Gibson launched the Flying V and Explorer models simultaneously in 1958, as part of the company’s Modernist range. Fifty-four years on, the two guitars still dazzle. But in 1958, they were utterly revolutionary - guitars had never looked like this before.
The Firebird and the mysterious Moderne were also part of the Modernist range, but the Flying V and Explorer immediately turned heads. 1950s automobiles and aeronautical design was a big influence – the USA’s chrome-laden cars then boasted big angular fins, jet airplanes were the new “wow”, while the Soviet Union’s 1957 Sputnik rocket design was sci-fi fantasymade real.
Gibson’s original Flying V and Explorer were, in many ways, very similar. Two Gibson humbuckers, plus a Tune-o-matic bridge. There were originally just 3 pots – 2 volumes and 1 tone. There were no carved tops as on a Gibson Les Paul. Yet both the Flying V and the Explorer remain in Gibson’s line to this day, a testament to Gibson’s 1950s design team for some serious “outside the box” thinking.
But which do you prefer? Let’s discuss some merits of each…
Gibson Flying V
Design: The Flying V is arguably the more “complete” design concept, or at least the more complete image. There’s the V body shape, the V headstock and – on original models – the V-shaped thru-string tailpiece, and on the back of the ’58 V, even the strings passed through to V-aligned ferrules. [That said, the original prototype body was a literal triangle, with no cut-out on the lower bouts.] But at 44-inches length in total, some find the Flying V unwieldy. And it can be hard to play sitting down, unless you wedge one of the fins between your legs, which then tip up the angle of the neck.
Playability and sound: The best Flying Vs play wonderfully, and with its body shape the access to top frets is unrivalled. Flying Vs have a lively acoustic ring and good sustain, despite the apparent lack of wood. They are often associated with metal, but are also great for blues – let the late, great Albert King prove it.
Players: The V wins probably wins here. The Kinks’ Dave Davies, Kirk Hammett, Judas Priest’s, K.K. Downing, No Doubt’s Tom Dumont, J. Geils, Billy 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 and Michael Schenker have all played Gibson Flying Vs. And Michael’s elder brother, the Scorpions’ Rudolf Schenker, owns over 100 Flying Vs. More Gibson Flying V here.
Design: The Explorer is still stunning – hey, it kinda looks like a lightning bolt! Early designs had a “reverse V-shape” 3+3 headstock, but Gibson soon changed to the so-called “hockey stick” 6-a-side design you now know, and one that has been copied by many other manufacturers. Despite the headstock “droop”, nut-to-tuner string angle remains good. The Explorer is another big guitar: when Gibson and The Scorpions’ guitarist Matthias Jabs co-designed the Explorer 90, it was so-named because it was 90 per cent the body size of a regular Explorer, to make Jabs’ live life easier.
Playability and sound: The bigger expanse of wood in an Explorer makes for a highly resonant, sustaining sound with plenty of chunk and bite. Higher-fret access is also superb. You can hold the neck and then “wobble” the upper bass-bout with your elbow for off-the-cuff subtle vibrato. Again, the Gibson Explorer is normally associated with metal guitarists and highly-overdriven tones… until you remember U2’s Edge invented his chiming delay-driven sound on a ’76 Gibson Explorer.
Players: The Gibson Explorer has many fans, including Dave Grohl, The Edge of U2, Weezer’s Rivers Cuomo, Static-X’s Wayne Static, James Hetfield, Eric Clapton, Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Allen Collins, Gary Moore and KISS’s Paul Stanley – all have famously rocked Gibson Explorers.
When it comes down to it, Gibson’s Ted McCarty and his design team got both right. Some other makers derided these Gibsons as “novelties” when launched, but 54 years on both are still going strong, and each has their fervent fans. Some of the latest twists on Flying V and Explorer classics include the Grace Potter Signature Flying V and the Gibson Explorer Baritone.
But which do you prefer, the Gibson Flying V or the Gibson Explorer? Does anyone own both?