The Great Explorers: The Top 10 Masters of the Gibson Explorer
On paper, the Gibson Explorer looks pretty simple: mahogany body (after an initial run of Korina models in the late ’50s), 24.75” scale length, 22 frets, two humbucking pickups ... when you look at it that way, it almost reads like it could be an SG or Les Paul. But the Explorer is much more than the sum of its parts. Its increased body mass aids the guitar’s punchy tone, while its asymmetrical outline is deceptively well-balanced. Its playability is as ideal for complex heavy metal rhythm styles as it is for blues-rock lead work. And it looks unbelievably cool.
Here are 10 masters of the Gibson Explorer.
10. Matt Heafy (Trivium)
The Trivium guitarist and vocalist is often seen with a Les Paul, but when he really wants to get dark and heavy he straps on a white 7-string Explorer with active EMG humbuckers. Fan interest in Heafy’s custom Explorer was intense, and soon a Gibson USA 7-string Explorer appeared for everyone to get their hands on. Heafy puts the 7-string to good use on Kirisute Gomen in this live video.
9. Pete Willis (Def Leppard)
Original Def Leppard guitarist Willis was a key part of the band’s original New Wave of British Heavy Metal (NWOBHM) sound on the albums On Through the Night and High 'N' Dry, and he was also there for part of their transition to the more radio-friendly pop-rock sound of Pyromania. Willis was dismissed from the band during the sessions but his work is still heard throughout.
8. Gary Moore
The late, great Moore featured a while Explorer on the cover of his Live at Monsters of Rock album and DVD in 2003, as well as playing it like a man possessed at the concert itself. Footage of Moore playing his Explorer on a fiery version of Free's Wishing Well (which he covered on Corridors Of Power in 1982) can be viewed here, while the guitar is put to a more shred-like use in the intro solo to End Of The World (below).
7. Eric Clapton
Clapton may not be the first player one thinks of when they hear the name “Explorer,” but for a time he played a modified 1958 Korina model with a shortened bass bout. There are various rumors about how this guitar came to be. One legend has it that when Clapton bought the guitar, he believed it was an original prototype, and was less than happy when he found out that it had been modified after the fact. Another version of the story is that the guitar took a nasty bump and Clapton had it reshaped. Gibson paid tribute to this ultra-rare axe with a limited edition reproduction in 2001. Clapton also used a non-truncated Explorer at the A.R.M.S concert in 1983 for this performance.
6. Dave Grohl (Foo Fighters)
The ever-affable Foo Fighters frontman (and of course drummer for Nirvana and Them Crooked Vultures) has slung an Explorer for many a live show, not to mention using a white Explorer to record much of 1999’s There Is Nothing Left To Lose. A black Explorer can be seen in the video for that album’s “Breakout.”
5. Brendon Small (Dethklok)
The Dethklok mastermind chose the Explorer as the weapon of choice for both himself and the fictional Skwisgaar Skwigelf due to its aggressive metal styling, and souped it up with a pair of EMG humbuckers for further metal cred. In Small’s hands the same basic guitar that Gary Moore used for such sweet blues melodies becomes a sweep-picking, riff-chunking, finger-shredding beast. Small’s latest Explorer is the Thunderhorse, which boasts Burstbucker pickups and a Silverburst finish. It remains to be seen whether Skwigelf will switch to the Thunderhorse too – he uses a regular model in the lesson video below.
4. James Hetfield (Metallica)
Heftield has played many different guitars throughout his career, but the Gibson Explorer has popped up at numerous times, including the “So What” guitar – so named after stickers placed on the body – and “Rusty,” a 1976 Explorer refinished in black with a tarnished metal pick guard, which was featured prominently in the video for the title track from St. Anger (below).
3. Allen Collins (Lynyrd Skynyrd)
The Lynyrd Skynyrd guitarist was a dedicated Firebird user for quite a while, but once he took to the ’58 Korina Explorer around the mid-’70s, he and the guitar – which featured a modified bridge and a Maestro vibrola – seemed inseparable. A limited edition of 100 replicas was made by Gibson in 2003, featuring ’57 Classic humbucking pickups. Here’s Skynyrd playing Freebird in 1976, featuring Collins and his Explorer.
2. The Edge (U2)
The legendary U2 guitarist found that he didn’t quite like the sound of his Explorer’s lower strings, so he tended to stay away from those notes in favor of the more sonorous treble region – and thus, a style was born. In 1982, he told U2 Magazine (edition #3), “I picked up this secondhand Explorer and played around on it for a while. It was just so naturally good, and it felt right, so I bought it. It was quite cheap as well, about 450 dollars. A lot of people look at it and think it’s one of the originals but it’s one of the ’76 limited edition reissue models.” The Edge used his Explorer up until the recording of the October album, and later returned to it – as you can see in the video for Beautiful Day.
1. Mattias Jabs (Scorpions)
The Scorpions legend became so identified with the Explorer that at one point in the late ’80s, Jabs designed a model with Gibson called the Explorer 90 (being 90% of the size of a regular explorer). It was available in two 24-fret models, one with a Tune-o-Matic bridge with lightning bolt anchor and another with a Steinberger KB-X tremolo bridge.