Photo by Kevin Baldes.
There’s no musician in the world with a closer association to ESP Guitars than George Lynch. Beginning in the early 1980s when he stopped by the then-relatively unknown ESP headquarters in Tokyo to check out some guitars during one of Dokken’s tours of Japan, George and ESP have been intertwined in a way that’s extraordinarily rare between an artist and guitar manufacturer. His own designs for high-performance instruments that wouldn’t compromise his immense technical playing abilities have been hugely influential on the guitars that ESP has produced ever since. Ranked by many publications as one of the greatest guitarists of all time, George has remained a vibrant and boundary-pushing musician throughout his long and successful career.
You seem to be undertaking more musical activities and multiple projects now than ever before. Is there something specific that’s driving this period of productivity?
Yeah, age. And desperation.
C’mon, it’s gotta be more than that.
Well, you know, I would say I’m doing the amount of projects I’m doing simply because I’m able to. I’ve arrived at a confluence of ability and availability.
There’s a big community of musicians out there who specifically collect your signature ESP models. If you had to pick a top three all-time list of your own models, which would they be and why?
I’d pick three that all did something different. I’d pick a diverse three. For example, I wouldn’t pick a Kami and a Tiger because they’re somewhat similar.
For my first choice, I’d go with a Kamikaze because I feel that, especially in recent years, I’ve learned to appreciate that the Kami fills a unique space in the guitar universe. It’s in a place that’s similar to the archetype Les Pauls, or the San Dimas Charvels. You have those guitars and then beyond that everything is “lesser than”. In that way, I feel that for a certain type of player, the early ESPs we made do a specific and unique thing, and I’m proud of that fact.
Then I’d pick an ESP GL-56 as my #2. It’s such a diverse guitar, with a humbucking pickup in the bridge and two single coils. It’s quite a different-sounding guitar than a Kamikaze or Skulls and Snakes, anything like that. It does a lot of things the Kami doesn’t do.
I’d say for a third guitar, I’d pick the Super V. When we originally came up with the idea for the Super V, I wanted something with a Gibson-ish quality. Dark, warm, a set neck, PAF-ish pickups. That’s because my first really great guitar was a ’61 Les Paul Special. it was stolen, and I never brought another one. The Super V filled that space. I really loved that guitar. It sits on my wall now, and I don’t take it out, mostly because the case is too big to fit inside a plane and I don’t want to check it. But it’s a very serious go-to guitar for me when I record. I use it for one side on my heavier rhythm tracks. I’ve also used it for solos too. It’s an underrated guitar.
George Lynch picks his top-three all-time ESP Signature Series models. Top to bottom: the ESP Kamizake-1 (still available today), the ESP GL-56, and the ESP GL Super V.
Do you purposefully choose different guitars to use in individual projects like Lynch Mob versus Ultraphonix versus KXM, or is it just whatever each song calls for?
I do very little planning with any projects, whether it’s The Banishment, Ultraphonix, KXM, Lynch Mob, or even the Dokken recordings we did. It’s pretty much shooting from the hip, off the cuff, looking at the wall and thinking, “What amps are called for now? What effects? What’s working or not working?” If something’s not working, try something else.
On a more traditional rock album, I have a thing I do all the time. I like to build rhythm tracks in a certain way. If I’m doing something unorthodox like Ultraphonix, I’ll do things I normally don’t do, like using small combos, different guitars and so on. On Ultraphonix, I used an interesting ESP called the Ultratone. I used it just because of the name Ultra and it worked.
You’ve reached the point as a musician that you have a very identifiable technique, which is kind of the ultimate compliment to a player. A producer can say, “You should try a George Lynch thing on this solo,” and guitarists know what that means. Based on that, do you ever feel any pressure to create songs and solos based on other people’s expectations?
Not really. I don’t have to try hard to be myself.
Whatever style I’ve developed has happened over decades. It’s not really a conscious thing. I couldn’t turn it off if I wanted to. In fact, the worst thing I can do is try to do that. If I think too much, I get in my own way. So, I’ve come up with ways to write and be consistent. There have been times where I’ve started overthinking things and it became a serious problem. I’ve learned slowly how to deal with that. It makes me a lot happier. I can go out and have fun every night and enjoy myself and hopefully the crowd enjoys it as well. I always want to do good work.
What separates ESP from other guitar manufacturers?
I can only speak to my experience with ESP, which is almost 40 years with the company now. For me, subjectively, ESP is like Cold Stone Creamery.
If you can dream it, they can cream it!
They’ve been flexible enough, and willing enough, to entertain a lot of my ideas, and then to actually build those guitars. To their credit, sometimes, my ideas are not that great. We’ve built some dogs. We once built a 7-string guitar with a motorized pickup.
The noise from the pickup motor ended up being amplified, so more of the sound of the motor was coming through the signal chain than the sound of strings. And it was slow. It took like 15 seconds to move from the bridge to the neck, all the while going WHRRRRRRRR. It was hilarious. It was worth making it just for the comedy. I wanted to use this guitar live, but I couldn’t really engage the button to make the pickup move while I was playing, so I said, “Can we make a footswitch for this?” and they actually did.
That all seems very ‘Spinal Tap’, honestly.
But other ideas obviously worked out. With the Kamikaze, that was an afternoon at ESP in Tokyo. Me, Matt (Masciandaro, ESP president and CEO), all of their engineers just riffing and brainstorming. It ended up being an iconic guitar that was an alchemy of great ideas working together.
As a player and writer of music, you’ve been influenced by other players, as we all are. I know you listened a lot to the original heroes of guitar like Hendrix, Clapton and Beck, but do you still keep your ears open for newer players and styles that might inspire you?
Without a doubt. I couldn’t say that I catalog them and can tell you who they are. I don’t know all the bands and players' names. But for example, I’m on Instagram and there all these incredible younger players I’m meeting every day.
I did a clinic in Canada not long ago with Tosin Abasi, and also did stuff with Javier Reyes, both from Animals As Leaders and amazing players. Fredrik Thordendal from Meshuggah… he’s a monster. He’s a giant. There are innumerable people who are fascinating to watch.
I think we’ve turned a huge corner in music, and we’re in wonderful hands. These guys are incorporating old stuff, things are done in really good taste. It’s not like the late ‘80s shred era. These are real deep players incorporating wonderful blues, bebop, and more. It’s inventive stuff that blows my mind. It’s a brave new world now.
Guitars are usually judged on three broad categories: looks, tone, and feel. What’s most important to you when you’re approaching a new guitar design?
At the earliest phases, you’re never gonna know what the feel and tone is like. The only thing you’ll be certain about is the look. Tone, you can be somewhat certain about, but it’s still a crap shoot. Generally, there are some rules that tend to work, such as lighter guitars tend to resonate more. Things like that.
What you can’t really predict is how a guitar feels, and that is such an important thing. It’s a mix of all these elements that you can’t put your finger on. I’ve put together guitars before that on paper should work, and for one reason or there other just don’t. I just gotta say, like most players, I appreciate the old stuff quite a bit. Those time-tested, greasy, mojo instruments have everything. That’s what I try and replicate now when I design guitars.
With projects like the Shadow Nation film and various music you’ve been involved in, you’ve not shied away from using your musical art and your popular profile to help call attention to causes you deem worthy. Should musicians and other creative people — visual artists, sculptors, whatever — feel a responsibility to take on that role?
I think it’s an important part of the role as a human being, living and breathing on planet Earth. It’s especially true for an artist who has a pulpit and a vehicle to get the message out there. I think beyond that, people have a responsibility that the message conforms to reality, and that logic amends reason. Otherwise we’re screwed. The only reason people wouldn’t do it is based on selfishness and fear.
Final question: every musician hits a plateau at some point where no matter what they do, they seem to have hit a rut and they’re not really improving. Any advice to push people past that point?
First off, I don’t want to agree to the premise that reaching a point of stasis is a bad thing or negative thing. If you’re arrived at yourself, that’s really the goal.
Now, if you’re not comfortable in your own skin and you’re destined to evolve, then yes, it is a challenge. I don’t think there’s any one particular way to get past a plateau. There are many different ways of learning and adapting. Some people learn theory and get out of it that way.
For me personally, I’ve done a couple of things. One way is to put the instrument down and walk away, and then come back with a new perspective. Sure, you’ll be a little rusty, but when you come back a month later, you’re literally a different person. Different molecules. Cells are dying and being replaced. That can help to change things.
And then, the next step is to not go back to the same things. It’s like they say to drug addicts: change your environment. Don’t hang around the same people. Don’t listen to the same music.
A third thing, just for me personally. The key to unlocking strong doors is through my equipment. If I wanna go somewhere else, I’ll let the gear take me there. Plug in a strange pedal, or a weird amp, or another guitar. It takes me to places where I am open about new possibilities and options.
George Lynch is currently and/or recently making music with Lynch Mob, Ultraphonix, KXM, Sweet & Lynch, and others. Keep up with him via his website.