatics and down-tunings are included.
The keyword is precision, a quality at which a high-end Japan-made guitar never disappoints. You can still pull off a good set off with a much cheaper instrument if you practice enough; however, a great guitar will make life much easier, and never let precious practice hours go to waste when it’s time to get on stage or the REC light is on.
Considering the ESP Horizon is a jack-of-trades in the metal world, I won’t recommend it if you are into only one specific metal subgenre that either doesn’t need all the ESP offers or requires other perks.