The Gibson Explorer: The Legacy Continues
Few would have predicted an illustrious history for the Gibson Explorer upon its initial launch back in 1958. Along with its close sibling, the Flying V, the Explorer was viewed with befuddlement by most players of the era. Sporting a radical design far removed from the subtle elegance for which Gibson was known, the Explorer was later described (along with the Flying V) by ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons as “rock ‘n’ roll meets The Jetsons.” But its day in the sun—a “day” that’s now well into its fifth decade—would come only later.
Gibson produced very few Explorers during that initial run, and indeed by 1963 the model had been discontinued. Estimates vary, but the original 1958 run of Korina-bodied instruments is thought to number less than 50. Notwithstanding the innovative body shape, the Explorer conformed to the classic Gibson specs established with the Les Paul models: two P.A.F humbuckers, a Tune-o-matic bridge, a 3-way selector switch and volume/volume/tone controls. A few early models sported a V-shaped headstock with the standard 3+3 tuner arrangement, but a defining characteristic of the Explorer quickly came to be its stylish, 6-a-side “hockey stick” head.
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In any case, after roughly a decade of lying dormant, the Explorer began mounting a phoenix-like rise in the early to mid ‘70s. Among its first champions was Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Allen Collins, who by the mid ‘70s was often seen playing a ’58 Korina model. When Gibson reintroduced the Explorer in 1976, its popularity soared even further. Among those who fell under its spell was U2’s The Edge, who played a ’76 Limited Edition model on much of the band’s early material. The U2 veteran stumbled upon the instrument while on vacation in New York City.
“I just picked it up in the store and it felt so great …,” The Edge recalled, speaking with the BBC. “I actually went in to buy … I think I was going to buy a Les Paul, but I just fell in love with this guitar. I brought it back and I was slightly like ... it's a little strange looking ... are the guys in the band going to look at it and go, 'What?’ [There were] a few strange looks for the first day, but everyone just loved the sound of it. I think it became like a signature look. No one else was playing Explorers at that point....”
Other players who’ve been captivated by the Explorer’s magic include Neil Young, Eric Clapton, Dave Grohl and Gary Moore. A host of hard rock and thrash-metal players have been drawn to the Explorer as well, including the Scorpions’ Matthias Jabs, Mastodon’s Bill Kelliher and Metallica’s James Hetfield. Hetfield’s favorites have included a 1984 model (nicknamed “More Beer”) and a ’76 reissue that he dubbed “Rusty.” After putting aside his Explorers for several years, Hetfield rediscovered the instrument’s glorious attributes while recording Metallica’s 2008 album, Death Magnetic.
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“I was inspired by this photographer who wanted to get an iconic picture of me with a somewhat iconic guitar,” Hetfield later told Guitar Player. “When I pulled out my early guitars—my old Kill ’Em All white Flying V copy and some of the Explorers—I rediscovered how well they played.”
Recent years have seen a new generation of players gravitate toward the Explorer as well. Among the younger set, Halestorm’s Lzzy Hale has been especially enthusiastic about her love for the instrument. In 2014, Gibson produced a Limited Edition Lzzy Hale signature model. “The Explorer [has become] my go-to guitar in all situations,” Hale told The Hub. “I love the shape of it. I love the feel of it. When you have it on, it just feels like it's a part of you.”
In summary, what initially appeared to be a flop of monumental proportions has proven to be one of the most coveted and enduring instruments in contemporary music. As part of its 2017 lineup, Gibson has pushed the Explorer legacy even further along—offering a choice between a High Performance model (for more cutting-edge minded players) and a Traditional model (for those more inclined toward stricter adherence to classic features).
In a word, the 2017 Explorers offer an array of features and options that keep one foot in tradition, while paying heed to the cutting edge spirit of many modern players. Click on the links below to learn more about the 2017 Explorers.
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Explorer 2017 HP