Guitarist Jeremy Wagner has been playing ESP guitars for so long, he feels like a part of our family. His death metal band Broken Hope, which he helped found in 1988, released their seventh album earlier this year.
Jeremy, you are one of ESP’s earliest adopters in the US, having started using our guitars about 30 years ago. Tell us the story of how you originally connected with ESP.
I discovered ESP when I was a teenager. I’m originally from the Chicago area, but was living in central Wisconsin at the time.
It was a college town called Stevens Point. I’d just started playing guitar as a teenager, in the mid ‘80s. From the start, I always wanted to be a metal guitar player. I’d heard Metallica’s Ride the Lightning and it changed my life -- as did Slayer's Reign In Blood.
So you found our guitars in Stevens Point, Wisconsin?
It was at a local music store called Jim Laabs Music. Matt Masciandaro (ESP president and CEO) has a pretty sharp memory about this. Jim Laabs was a family-owned mom-and-pop store. For some reason, they had ESP guitars. That was the first time I saw them.
I saw these guitars there and thought, “These look bad ass.” I really wanted an ESP, but I couldn’t afford one. My mom was a single mom raising two kids, so that wasn’t going to happen right away.
A couple of years went by. I moved back to Illinois when I was like 17 or 18, and I founded Broken Hope in 1987. I saved up all my pennies and went to another music store and I got my first ESP, which was an M-II. It was a bolt-on. I’d always wanted a Mirage or Horizon with a neck-thru, but could never afford them.
That was around 1988. I’ve technically been playing ESPs for 30 years now. It’s the 30th anniversary of Broken Hope next year (2018) and my anniversary of taking on ESP. I’ve never looked back.
You have a pretty legendary huge collection of our guitars.
That’s because once I get them, I rarely get rid of any of them. After the first M-II, I was eventually able to afford those older neck-thrus. I ended up getting a ton of customs, both signature models and standard models. I’ve now got dozens of ESPs in my guitar vault.
We wanted to talk to you about the guitars you ended up owning that were originally in the personal instrument collection of Jeff Hanneman, the late guitarist of Slayer. What led to that?
When I first acquired the guitars, it was Matt from ESP who brokered the introduction between Kathryn Hanneman, Jeff’s wife, and me. Kathryn was going to auction the guitars. When I heard about it, I got ahold of Matt. I’m like, “Matt, it was Jeff Hanneman and Slayer that sent me on my course as an extreme metal guitarist.” Really, between the Hell Awaits and Reign in Blood albums, that started everything for me -- above and beyond my guitar-catalyst, Ride the Lightning. Jeff was a huge hero and a huge inspiration.
When I found out these guitars were going to be available, I wanted to have them and use them. Another thing was that Jeff’s style of ESP guitars was similar to the styles I’ve always used, like the M body, neck-thru design, and ebony fretboard.
Guitar World magazine ended up doing a feature on my acquiring these guitars. When the subject comes up, most people think I have four or five of Hanneman’s guitars. There’s actually way more.
I have several of Jeff’s ESPs that were custom made. I have the Slayer album tribute guitars. Then there’s also older ones from other manufacturers. I really took on a huge part of his estate, including Jeff's amps, gear, and personal effects. In my home, I now how a complete Hanneman room that is a dedicated museum. Metal Hammer just featured my Hanneman Room/Museum and I'm proud to say I have the largest Hanneman collection dedicated in his honor in the world.
Which is your favorite guitar in that collection?
The one that sticks out is a 1998 USA model that was made in the very brief period at that time when ESP was building some guitars in the States. That particular guitar is awfully unique. It’s the only guitar Jeff had at the time that had a reverse headstock, from the time Slayer was doing Diabolus in Musica and God Hates Us All.
That’s the guitar that really fit me like a glove. I actually used the guitar to write and record the new Broken Hope album. I’d say that Jeff’s ESP guitars are among the crown jewels of my ESP collection.
Beyond the Hanneman models, what other ESPs are among your favorites?
I have a Nosferatu guitar given to me personally by Mr. Kirk Hammett. Photographer Ross Halfin did a photo shoot with Kirk handing me the guitar, and I had it blown up into a jumbo print.
My own custom ESPs are also out of this world. There's no place on the planet that makes a better guitar than the ESP Custom Shop in Japan. No matter how crazy your dreams are, they’ll make it happen. I’m just very fortunate to have these custom guitars.
A good number of those guitars, no doubt, come into play on the latest album by Broken Hope, Mutilated and Assimilated. You mentioned that this album is getting better critical acclaim than any of the previous albums, What did you do differently this time around?
A few things. One, this was the first time that I recorded in a studio that I own. Over the course of 2013, we decided we wanted a serious home studio. I had the space and the resources to make it happen. I’m not that technically educated with all the gear that’s available nowadays. Fortunately, I was able to work with my friend Scott Creekmore, who has his finger on the pulse of recording trends, all the gear and whatnot. With his help, I built this state-of-the-art recording studio. It enabled Broken Hope to do preproduction and hash out a ton of ideas before we even started recording. We had this luxury of not being billed by the hour. It helped us to hit home with the arrangements and trimming the fat.
That’s a great feeling for a band.
If there was a song that came together really cool but we thought we could do better, we did. That whole process was different than doing it in commercial studios.
When you make a metal album, it really comes down to the riffs. I really took my time assembling my riffs with our drummer Mike. I didn't feel rushed at all. In that environment, there’s no deadline, there’s no one pushing us. I felt really inspired between knowing we were writing a new album, and the fact that we have a couple of new band members that upped the game in musicianship.
Are good reviews important to you?
With the critical acclaim and accolades the album has received, it’s been surprising. Believe me, man, I’ve been doing this a long time, and I’ve seen many shitty reviews over the years. I know not to give too much credit to reviews, good or bad. My thought is that if I’m a fan and I like a band and their music, that’s what matters to me.
For Mutilated and Assimilated, journalists were going out of their way to talk about their love for the album. We got great reviews in Decibel, Kerrang, Metal Hammer, and on and on. I was actually hoping for a Rolling Stone magazine review. Believe it or not, a journalist at Rolling Stone wanted a copy of the new album. I’m delighted that someone at Rolling Stone even knows who we are!
But in terms of importance, it’s the response from the fans number one, and journalists at number two. There’s one other thing I want to add that shows how this album is special. There was a Czech journalist who was brutal. She contacted me and said, “I never liked Broken Hope period, and I also really don’t like death metal. I have to listen to it and review it, that’s my job. Now that I’ve told you that, I can say that I love the new Broken Hope album. It’s the only death metal album I’ve ever liked.”
Did you ask her why?
Yes. She said, “Your album has a production quality and a catchiness I don’t expect from death metal. I can’t get the riffs out of my head. It’s enjoyable. I actually listen to it after work now.”
That is awesome! Here’s a question for you from the standpoint of being a longterm professional guitarist. Almost every player goes through a point where they don’t seem to be progressing at all as a player. they hit a plateau and that’s as good as it seems they’re going to get. Any advice for them?
I’ve been there. I know what that’s like. I’ve hit a wall a couple of times.
I think it’s like writer’s block. Sometimes you’re trying too hard. You’re pushing yourself, but not in a positive way, like you’re trying to prove a point. What I’ve found works for me is that I’ve walked away from the guitar. I’ll walk away and focus on something else that interests me.
Now, that’s a tall order for someone who lives, breathes, and worships their guitar. This is an exercise to open your mind. You put too much pressure and stress on yourself. Go out and do something else that makes you feel good. When you come back, you can approach it with a new positive attitude.
It happens sometimes when you’re trying to do something really technical. You hit a shredding level you keep hiccuping on, and it pisses you off. Obviously it is important to keep playing your ass off and working hard, but a positive attitude is the key.
Is songwriting a similar thing, where you’re trying to create something innovative?
When it comes to songwriting as a guitar player, like riff writing, I’ve heard people say things like, “Every riff that was any good has already been written.”
You know what, man? I completely disagree with that. We just release our seventh album, and I’ll be 47 years old next month. I’m not an arrogant asshole, but I’m telling you, I wrote some of the sickest, heaviest riffs on this album that I’ve ever done in my life. There are a lot of great bands out there, and people keep coming up with new riffs. It’s one of the things that lit a fire under my ass to keep me going. I felt totally positive and completely inspired, and I was having fun with my band, and I found that the riffs just kept flowing out of my hands.
It’s the beauty of the guitar, which is an amazing, magical instrument. There are a thousand forms of music that use guitar. All the genres use guitar in their own unique way. It’s a never-ending well. A well with no bottom.
Well said. Tell us what fans can expect on the upcoming Broken Hope tour.
Our tour is in September in Europe. It’s called the “Hell on Earth” tour, and it’s us and Cattle Decapitation and couple other opening bands. After that, Broken Hope is going to South America. We’re also doing some one-off shows in the States.
We hear you have a new ESP Custom that’s in progress right now.
It’s due to be finished right after the tour. That’s fine, because the ESP USA shop recently did me a huge favor. They were kind enough to make a Metallic Black M-I just for me. I’m bringing that to Europe. That will be my main Broken Hope guitar for the tour. After that, I will break out that 1998 Hanneman USA custom. I played it at a record release show for this album. It plays so great and sounds amazing.
Get more info on Broken Hope on their web site.