The Gibson Exotics: The Explorer


Bryan Hillebrandt
Registered User
Joined: 03/13/09
Posts: 23
Bryan Hillebrandt
Registered User
Joined: 03/13/09
Posts: 23
11/05/2009 10:31 pm




This is the second installment in a three story series about the guitars known as Gibson Exotics: the Flying V, the Explorer, and the Firebird. This time we’ll look at the guitar that inspired a million pointy metal axes: the Explorer.

Like the Flying V , The Explorer was part of a line of guitars with a futuristic image designed by Gibson that intended to compete with the very popular Fender Stratocasters and Telecasters.
Perhaps the most adventurous body shape of the Exotics, the Explorer stood out as a radically different guitar among the guitars available at the time. It was originally designed under the name Futura. These were never issued, though Gibson did show them at the NAMM show in 1957.

The initial run of Explorers was actually quite small. There are no clear records of exactly how many Explorers were manufactured, but it is widely believed that the run produced fewer than 50 in total. Due to the rarity of these guitars, the original Explorers have become highly collectible.

The original Explorers—like the Flying Vs—were made of Korina wood and sported a blonde finish. Incidentally, Korina is a trademarked name for wood commonly known as African Limba. Korina is a beautiful hardwood with nice grain figures. Gibson finished these guitars to take advantage of the woods natural beauty.

Gibson reissued the Explorer in 1976 and of course there have been many variations and many models made by other companies. The guitar maker Hamer actually prompted Gibson to reissue the Explorer by making their own version, named the Hamer Standard, in 1974.

The Explorer and the guitars that were modeled on the Explorer attracted hard rock and heavy metal guitarists such as Mathias Jabs of the band Scorpions who is famous for favoring them and has even had a special version made for him by Gibson.

Since then, the Explorer body shape has taken on a life of its own and become almost a metal icon. Makers such as Dean, Jackson, and ESP have all made versions of the Explorer and modified it. Knowing that these guitars have a loyal following among metalheads, some makers have strived to make their versions look ever more menacing.

That Metallica’s James Hetfield also favors the Explorer and the various models based on them is not surprising. Hetfield owns several Gibson Explorers and has several ESP models that bear his name. One of the most iconic is his diamond plate, black ESP Explorer. Menacing indeed.

Next time we’ll finish our look at the exotics with a look at the Gibson Firebird.
# 1
thirdstoned
Registered User
Joined: 07/17/09
Posts: 6
thirdstoned
Registered User
Joined: 07/17/09
Posts: 6
11/06/2009 3:13 pm
Back in the mid-70's, friend and I purchase various guitars and parts from a retired guy who'd worked for Gibson in Kalamazoo in the 50's and 60's. At the time, I didn't know what an Explorer was (I was a total SG lover) but I bought from him an unfinished guitar that I now recognize as an Explorer. He referred to it just as an unfinished prototype and never called it an Explorer. I paid him 60 or 70 bucks for it.

Seems pretty odd to me; body & neck are joined and sanded, a beautiful stripey fingerboard is in place but not fretted (has fret slots and is drilled for dot markers) and control cavity is routed. Wood appears to me to be all mahogany (though I don't know what unfinished korina looks like).

Anyway, after 30 some years of hauling this thing around through various moves, it's remained untouched but now I'm finally gonna finish it into a complete guitar. Obviously, I can't say it's a Gibson; besides, I'm thinking of a fairly ludicrous loud metallic "hotrod" finish and possibly other non-standard accoutrements.

I'm still a bit hesitant though - A little voice in the back of my head claims I'm committing some kind of reckless "sacrilege". Two other vintage-freak pals think I should be jailed. I think it's just a potentially a great guitar and I'd like to play it an enjoy it - I don't see it as much beyond a conversation-piece in it's present state.

So, I guess, I'd like to get a few other viewpoints from the knowledgeable (and no-doubt opinionated!) readers here before I proceed. Any thoughts, anyone?? (I could also post a picture if someone tells me how to do so here)

anyway, thanks for reading - your comments/thoughts are most welcome - I submit myself to the "jury"....
# 2
TeleDeVille
Registered User
Joined: 04/24/09
Posts: 3
TeleDeVille
Registered User
Joined: 04/24/09
Posts: 3
11/06/2009 3:52 pm
3rd Stoned, it's yours to do with you what you wish, although I would reconsider the finish. I think it would bring great satisfaction to strap on a "new" guitar with that kind of heritage in it's soul.
I'm a little disappointed though that the article did not mention the most, if not exotic, then certainly enigmatic Gibson of that era, the Moderne. While I am not totally familiar with the facts regarding the production of this guitar, I thought they were known to exist prior the re-issue run of the early 80's.
# 3
thirdstoned
Registered User
Joined: 07/17/09
Posts: 6
thirdstoned
Registered User
Joined: 07/17/09
Posts: 6
11/06/2009 5:18 pm
Originally Posted by: TeleDeVille3rd Stoned, it's yours to do with you what you wish, although I would reconsider the finish. I think it would bring great satisfaction to strap on a "new" guitar with that kind of heritage in it's soul.
I'm a little disappointed though that the article did not mention the most, if not exotic, then certainly enigmatic Gibson of that era, the Moderne. While I am not totally familiar with the facts regarding the production of this guitar, I thought they were known to exist prior the re-issue run of the early 80's.


Thanks for the input DeVille - I perhaps should consider alternative finishes. You're right - it does have some sweet soul in it - that's apparent even in its present unfinished state.

As for the Moderne, maybe that'll get covered in their next installment here. I'd like to know more too. It was, as I understand it, one of the "trinity" of exotics shown then and clearly the most mysterious and enigmatic of the lot.

thanks again!
# 4
lpcustom69
Registered User
Joined: 03/02/08
Posts: 8
lpcustom69
Registered User
Joined: 03/02/08
Posts: 8
11/06/2009 6:14 pm
Thirdstoned --- Please, do not cover the soul of that guitar with anything but the proper, natural finish. You are lucky to be the caretaker of the instrument. Use historic type hardware, and PAF clones.

The guitar will rock.
# 5
guitslinger
Registered User
Joined: 11/06/09
Posts: 3
guitslinger
Registered User
Joined: 11/06/09
Posts: 3
11/06/2009 8:15 pm
Hello Thirdstoned:I am an avid vintage guitar collector and researcher.I don't think you quite realize what an important piece of guitar history you are in possession of,to do ANYTHING to this unique instrument would render it worthless.I am sure there are vintage Gibson enthusiasts out there who would love to have such a seminal relic of guitar development.I implore you please don't do anything at all to this wonderful piece of the past.I can't stress strongly enough what a prize you have as long as it's in it's original untouched state.If you were to contact George Gruhn,Nashville or Vintage Guitar Magazine I'm sure they will verify what I told you.
# 6
thirdstoned
Registered User
Joined: 07/17/09
Posts: 6
thirdstoned
Registered User
Joined: 07/17/09
Posts: 6
11/06/2009 10:53 pm
Thanks folks for the input - I do truly appreciate it (and, in fact, would welcome more...). Okay; so far, I think I can forego the transparent chartreuse-lime finish I was contemplating. and, if in fact I put it together I would use old genuine humbuckers I have around and whatever other vintage parts I may have or can scrounge (I have a budget of approximately zero for the project and Michigan's economy is exacting it's toll on everyone hereabouts).

The case for not doing anything with it is reasonably strong as well and as such, is also still in the running. After looking at it "as-is" for over 3 decades though, I really am developing a growing itch to actually play it.

Still, I agree it may have some historic value though for all I know, the guy who worked for Gibson put may have put it together in his garage from parts he smuggled out. In any case, it's provenance will likely always be kind of iffy. As such, wouldn't its resale value be questionable? (though that's not really a big concern). It's possible historic value has frankly, worn a bit thin after so long.

And then, there's the matter of that delicious slim neck just asking to be caressed and played... So then I think, it should be given that opportunity to fulfill its intended purpose...

I guess I'm still livin' in Quandaryville for the time being. Any other thoughts out there?? Again, I truly appreciate the thoughtful input! If anyone cares to pass this thread along to Mr. Gruhn or any other expert, I'd welcome their input as well.

I'll keep an eye on this thread and leave things as is for now. Gracias!
# 7
icantw8
Registered User
Joined: 06/27/09
Posts: 5
icantw8
Registered User
Joined: 06/27/09
Posts: 5
11/07/2009 2:53 am
Yes, it may be of value to a collector/craftsman that would want to put thousands of dollars of all original 50s parts in it, but maybe not. Unless there is any specific marking on it I'm guessing George won't commit to anything. At any rate, before altering it, it might still be a good idea to contact Vingtae Guitar or George Gruhn just for kicks.

From what I've read about Gibson prototypes and experiments, it very well could be mahogany, and could have been in the dumpster for your old neighbor to nab. If it's dark enough wood to look like unfinished mahogany, it's likely not Korina. I understand your itchy fingers wanting to play it, but at the outside chance it's worth something, put it on eBay and sell it to someone who REALLY wants it. Maybe it could buy you a new Custom Shop piece! If you find out it isn't worth anything to anyone else, then do what you want with it. Personally, I'd stick with a natural finish, but then I'm not the one holding it. :)
# 8
thirdstoned
Registered User
Joined: 07/17/09
Posts: 6
thirdstoned
Registered User
Joined: 07/17/09
Posts: 6
11/07/2009 5:05 am
Thanks for the input, Icantw8. A good suggestion though I'm still more inclined to play it rather than sell it at this point. And, other than vintage humbuckers and pots etc which I do already have, I think the rest of the parts (bridge/tp, switch, jack & tuners) might not be too expensive. From that standpoint, I'm even more inclined to proceed with completion.

As far as auctioning it on ebay; it's tempting but I don't know how I could accurately and honestly represent it without getting myself in big trouble with the ebay counterfeit police. Without it having any definitive markings or any documentable provenance, about all I could list it as would be "old explorer look-alike with quaint story" and I tend to think that wouldn't be adequate to attract any $erious bidding. (any other opinions out there on this aspect?)

So anyway, I don't have a clue of what kind of price it might bring at auction under these dodgy circumstances but, unless it was a few hundred or more, I'd still be more inclined to just finish it and play the hell out of it. It's beautiful and meticulous construction imply it's probably worth more to me to actually play it and enjoy it for what it is. Then again, I think I'm just chicken about putting it on ebay and possibly jeopardizing my topnotch seller ratings there by doing so. I have several cool vintage and other good instruments I DO plan to auction on ebay in the near future to raise much-needed "fundage" so. I wanna keep my "rep" squeeky-clean there

Again, thanks all; I admit, I haven't yet made up my mind (though I'm leaning a bit more towards just playin' it!) but these discussions are helpful to me and, as such, much appreciated. More feedback is definitely welcome so please share your thoughts. If anyone here has interest in "adopting" this wayward orphan or wants more info, I could post a few pics somewhere. While any serious offers would likely be considered, what I'm really hoping is for the solution that sounds and "feels" right to me. I'm just hopin' I'll know what that is when I hear it!!
# 9

Please register with a free account to post on the forum.