The year was 1957 and Fender was dominating the electric guitar market with their Stratocaster, Telecaster and Precision Bass models. Gibson had released the first Les Paul model five years prior, and despite receiving periodic updates throughout the early ‘50s, it failed to gain mainstream traction due to its price, weight, and the perception that it was an “old fashioned” guitar when compared to the lighter, more feature-packed offerings from Fender.
Gibson president and chief designer Ted McCarty knew his company would have to do something radical in order to stay relevant. In his own words:
“Fender was talking about how Gibson was a bunch of old fuddie-duddies, and when I heard that through the grapevine, I was a little peeved. So I said, “Let’s shake ’em up.” I wanted to come up with some guitar shapes that were different from anything else.”
And thus, alongside the Flying V and the often forgotten Moderne (not released until 1982), the pointy legend that is the Gibson Explorer was born.
A new star in a radical form: the Gibson Explorer is a much loved, much imitated guitar design. Here’s the story behind it’s individuality and epic sound.
The first Explorer prototypes (to be later dubbed ‘Futura’) were ready to be displayed at the July 1957 NAMM trade show (albeit without electronics) and differed only slightly from the final design – a more severe looking cutaway on a slightly narrower proportioned body (constructed from mahogany and later korina/African limba wood) and a V-shaped headstock being the main visual differences. The final Explorer design was settled on ’58*, and they soon began rolling out the first true Gibson Explorers.
A Cold Reception
Built entirely from korina and adorned with the Les Paul Custom’s gold hardware & Gibson’s humbucking pickups, the Explorer was, on paper, a very desirable guitar.
Unfortunately it proved to be too radical looking for it’s time. After only one year and less than fifty sales later, the Explorer was retired, with some of the leftover bodies later being finished with nickel hardware to be shipped in 1963. The Flying V however, despite being very similarly spec’d to the Explorer, was a moderate success, being quickly adopted by blues legends Albert King and Lonnie Mack.
Despite not pulling in huge sales numbers either, the V served to reignite interest in the Gibson brand, bring some life into their faltering name and keeping them afloat until they would release the immensely popular SG in 1961.
With the advent of hard rock in the late 60s, the rest of Gibson’s models had found a strong foothold due to their sound and feel when compared with their Fender counterparts. Fender were building their single-coil equipped guitars out of hard, bright sounding woods like alder and ash with 25.5” scale lengths for string tension and clarity.
Gibson’s offerings were predominately mahogany with a 24.75” scale length and equipped with humbuckers or P-90s sounded and felt fatter and looser: more in keeping with a heavier rock n roll style.
Gibson’s humbuckers were also playing a huge part in shaping the rock sound, due to their beefy sound and ability to handle high-gain amplifiers without excessive feedback and hum. Despite this, the Explorer itself didn’t get much of a look-in until the mid-1970s.
Cheap Trick’s Rick Nielsen is often credited as one of the first people to really show the Explorer some love. In 1974 – two years before Gibson considered giving the Explorer another life – Rick commissioned the very first Hamer guitar. It was to be built off of the discontinued Explorer’s plans, using Gibson hardware and electronics that Rick had salvaged from wrecked instruments.
This would be the first of many “Explorers” built by Hamer for Rick over the years.
In 1975, Japanese company Ibanez released their first Destroyer model – an exact emulation of the Explorer but with Japanese hardware and electronics. They continued to build them into the early 80s until Gibson decided to step in. This is when the iconic notch was added to the Destroyer’s lower section.
In 1976, Allen Collins of Lynyrd Skynyrd famously adopted an original ’58 Korina Explorer as his guitar of choice, showcasing it to 120,000 awe-struck people – many who had gone to see The Stones, all of whom left talking about Skynyrd – at the Knebworth Festival later that year.
Due to the increased interest in their bold design, in 1976 Gibson decided to release their first Explorer model in 13 years, constructed this time from mahogany instead of more exotic korina wood.
It was one of these 1976 models that a 17 year old David Evans – better known as U2’s “The Edge” – would pick up while in on holiday in New York in 1978. The appeal for him was two-fold. It featured a bold look, and the banana-shaped headstock meant the treble strings had slightly more tension on them than usual, which he was able to take advantage of for his unique playing style.
Between the late 70s and early 80s, the Explorer steadily gained wider traction with hard rock, punk and alternative bands, but it wasn’t until heavy metal came into the picture that the Explorer shape really found its home.
A Legend is Born
Between 1981-1984, Gibson updated the Explorer to cater to it’s new found fans. This new Explorer came standard with their new, high-output ‘Dirty Fingers’ pickups and optional Kahler tremolo system, making it well equipped for any burgeoning shredder.
The 1984-87 model saw some of the first major changes to construction materials in a long time too. The body and neck woods were occasionally swapped from mahogany to alder and maple, and the fretboard from rosewood to ebony. It was also styled with no pick guard and solid colour finishes for a bolder look.
One of these angular, block-white bodied and high-output pickup equipped beasts piqued the interest of a young James Hetfield, who decided to use it in it’s stock form to record his parts for Metallica’s 1984 epic, Ride The Lightning.
The world at large couldn’t help but take notice of the immense, crushing riffs coming from this pointy white axe, and the Explorer finally got it’s time in the sun.
Imitation: the Highest Form of Flattery?
By 1987, Hetfield had jumped ship to Japanese manufacturer ESP, who had built notoriety with their Navigator series of instruments which were almost exact replicas of the American models they were paying homage to.
ESP weren’t the only ones getting in on the action though; American guitar maker Jackson took inspiration from the Gibson Explorer and Flying V models with their Kelly and King V models respectively, tailoring them specifically for the metal crowd with their flatter, faster necks.
Unfortunately for Gibson, their inability to keep up with the changing market meant that they had soon lost the bulk of their Explorer sales to newer competing brands. They soon reverted to building the classic style of Explorer again, trying to win back the fans they had earned through the late 70s.
Throughout the subsequent epochs after the Explorer’s birth, this unique guitar has definitely left its mark. It cut a dramatic silhouette through various styles throughout the decades and found its natural home in the heavier side of rock.
With so many manufacturers paying the ultimate tribute to the Explorer by creating their own versions, the influence of the original looks set to continue long into the future.