The Birth of the Explorer: Gibson's Futuristic Vision at 60

The Explorer—introduced almost exactly 60 years ago—was Gibson's most radical guitar design of the '50s. The first and early sign that the company was up to something took the form of three applications for design patents that Gibson made in June 1957. The first of them, numbered 181,865, was for what we would now recognize as an early, rough attempt at the design that became the Gibson Explorer.

Gibson's first patent for the Explorer, filed 1957.

This precise version would itself become known as the Futura. It had an angular body shape, very similar to what ended up as the Explorer but with a narrower waist and a split headstock in the shape of an offset V (the regular drooping Explorer headstock evidently came later in the design process). The bare-bones line drawing on the patent showed two humbucking pickups and a Tune-o-matic bridge plus tailpiece, but there were no signs of controls or pickguard or fingerboard markers.

The other two patents were for the model that became the Gibson Flying V and for the model known today as the Moderne, which was not developed at the time. Along with the Explorer, Gibson called this trio its modernistic guitars, a description it had first used in relation to the stunning Ultratone lap steel of 1946.

The paperwork took some time to wind its way through the Patent Office, and in the meantime Gibson decided to stir things up a little at the 1957 NAMM show—the trade convention staged annually by the National Association of Music Merchants where firms officially unveil new instruments. Then as now, many of the industry's leading business people would attend, from store managers to manufacturers, making it the most important trade shindig of the year. In '57, the show was at the Palmer House hotel in Chicago from July 15 to 18, with Gibson exhibiting under the banner of its parent company, Chicago Musical Instrument.

Gibson had a shock in store for the visitors to its NAMM booth: there was at least one prototype of a modernistic guitar on display. Piano Trade Magazine printed a small photograph in its NAMM review that showed Clarence Havenga, Gibson's sales manager, laughing and clutching the prototype alongside a visitor from a Lyon & Healy music store. Havenga held a guitar that looked like a dummy based on the "Futura"/Explorer patent drawing. It had pickups, a bridge, and a tailpiece, but no controls. The body wood, possibly korina, looked unfinished, the neck had a complete rosewood fingerboard (and, unlike the patent, it did have markers), and the head was in the shape of a V.

Gibson's Clarence Havenga shows off a prototype at NAMM 1957.

It's a frustrating photo for the historically minded among us. The only other guitar visible in the frame is one of Gibson's new EDS-1275 double-neck electrics, also presumably in prototype form (custom-order production of those did not start until the following year). What we certainly do not see is any evidence at all of the other two patented modernistic guitar designs. We'll probably never know for sure if Gibson also had prototypes of the Flying V and the Moderne at the '57 NAMM show.

The Flying V was the first to go into production, around April 1958, and the Moderne did not go into production at the time. The Explorer began to roll rather slowly off the Gibson line, probably in July. A new Gibson pricelist, dated July 1, 1958, included the new Explorer as well as the existing Flying V under the heading "Modernistic Guitars," with both instruments listing at $247.50.

The firm's promo magazine, the Gibson Gazette, announced the new Explorer with the headline "The Forward Look" and below that some stirring copy. "Gibson looks to the future and finds truly inspirational design ideas," it boasted. "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."

Gibson had delayed the launch of the Explorer because it had to make some modifications to that "Futura" prototype. Compared to the earlier patent drawing and at least that one prototype, the body of the production-model Explorer had a slightly wider waist, a set of more refined lines, and a generally more pleasing balance between the constituent elements.

As Gibson said, the Explorer's construction and features were similar to those of the Flying V. It had a korina body and neck, a white-black-white plastic pickguard, a 22-fret rosewood fingerboard with dot markers, a scale length of 24 3/4 inches, a control layout of two volumes, single tone, and pickup selector, and a nice pair of Gibson's recently introduced humbucking pickups.

A 1983 reissue of the 1958 Explorer.
The Explorer's final headstock shape.

Gibson made at least one Explorer with a split-V headstock, retained from the earlier design, but the majority of Explorers had a long, drooping headstock, unlike anything Gibson had produced before. It made the neck and headstock look something like an inverted hockey stick. This pointy headstock, with a pearloid Gibson logo, was actually quite a practical design, and owed a little to Fender's head style, while its flamboyance added to the exciting new look of the Explorer. The guitar had a conventional stop-tailpiece, unlike the V's special unit with its through-body stringing, and the jack, too, was conventionally situated on the lower edge of the body.

The shape of the Explorer's body, however, was anything but conventional, and was perhaps more radical than that of the Flying V, marking it out as the most remarkable guitar design of the '50s —no mean feat in a decade packed with impressive innovations. It had a pleasing mix of angularity and modern straight lines, with a wedge-shaped base and an elongated horn pushing out beyond the lower cutaway. The whole look was balanced and assured, another outstanding achievement from the design team at Gibson during this golden era.

Eric Clapton with his original 1958 Gibson Explorer.

Gibson's name for the production version may well have been inspired by the launch of America's first Earth satellite, Explorer 1, at the end of January 1958. If Fender aimed at the stratosphere with its Stratocaster, well, Gibson wanted to go higher. But all that daring and inventiveness did not add up to big sales. The Explorer appeared on Gibson's annual tally of instruments produced in 1958 as "Korina (Mod. Gtr)," and the number written next to it was 19. That made it the lowest production of any Gibson electric guitar that year, lower than the 81 Flying Vs, the 61 Byrdlands, 49 ES-295s, 48 L-5CESs, the 32 double-necks, and 30 Super 400-CESs. The Explorer was a mid-price Gibson, and the same-price Les Paul Goldtop, which morphed into the sunburst-finish Standard during 1958, shipped 434 units, more than 20 times the Explorer figure. The Explorer did limp on into 1959, when Gibson shipped just three more examples.

That was that—or so it must have seemed. Of course, with hindsight available to us now, we know what great guitars those original korina Explorers were. Through the years, their shape and their look and their playability would inspire many guitar makers and musicians, who drew on and paid homage to these startling innovations from Kalamazoo. Some would copy the designs almost exactly. Others simply tipped their hats to the general notion that a solidbody guitar could me made in any shape the designer cared to create.

If you find one of those original 22 Explorers today, you have every right to laugh out loud. You could also blast out on a terrific instrument. You could reflect on the fact that a high price achieved for one came at Eric Clapton's Crossroads auction at Christie's in 1999, when his '58 Explorer sold for a touch north of $130,000.

For the rest of us, we can dream on. Just like Marv Lamb, who started work for Gibson in 1956 in the wood shop. "I remember working on the Flying V and Explorer," he told me. "They were the ugliest things, way ahead of their time. I think Gibson practically gave them away to get rid of them: they had them hanging around for years." He pauses, and then adds with a smile: "I wish now that I'd taken a few of them myself."


About the Author: Tony Bacon writes about musical instruments, musicians, and music. He is a co-founder of Backbeat UK and Jawbone Press. His books include The Ultimate Guitar Book, Flying V/Explorer/Firebird, and Electric Guitars: Design And Invention. His latest is a new edition of Electric Guitars: The Illustrated Encyclopedia (Chartwell). Tony lives in Bristol, England. More info at tonybacon.co.uk.


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