Guitarists often like to describe their instruments as “axes.”
For Gibson Explorer players, though, that term feels almost literal.
Looking as much like a Viking war weapon as a musical instrument, the Explorer certainly turned heads upon its release in 1958. A striking departure from Fender’s Stratocaster or Gibson’s own Les Paul, it was supposed to be the guitar of the future. But, it turned out the Explorer was a bit too radical for the guitar buying public…
Today, we’re telling the story of how the Gibson Explorer came to be, how it crashed and burned, and was resurrected by a new generation of heavy guitar heroes.
Given how ubiquitous Gibson’s Les Paul design is these days, it’s hard to think of a time when it fell out of favor. But, that was exactly the case circa 1958. Thanks to his Strats, Teles and P-Basses, Leo Fender changed the electric guitar marketplace. And, rock ‘n’ rollers increasingly gravitated towards his sleek, ergonomically designed instruments.
Gibson, having dominated the electric market just five years ago, was facing going the way of the dinosaur. If they were to regain their foothold, they needed something radical.
In June 1957, Gibson filed three patents for three appropriately “radical” guitar designs. The first one, numbered 181,865, was the embryonic version of the Explorer, referred to as the “Futura.” The second patent was for what would become the Flying V, while the third was for the unproduced Moderne.
The “Futura” body bore the axe-like Explorer design, Humbucker pickups and a tune-o-matic bridge and tailpiece. But, some differences from the final Explorer were present. A split, V-shaped Headstock (not unlike that you’d see on Dean Guitars today) stood in place of the now-iconic “hockey stick” design. The body was also narrower, and featured no controls, pickguard or fingerboard markers.
By NAMM ’57, Gibson had a prototype of the Futura to show. And, by July 1958, hot on the heels of Gibson’s Flying V, the Explorer rolled off the Kalamazoo production line.
Announcing the Explorer in promo mag The Gibson Gazette, Gibson extolled the virtues of their new Korina Wood instrument:
"Gibson looks to the future and finds truly inspirational design ideas… We introduce you to a new star in the Gibson line, The Explorer, designed as companion instrument to the already famous Flying V. The impressive appearance of either modernistic guitar would be a real asset to the combo musician with a flair for showmanship. Engineering for both instruments is identical—they are dissimilar in shape only."
If the “combo musician with a flair for showmanship” sounds like a vague descriptor to you, then it probably did to Gibson as well. Because, while the instrument - from a design perspective - was a triumph for Ted McCarty and co, it wasn’t exactly clear whom it was for.
Radical in its design, the angularity and modern, straight lines of the Explorer left players cold. Gibson produced a mere 19 Explorers in 1958 – compared to the 434 units of their flagship model – the Les Paul. In 1959, it fared even poorer, shipping just three units. By 1963, the instrument was quietly shelved, with the less radical “SG” having revived Gibson’s fortunes.
By the mid-1960s, it looked like the Explorer wasn’t the guitar of the future after all. But, fortunes changed for axe-like instrument as a new generation of heavy guitar players chose to wield it.
For the likes of Cheap Trick, KISS and Bad Company the Explorer was the perfect foil. Hard rock, after all, demanded a hard instrument. With Gibson Explorers out of production, however, it was the likes of Hamer, with their Explorer-like “standard”, and Ibanez with their “lawsuit era” Destroyer, that reaped the rewards. Indeed, it was a Destroyer that Eddie Van Halen used on the first Van Halen album, ushering in a new generation of heavy music.
In 1976, Gibson tested the water with the release of a “Limited Edition” mahogany Explorer with gold hardware. And, by the end of the decade, the guitar returned to regular production.
Unlike the original Explorer, which was too futuristic for 1958, Gibson’s late 1970s Explorers were in the right place at the right time. Heavy metal was on the rise, and the Explorer fit the aesthetic perfectly. The perfect weapon for thrashers and shredders alike, Gibson updated the Explorer to cater to the new market, adding high-output “Dirty Fingers” pickups and an optional Kahler Tremolo system in 1981. The likes of Scorpions’ Mattias Jabs and Metallica’s James Hetfield soon adopted the instrument, finally cementing its place in rock ‘n’ roll history.
It took 20 years, but the Gibson Explorer finally found its market. Today it’s one of the enduring instruments in the Gibson line, and coveted by heavy metal maniacs the world over.
Do you play a Gibson Explorer? Have you ever tried a lawsuit-era copy, and what did you make of it? As always, share your stories in the comments.