Gibson launched the Flying V and Explorer models in 1958, as part of the company’s Modernist range. Fifty-six years on, the two remain stunning examples of guitar design. They are “rock'n'roll meets The Jetsons” (thanks for that soundbite, Mr Billy F. Gibbons!) and remain two of the most radical guitars ever made and still made.

Here we go for some geeky facts and trivia for lovers of Gibson guitars that look like weapons from outer space...

1. In 1957, Gibson’s President and chief designer Ted McCarty had an eye on the ‘50s tailfins of automobiles by Cadillac and Chrysler when he designed the V and Explorer. Guitars inspired by cars!

2. Early Gibson prototypes of the V had the’ V’ sides but a rounded Gibson Les Paul-alike rear bout. These were simply too heavy, so the V-shape cut-out was developed. “One of the design team guys said, “that looks like a flying vee,” recalled McCarty. “The name just stuck.”

3. Gibson’s Flying V was first shown in the 1958 Gibson catalogue where it was listed at $247.50, the same price as a Les Paul Standard.

4. When a 17-year-old David Howell Evans (U2's Edge, to everyone else) went into Manny’s Music store in NYC in 1976, he was looking to buy a Gibson Les Paul or a Rickenbacker. “But then I picked up this Gibson Explorer. It just spoke to me. I knew that using this guitar could get an odd reaction as no-one was playing them back then. It’s an odd-looking thing. But it sounded just right for me, it had 'my sound' in it. And it was only $450.” Add an E-H Memory Man pedal, and the fledgling U2 suddenly had that sound. And they soon had a song called “Out Of Control,” on their first EP.

5. 1958-1959 Flying Vs command huge value in the vintage guitar market, over $250,000 for pristine ones. It's due to sheer rarity. Gibson built just 81 Flying Vs in 1958, and only 17 in 1959.

6. Blues maestro Lonnie Mack started using a Gibson Flying V immediately from the guitar's launch in 1958. Mack called his V “Seven” as it was the seventh off the production line.

7. Mack added a Bigsby vibrato to his V, which made it look rather odd. But his use of his Bigsby-loaded Flying V maybe affected guitar lingua franca . Vibrato arms were known as just that before Mack’s ’63 album Wham. Due to Mack’s extensive usage of his Bigbsy-loaded Flying V, bridge vibrato systems gradually became known as “whammy bars.”

8. Blues legend Albert King was another early adopter of the Gibson Flying V. His first V was a korina wood ’59 and some King historians claim it was his first electric guitar… in his early career, King was a drummer.

King called all his Vs “Lucy”. His upside-down left-handed style was unique, using a minor tuning of C♯-G♯-B-E-G♯-C♯ (but hardly ever using the sixth string). ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons gave King a custom-made replica V as a 65th birthday present.

9. The craziest fact about Albert King’s original Vs and V copies? Three are now owned by Steven Seagal – the action-movie star is a major guitar collector. Seagal told Vintage Guitar, “There’s a rumor that Albert lost [his original V] in a craps game in the late ’60s. Whether at the game itself or as a debt he paid later, this guitar went for $2,500. The person who bought it was supposed to hang on to it – he promised never to sell it. So it disappeared for more than 20 years, hidden in Memphis. But I knew who had it, and found him. I’ve kept it quiet for many years; not many have seen it.

“I think it is the most important blues guitar in the world, period, and it’s the best-sounding V around – a voice from another planet. It has the most amazing tone and it has all of Albert’s energy in it. It’s one of my greatest treasures. I have Stevie Ray Vaughan’s Gibson Firebird with the personally-carved names of Stevie, Albert King, and Muddy Waters, but this one is much more important.”

Here's Albert King on his Gibson Flying V.

10. Apparently, only 22 Gibson Explorers shipped in 1958 had gold-plated hardware. The later models had nickel. 1976-onwards reissues are sought after – because the originals are so rare.

11. Early Gibson Explorers and Vs had a reverse-V shaped 3+3-strings 'Split' headstock. The Explorer's was soon changed to the so-called “hockey stick” design we know today... and copied by many other manufacturers

12. But in 2001 Gibson produced limited editions of Eric Clapton's modified 1958 Explorer. The Explorer Clapton Cut featured a shortened bass bout that allows more comfortable arm positioning and the Explorer Split Headstock, a faithful recreation of the original 1958 korina Explorer.

13. The Scorpions' Matthias Jabs worked with Gibson to produce his own “Explorer 90” model – named so because it was 90% the body size of a regular Explorer. Jabs is 5-foot 8-inches tall and wanted a more manageable-size guitar.

14. German rockers The Scorpions really like their Flying Vs and Explorers. Rudolph Schenker is Flying V crazy. He owns over 60 Gibson Flying Vs, including three 1958s, three '67-'69s, two '71 Medallions, three '83 reissues of the '58, four ‘80s models, as well as a few of his own '84 Rudolf Schenker Signatures, a custom double-neck Custom double-neck V and more.

15. You want practical ponderences? You can stand a Gibson Flying V up against a wall with no guitar stand and it won't fall over. But many find a Gibson Flying V difficult to play sitting down. A Gibson Explorer is easier to play sitting down, with its body contour... but you'll definitely need a guitar stand. Otherwise, it will just crash to the ground. Choices, huh?

16. Metallica's Kirk Hammett paid for his black Gibson Flying V by washing dishes in a bum job. “it's either a '74 or '75. It was my first Gibson, and it was $450. I played it in Exodus, and then I went on to play it on the first four Metallica albums and the accompanying tours. I don't take it out on the road anymore... it's really fragile now because of the weather and traveling.”

Kirk Hammett Flying V

17. Gold is in vogue! Mastodon's Bill Kelliher's Gibson “Golden Axe” Explorer uses the best tonewoods but with added bling. Halestorm's Lzzy Hale has a white Explorer with gold scratchplate. Watch her video for Total Guitar.


18. The Kinks' Dave Davies is a famous Flying V player from the 1960s. But because Flying Vs were relatively unpopular in the 1960s, he got his for just £60.

19. Jimi Hendrix owned at least three Gibson Flying Vs. Two were right-handed – a 1969 tobacco sunburst and a 1967, originally black, that Jimi himself painted to become his so-called “Psychedelic V.” The third was a left-hander, built for Jimi by Gibson in 1969.

20. Jimi’s “Psychedelic V” remains iconic, but it had a bizarre journey. In January 1969, Jimi gifted the V to Mick Cox of Eire Apparent, an Irish band who toured with Hendrix. Cox decided to strip the guitar of Jimi’s nail-varnish paintings (whoops!) and later sold it to Ken Hensley of U.K. rockers Uriah Heep. It ended up with U.K. session musician Dave Brewis, who restored it to its old glory in 1999. This guitar, alongside pictures of Jimi’s “original”, was used by the Gibson Custom Shop to make a run of just 300, the artwork done by artist Bruce Kunkel.

Jimi Hendrix book cover

21. Gibson's Government Series II Explorer is unique – made with woods originally/wrongly “seized by the Feds.” With loud Dirty Fingers p'ups, this rocker will give everyone the middle finger.

22. In 1981 Gibson introduced a Flying V bass, making just 375. Originals are again very rare.

23. The Jason Hook M-4 Sherman Explorer is a unique twist on a classic by the Five Finger Death Punch/Alice Cooper guitarist. With an extended cutaway and graphics, it makes an Explorer look even more radical.

24. The Brendon Small Snow Falcon Flying V just may be the most stunning Gibson Flying V you'll ever see. Read the spec, of course as it's a great guitar. But just look at its whiteness! It's the “iRock” of guitars....

Brendon Small

25. Remember that Chrysler car inspiration for the Flying V and Explorer at the beginning? Gibson's Ted McCarty eventually persuaded Chrysler design legend Raymond H. Dietrich out of retirement to design the Gibson Firebird. It helped that Dietrich lived in Kalamazoo, then HQ of Gibson.

26. The Who's Pete Townshend was given a 1958 Gibson Flying V by The Eagles' Joe Walsh circa 1975. This guitar was used by Townshend on The Who by Numbers. Townshend also poses with his Flying V on the cover of solo album All The Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes. (Be honest, that's not album title/artwork that would be released in 2014.) Townshend sold this Flying V in the late 1980s. Why? “To buy a boat.”

Pete Townshend

27. Awww, an unloved baby! The 1958-'59 Gibson Explorer originally bombed in music stores. It's a radical shape even now, so it's not hard to see why. Gibson guitar historian Walter Carter puts it simple: “The Explorer was a commercial disaster.” But not now...

28. Original ' 50s Gibson Flying Vs and Explorers had bodies made of korina wood. What's that? Korina is quite like mahogany, but lighter in color and brighter sounding. It's native to west Africa and sometimes known as Limba. For all you keen horticulturalists, its genus tree name is “Terminalia superba.” Which kinda sounds like something ending brilliantly!
Read this for a hyper-guitar-geek guide to Korina. Korina has been used on Gibson Flying Vs and Explorers at various times.

29. Want even more radical? Track down the limited edition Gibson Holy Explorer, from 2009. It has holes in it. Less wood, same money. Genius? Or madness? You decide.


30. Want a quick face-off between Gibson Flying V vs Gibson Explorer players? Here's a very brief guide to famous fans.

Gibson Flying V fans: The Kinks’ Dave Davies, Kirk Hammett, Judas Priest’s, K.K. Downing, No Doubt’s Tom Dumont, J. Geils, Billy F. Gibbons, Jimi Hendrix, Albert King, Lenny Kravitz , Grace Potter, Lonnie Mack, Rick Nielsen, Nickelback’s Ryan Peake and Chad Kroeger, Wishbone Ash’s Andy Powell, Keith Richards, Brendon Small, Rudolph and Michael Schenker and more...

Gibson Explorer fans: Dave Grohl, The Edge of U2, Weezer’s Rivers Cuomo, Lzzy Hale, Static-X’s Wayne Static, Matthias Jabs, James Hetfield, Eric Clapton, Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Allen Collins, Jason Hook, Gary Moore and KISS’s Paul Stanley. And more also...

Of course it's OK to love both. Please Disquss your personal Gibson Flying V and Gibson Explorer stories.