The iconic Gibson Explorer was so far ahead of its time when it was first introduced in 1958. Gibson produced only about 100 of the famed instruments—many of which are now highly prized collectibles selling for upwards of half a million dollars. Today, the same far-out, futuristic Gibson Explorer—reintroduced in the mid-1970s—is one of the most coveted powerhouses of screaming rock and roll.
One of the best-known guitarists to make frequent use of the Gibson Explorer is Metallica’s James Hetfield. James started playing the Explorer after the neck on his Flying V copy snapped. The sharp edges of the Explorer’s design nicely complement Hetfield’s guitar playing style, which is built around heavy and fast, very precise riffs. Hetfield explained to GuitarPlayer how he came to be an Explorer fan: “My backup was a Gibson Explorer, but I didn’t play it much until the neck broke on my V. That’s what got me into the Explorer.”
The first Explorer James Hetfield would use frequently with Metallica was a 1984 model, nick named the “More Beer” Explorer because of a sticker on its body. Around the time of Metallica’s ‘Black Album,’ James switched to playing Explorer-lookalikes, because of a sponsor deal. But when it was time for Metallica to record their 2008 album Death Magnetic, Hetfield brought out his old Explorers and Flying Vs once more. The reason was a photo session that Hetfield did, as he explained to GuitarPlayer: “I was inspired by this photographer who wanted to get an iconic picture of me with a somewhat iconic guitar. 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.” It’s the ultimate testament that no matter how great a brand new instrument is, there is no comparing it to a guitar that’s been broken in on the road for the past 20 years.
Another Explorer that has seen a lot of use from Hetfield throughout the years is his ’76 reissue from the early nineties. The guitar has been nicknamed “Rusty,” from the rusty pickguard that Hetfield himself installed on the instrument.
On the complete opposite end of the spectrum from Metallica’s heavy riffs is U2, but no matter how unlikely, the two bands share a crucial piece of equipment: They both use Gibson Explorers. U2 guitarist The Edge created U2’s classic sound using a 1976 Gibson Explorer, an Electro Harmonix Memory Man Deluxe delay, and a VOX AC-30. In fact, The Edge and his Explorer was a major part of U2’s image in the band’s early years. The Edge talked about how he acquired the guitar on the BBC series The Story of the Guitar: “I just picked it up in the store and it felt so great, this is it. 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 gonna look at it and go 'what?'...there's 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, and so quite soon it became the thing we were famous for. Apart from a few other things obviously.”
The Edge has since retired the original Explorer from touring, but it is still very much used in the studio when U2 is recording new music. Even though its head broke off when The Edge threw it on stage in the mid-eighties they were able to repair it without losing its characteristics. U2 is a great example of a band that thinks outside the box, and are able to take a guitar that most associate with heavy metal, and have it represent something completely different. As The Edge said, the guitar simply spoke to him, its futuristic design something that fit perfectly with U2’s aspirations to create something new. The excellent sustain of the Explorer was crucial in creating the riffs that The Edge would come up with. A lot of his music is built around what’s not being played, letting the notes breathe and not simply playing a million notes a minute.
Check out the video below of U2 performing their first single “Out of Control” at the classic Red Rocks concert to hear The Edge’s Explorer in action: