ESP player Josh Middleton is quickly developing a reputation as one of the world’s most respected guitarists. With technical precision that only comes from an obscene amount of practice, Josh has lent his skills to bands such as Architects and Sylosis, as well as producing some amazing solo work of his own. He also has been given acclaim as a music educator, doing lessons in various forms. We spoke to Josh as he was wrapping up Architects’ recent tour.
Josh, it’s great to talk to you, and we’re proud to have you as part of the ESP artist family. Do you recall when you first became aware of ESP?
Yeah. It would have been in the late ‘90s, I guess. I used to buy Guitar World magazine, and I remember seeing the run of adverts for the LTD Stephen Carpenter guitars. Also, I’d always been into Metallica.
When did you personally start playing ESP?
I think it was 2001 or 2002. They weren’t as common where I live in Reading. I remember ordering in an LTD MH-301 from my local shop. I waited like three months for it to come in. Since then, I’ve gone on to buy at least like 20 ESPs. At the time, though, a friend of mine had an MH-300, and I wanted that one more than the MH-301 I ended up getting. It had a flamed maple top, which I thought was cool.
We know you have many ESPs at this point. Which ones do you tend to grab most often?
My favorite one is an ESP Horizon-II in Tobacco Burst. That Horizon shape has always been really comfortable for me. It has an arch-top body, which I think looks a little classier.
A lot of technical players seem to appreciate the typical ESP neck profile.
The neck always feel great for me. The ESP thin-U shape is cool for me. It’s thin enough to be comfortable for me — I’ve got small hands — but it’s got enough thickness so it doesn’t feel like you’re playing a ruler.
Do you mod your guitars in any way, or just stick with the stock components?
With this guitar, I just put in Fishman Fluence pickups. It’s the first guitar I put the Modern Humbuckers in. They sound great.
What’s appealing about the Fluence pickups?
You can switch between active sound and passive sound with the Fishman pickups. At this point, I never need to stray from just two guitars. They’re all I need to cover just about any sound. Especially now, using the Horizons… they’re the most comfortable guitars I’ve ever played, and just well rounded for everything I need.
You’re a touring player, so reliability and sturdiness must be important.
Yes, definitely. I’m now a full time member of Architects. We’ve been on tour of the US for five weeks, and I’ve been using an LTD for a lot of stuff. It’s an MH-401B baritone. In that band, we downtune like crazy, playing in C# standard. The low string is all the way down to F#. The MH-401B has been super reliable for what we do. They just don’t fluctuate.
You seem comfortable playing guitars that span different areas of what ESP makes.
That’s true. I don’t find too many discrepancies between LTD, E-II, and ESP stuff. They’re all solid and reliable.
On this Architects tour, you were also using another guitar that has some special meaning.
Yeah, it's one of Tom's guitars. It's an E-II Horizon with the teardrop headstock. It’s a really solid guitar and just sounds great.
I’d think it would be an honor for my band to continue using my instrument after I passed on.
It’s been the main guitar I’ve used for a year and a half now. I should admit, since I didn’t have any 25.5” scale guitars at the time, part of it was out of convenience, but it turned out that I really like using that guitar.
What other ESP models do you use?
Before I was mainly using the Horizon, I’d been using the Eclipse. I’ve also got an LTD Xtone semi-hollow that I use for more progressive stuff.
In addition to being a respected player, you are an educator. I’ve seen your online tutorial videos and note that you offer lessons. Why is it important to you to give back knowledge to up-and-coming players?
I don’t want to sound negative or discouraging in any way, so hopefully this will be taken the right way. I think there’s a trend of people wanting to do videos on YouTube, and release stuff. There are a lot of younger kids, bedroom players basically, and some of them haven’t quite put in the time to reach their potential. Again, trashing younger players isn’t my intention. I feel it’s important to learn the right way to approach playing music. I do a lot of work as a producer, and it’s unfortunate that I’ve seen bands come into the studio and they aren’t able to play the music they’ve written to an acceptable standard.
They use a digital audio workstation, do a thousand takes, and edit the sections that work instead of being able to actually play through their stuff.
Yes. It’s a gripe of mine.
When I grew up playing in the late ‘90s, most bands were still recording to tape. If you wanted it to sound good, you had to play it. You couldn’t chop it up and then copy and paste. The mindset I’d like to pass along to young people is about the cleanliness of playing tight, and not just accepting sloppy playing, unintentional string scrapes and the like.
It’s pretty common for people to develop as a musician just enough to play the basics, and then kind of give up on improving from there. Do you have any specific advice to help players break out of their comfort zone?
The first thing is being able to record yourself. It’s pretty cheap to record a guitar these days. Use something like Garageband. You can grab free plug-ins. It’s completely possible to record cheaply these days if money is an issue. Recording yourself and listening back, and being critical, is very useful. It’s also important to not get annoyed and beat yourself up. You should look for the flaws in your playing, and determine where you can improve.
Second, I’d say to always spend time in front of the computer. Try to write and record your demos. You can literally see if you’re playing out of time! It’s easy to look at the waveforms and go, “I rush ahead all the time,” or “I play behind.” It’s very useful.
Another thing would be to not get too ahead of yourself in terms of trying to speed up the metronome. If you haven’t got it nailed cleanly and tight at slow speed, all that’s going to happen is that you get faster with all the same mistakes. Play as slowly as possible, get it perfected, and then when you do start to speed up, your muscle memory has learned to play it at any speed.
Keep up with Josh Middleton at his web site. Check out some of Josh's personal ESP guitars below.