samick_logo.jpg (1500 bytes) SKULLS & SNAKES VIPER


And now let's plunge in one of the rarest Heavy Metal instruments I've added to my collection ever!

As told by Rick Clapper, the Samick Piano Co. was established in Korea in 1958 and, by January of 1960 they had started to produce upright pianos, and within four years became the first Korean piano exporter. One year later, in 1965, they started to produce guitars, and by the early 1970s expanded again to produce grand pianos and harmonicas as well. In 1973, the company incorporated as the Samick Musical Instruments Manufacturing Company, in order to reflect the diversity it encompassed. Unstoppable, Samick continued to expand into guitar production opening a branch in Los Angeles, USA in 1978, a brand new guitar factory in 1979, and a branch office in West Germany in 1980. Throughout the 1980s, Samick continued to grow, prosper and win several awards for quality products and productivity. The Samick Products Company was established in 1986 as an affiliate producer of other musical products, and was listed on the Korean Stock Exchange in September 1988. During the 1990s, it acquired Valley Arts, an American guitar company known for its one-of-a-kind instruments and custom guitars and whom together also developed, among other innovations, the "Articu-Fret", a crowning process for fretting guitars which contributes to precision in intonation and the "Scarf-Joint", an specially designed rear scoop for easier upper fret access. This merger stabilized Valley Arts as the custom shop wing of Samick, as well as supplying Samick with quality American designed guitars' reputation. Samick constantly continues to expand their line of guitar models through the use of innovative designs, partnerships with high exposure endorsees (like Blues Saraceno and Ray Benson) and new projects such as the Robert Johnson Commemorative and the D'Leco Charlie Christian Commemorative guitars. Samick distributes their guitar lines into the US market by the Samick Music Corporation, located at 18521 City of Industry, California.

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Came to no surprise that the Samick Music Corporation, with homebase in Korea, had been acknowledged (as from 1965) by reputed American and Japanese manufacturers (Samick's "phantom building" list of customers includes ESP, Washburn, Schecter, Westone, Ibanez and countless others) as the most capable Asian guitar builder and they have turn to Samick, during many years, to outsource the manufacturing of their own lines, thus converting Samick in the world's largest guitar maker during past decades. By way of example, the Samick corporation made 50% of the total aggregate number of manufactured guitars, worldwide, in 1997. From there, this corporation yearly produces over a million guitars every year under their own or third party brands, as noted. That fact alone makes sense when you approach to a Samick guitar and check on its quality. Why not go to where guitar makers go to? After all, you'll be owning the "original" make, hopefully for less money, since this kind of industrial productivity monstrously impact on manufacturing costs, being therefore Samick able to offer reasonable high quality for reduced prices to a global market, political and economic considerations aside (Yeah Ed, this is supposed to be a page on electric guitars, not on political propaganda).

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This particular model, pertaining to the first run of the Alternative Series (which comprised the Aurora -KJ540-; the Hawk -KR564 GPE-; the Nightbreed -KR645 GPS- and the Viper -KR564 GPSK- and was discontinued in 1994, after a very short life span).

From there, a few problems arose: To start with, determining which model is this one out from those three and from there, to establish beyond reasonable doubt if this was a prototype or a production model. Luckily for me, both answers were provided by friend Richard Weiss, who posed these queries to the Samick Music Corp [] himself last Thursday, August 01, 2002 2:32 PM. Here's their answer from the manufacturer: "Hello Richard, It has been a while since I've seen one of these guitars. It was last made in the late 80's. This model is called the viper model # KR-564gpsk It has a solid alder arch top, maple neck with rosewood fretboard, locking nut, 2 single coil and 1 humbucker pick-up and the viper graphics. There was approximately 2500 units sold. I saw one sell on E-bay for 600.00 about 2 years ago...". Once having that established, I confirmed my ideas that the KR564 GPSK Viper was made in the mid to late 80's and was the first commercial guitar (not prototype! that came as a surprise!) to feature the infamous "Skulls & Snakes motif", which latter became trademark of Dokken's and Lynch Mob's heavy metal extraordinaire George Lynch. Notwithstanding, onto this guitar these custom graphics are not just painted, but CARVED and painted instead. I've got to admit that is indeed surprising to find this kind of craft on any guitar today, regardless of price range. As far as I can tell, this job was not done using fillers, epoxy or special painting or profiling materials, but true painstaking hand (or at most carefully machine) carving instead, chiseling relevant details on the graphic pattern, creating 3D trimmings and profiling contours (e.g. sword's grips and blades, snake's rings, eyes, fangs and rattles, saliva drops, inter alia) that greatly enhance the motif itself. During the same period, Samick also offered this kind of craftsmanship to third parties, as could be appreciated, for example, in the Westone Spectrum ST Double Neck and some others.

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As you can see for yourself from these pictures, the graphic motif on both the ESP and the Samick are virtually identical, including each and every minor detail, exception made by the eye balls on the front skull [which shouldn't have anyway -after all if is dead dontyathink? ;)]. As you would also appreciate on this very same page, ESP models are even not consistent with one another, since the overall quality of the graphics on the custom shop models of this very same guitar (the George Lynch Series "Skulls'n'Snakes) vary substantially. Please also consider that when we refer to the "ESP" guitar on this page, we're not exactly talking about George Lynch's own model, since some differences do exist between Lynch's own instrument and the one nowadays offered by ESP. To start with (and as easily notable from, say, covers of popular guitar magazines such as Young Guitars (January 1995 Japanese issue); Guitar for the Practicing Musician (May 1990 US issue) or Guitar World (November 1990 US issue) George's guitar has a headstock almost identical to the one featured on the "Serpent" model, but not reversed; has regular abalone "dot" inlayed fretboard (yeah, no "Skulls & Swords") and pickups are custom wounded Seymour Duncans. It wouldn't be shocking to discover that body wood is not Alder either (Maple?), but at George's usual stage levels, that's hard to assess anyway.

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Is indeed obvious to me that, by the time Samick got to replicate this labour for the first 2,500 USD ESP "Skulls and Snakes" George Lynch models, the craft borrowed heavily from this original model, but at that point lots of "luxuries" were eliminated: The sleek, sensually contoured body (which strongly reminds me of an Ibanez "S" model yet slightly thicker, but way thinner than the ESP model anyway) was replaced by a plain, flat, standard Strat shape; all the hand carved graphic enhancements disappeared, being the theme now just painted onto the body, 24 frets became 22, birdseye maple on neck was just replaced by plain maple, and binding was gone forever. 


On the other side, fingerboard inlay became more complex, and the middle pickup was removed along with the 5 way switch and two pots, further enhancing the presence of the graphics on the guitar (as you'll easily note, then the "eye balls" on the front skull were introduced, something impossible in the previous KR645 GPS due to space requirements). Guess we'll never know what George Lynch initially thought or ordered, but aside of being a thunderous instrument (statement equally true for the ESP) this guitar features impeccable craftsmanship and high end details, something that truly presents a difference.


One way or the other, the Samick Viper KR-564 rips as a lead guitar. Being extremely aggresive (something you would certainly expect by its looks), this guitar is perfect for fingerboard acrobatics and rock leads. If that wasn't enough, is also an extremely comfortable player, weighless and sleek. The original pickup (some Seymour Duncan poplar model, presumably a JB) will keep most players satisfied for life, and the 3 humbucker (although Samick remebered this instrument as H/S/S, the top and middle pickups are 4 conductor single coil sized humbuckers), 5 way selector renders this scary thing into a versatile rock instrument (that means lots of sounds for a limited array of styles). Since this page covered both the ESP and Samick instruments, please see the comparison chart below to refine your choice:

Shared characteristics and "differences" with the ESP Skulls & Snakes are self explanatory:

  Samick Skulls & Snakes Hand Carved Viper ESP Skulls & Snakes
Construction / Scale Bolt on / 25.1". Contoured Top. Angled headstock*. Bolt on / 25.5". Flat top. Angled reversed headstock.
Body Alder Alder
Neck / Fingerboard Birdseye Maple / Rosewood Maple / Rosewood
Inlays Sharkfins (Plastic) Skulls & Swords (Plastic)
Hardware All Black. 6 in line Samick enclosed tuners, 16:1 ratio. All Black. 6 in line enclosed unbranded  tuners, 16:1 ratio.
Bridge Original Floyd Rose*, recessed cavity. Original Floyd Rose, recessed cavity.
Binding Double bound body and neck profiling. None
Frets 24 Dunlop XJ 22 Dunlop XJ
Pickups Seymour Duncan (which I changed by a Di Marzio DP100F recently), and two SH (ESP SH 100?)* Seymour Duncan TB 12 on bridge, ESP SH 100 at neck.
Electronics 1 Volume with "push pull" for bridge pickup split, two tone controls, 6 way selector 1 Volume with "push pull" pickup selector
Standard Colors and Finishing Hand carved motif with Skulls and Snakes Custom Graphics Skulls & Snakes Custom Graphics

* Instruments pertaining to the last runs of production, 1994 had straight headstock, with a different headstock style (please see headstock close-up above) and also featured unbranded Floyd Rose licensed tremolo units. All remaining features stayed the same.

* Even while this guitar or model in particular features an "original" Floyd Rose unit, I did find in the past similar instruments (pertaining to the last runs of production, please see headstock close-up above) which featured an unbranded licensed unit. It is worth mentioning that these "clone" units (obviously less desirable than the presumably original item) had a solid brass block, thus doing an exceptional job keeping sustain and enhancing overall tone. Do not disregard those either!

* Both pickups on the Samick and the ESP are unbranded, so is difficult to assess if both items are the same. In addition to that, not all manufactured models sport the same pickups. Further, and in order to assure myself, I examined closely the pickups on mine, vis--vis the Seymour Duncans, both pickups side to side. Presumably both of Asian manufacture, these pickups are roughly similar cosmeticallywise, both are 4 conductor single sized double rail humbuckers, ceramic and magnet mass is beyond similar on the two. Output measurement was equal (120 Mv) and in both guitars the pickups were wired in parallel, being therefore conservative to conclude that we are in presence of the same (or very, very similar) pickups. As noted, George Lynch guitar uses different pickups anyway, so the comparison only works for what you can actually procure in the market.