Gibson 80’s Explorer Review: I Wonder Where This Came From?

Gibson 80's Explorer
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Gibson has a new CEO, and there have been some minor changes lately. The Gibson 80’s Explorer pulled inspiration from a rather obvious source. Today we look at the inspiration, and the new features these guitars have to offer.

Gibson 80’s Explorer: This Was Long Overdue…

It seems like Gibson as a brand is a bit of a sore topic for a lot of guitarists, for a myriad of reasons. I mean, we guitarists are a finnicky bunch as it is, but sometimes a company really starts to irritate the guitar community. You either bounce back from this criticism, or you start to drown. So how do you turn around such a bad rep?

I think the first time I heard anything negative about Gibson was around 2007. There was a pretty big price hike, yet nothing new was offered. Now, I like Gibson Les Paul guitars since that’s where my journey started in the 90’s. But I thought the price hike was a big turn off, and I had moved on to 7 string guitars anyway by that time.

Then, there was another price hike a few years later, and the “Robo Tuners” were fitted to most of the new models. This was a HUGE issue for most players, and my guitar tech made a fortune from people that bought these guitars, and wanted regular Grover tuners retro-fitted! By the end, he had almost 30 sets of the Robo-Tuners!

Since then, Gibson has constantly been a subject of controversy in one way or another. It has become a “lifestyle” brand over the last few years, much like Harley Davidson Motorcycles. Then came the lawsuits claiming smaller brands were “ripping off” Gibson designs. This really bothered the guitarist community, as they viewed it as petty.

Also, there have been plenty of companies that make Gibson-style designs, and do it better! Companies like The Heritage even use the older Gibson factory and tools. Schecter makes Explorer-style guitars, as well as the Solo II Models that are HALF the price of a Gibson and have modern features!

Gibson QC also took a hit recently, which also makes the company feel unfair. If you pay premium prices, then you should absolutely get the best guitar you can for that price. Having crooked tuners and bad nuts is not something you want to see on a guitar that costs thousands.

Finally, the main problem that people seem to have with Gibson, is that the company refuses to change or listen to customers. The guitar we are reviewing today has been sought after by fanboys for a long time. But the company has basically made the same few models, without any new designs or changes.

The Gibson 80’s Explorer has been an axe that customers have wanted for a long time. The company seems to experiment with the Epiphone side, and we have definitely seen this model there as the “84 EX” model featuring EMG pickups. The Epiphone lineups are always interesting, with new ideas like the Prophecy Series. But until now, Epiphone was the only way to get this guitar.

Gibson’s newly appointed CEO, Cesar Gueikian seems to want some changes. At the beginning of this article, I asked how a company could turn around a bad image. Well, the first thing you can do is start offering customers guitars that they WANT.

The Gibson 80’s Explorer is a model that we have wanted to see for quite a while. The sleek, black Explorer shape without a pickguard is very reminiscent of a famous guitar that we all know. I saw it first in the video for “One” in 1990, albeit NOT as a Gibson.

Gibson 80's explorer

I know what you’re thinking, James Hetfield played an ESP in that video. This is true, but Gibson sent ESP a cease and desist order on that guitar model since it was a blatant copy of the 84 Explorer. James stayed with ESP, but that design has been coveted for quite a while by Gibson players.

James Hetfield STARTED with a 1984 Gibson Explorer, without a pickguard. He had several of these guitars in a white finish, and each one had a silly name scribbled on them. These guitars without a pickguard were only made between 1984 and 1987, and never reissued. These were VERY different from the current “76” models that you can buy…

  • No Binding
  • No Pickguard
  • Different Pickup Selector Position
  • Different Knob Position
  • Different Body Woods (Maple Neck/Alder Body)
  • Dirty Fingers Pickups

But unlike the 70’s Explorer that Gibson has offered for years in various designs, and the 60’s models, the 80’s version has never been offered again in the core lineup. So it was about time that Gibson decided to give us a reissue. There have been some changes, which we will discuss later.

Gibson can’t outright say that this is a “James Hetfield” model yet, but this is one of the guitars that we all associate with James during that time period. As of right now, we are only getting a black version, but Gibson has said that a white version IS coming. Which means it might eventually be a Hetfield signature?

Previously, I had looked into getting one of the ESP models about 10 years ago. But the price for those ESP MX220 guitars starts at over ten thousand dollars. I LOVE James Hetfield and Metallica, but not enough to spend that much cash. So if you have always wanted one of these guitars as a Metallica fan, now would finally be the time to pull the trigger!

Let’s take a look at the features and specs, and talk about how these Gibson 80’s Explorer guitars bring you in with some serious nostalgia. The best part, is that these are part of the “core” production line, and only about $2500.

Gibson 80’s Explorer: Features & Specs

Gibson 80's Explorer Review: I Wonder Where This Came From?

The long-awaited Gibson 80’s Explorer is finally here, but it is not a direct copy of the original. This is not a true reissue model, and the changes made will make or break this guitar for you. The main change, is the body wood, which is all Mahogany with the reissue.

Otherwise, there are a few different features that have been tweaked, and we will talk about that in the review portion of this article. Personally, I think most of the changes are for the better. All of the features that you expect from a modern Gibson are here:

  • Mahogany Neck And Body
  • Indian Rosewood Fretboard
  • Dot Inlays
  • Graph Tech Nut
  • Grover Tuners (Mini)
  • Medium Jumbo Frets
  • 22 Frets
  • 24.75 Scale
  • Slim Taper Neck
  • Nitro Finish
  • 3 Way Switch
  • Gibson 80’s Pickup Set
  • Aluminum Nashville Tune-O-Matic Bridge and Stop Bar
  • 2 Volume, Master Tone Knob
  • Case Included

The original Gibson 80’s Explorer models were made of Alder and Maple, which was a different approach for Gibson. Unfortunately, they went for all Mahogany with the reissue. You would think this makes the guitar heavy, but it actually isn’t heavy at all. Our two review models weighed about 7LBS.

Gibson connoisseurs will notice a few changes when it comes to the control layout, but I think this makes for a good change. The knobs and selector are further away from your playing hand, which is great for players that palm mute at the bridge.

The final changes are the pickups and hardware. I think the lightweight aluminum bridge is a good thing, and it will probably last much longer than the usual steel or plated material. The pickups are something we will need to talk about later.

The Gibson logo is also a little less flashy, so in essence this guitar is more of a “re-imagining” than a reissue. I imagine this is why the year is not specified in the name of this model. This is a modern reinterpretation of the Gibson 80’s Explorer, and I am okay with that.

So how does it play and feel? I am a huge Explorer fan, and I have owned just about every model offered by Gibson at some point in the last 30 years. So how does this one stack up?

Gibson 80s Explorer Electric Guitar Ebony

The ’80s Explorer is based on the popular 1984 model with a fast-playing SlimTaper mahogany neck and a rosewood fretboard. The iconic-shaped mahogany body is outfitted with ’80s Tribute pickups that accurately capture the unique fat-toned sound and rich sustain of the models from that era. A hard shell case is also included.

Full Review/Opinion

We had two models to check out, right out of the box. This is how we usually check out guitars, and I prefer to review guitars right out of the box. That way I can mention anything that sticks out, and little tweaks that you might have to do yourself when you but the guitar for yourself.

First Impressions & Quality

Both models are a sight to behold, sitting next to each other in their cases. I wanted to take a bunch of pictures, but it is a dead simple, black Explorer. There are no fancy tops to look at, or special features. So I just checked them both out for the important things.

Both had nearly perfect frets, with one having just a little bit of fret sprout on the treble side. There were no high frets, and I am happy to see Gibson working with thicker frets. My last les Paul had smaller frets, and it always felt weird to play after using an Ibanez or Schecter with huge frets.

The fretboards look great on both guitars, and while I think Ebony would have been a better choice, Rosewood makes more sense for the time period. The neck and fretwork is impeccable on both models, and the nut is cut perfectly on both.

For once, I have not done anything to these guitars out of the box. Usually, I have to tweak the truss rod at the very least! Gibson QC has been very debatable over the last few years, but these guitars are setup perfectly. I even checked the intonation, and it was “close enough for Rock N Roll”.

The finish on both models is also really well done. There are no hazy spots or swirls in the black finish. I really looked at both guitars as closely as I could, and both were very good. One had a small dent on the bottom near the strap button.

The “hockey-stick” headstock shape is awesome, and it has a silkscreen logo instead of the pearl style that we see on other reissues. The Grover tuners get the job done, and while I know that the Gibson 80’s Explorer is supposed to be “stripped down” I can’t help but feel that it might be a little over-priced for what we get.

Playing, Feel, and Sounds

The Gibson 80’s Explorer is very exciting to hold for me, but I think that’s just an emotional connection based on nostalgia. I remember seeing Metallica, and seeing these guitars and thinking that I would never get to play a guitar like that; both in skill and physically holding one.

The nostalgia bait has definitely worked on me. With a strap hanging low, I feel like my hero. But I have to look at this with a critical eye, so after playing it for about 20 minutes, I had to come to some conclusions that were not based on my feelings, and just give you the facts.

The slim taper neck feels like the 70’s neck that many Gibson players prefer, but I cannot stand the painted back. After 25 years of sanding necks, or just buying guitars that have satin finished neck, it is hard to go back to a painted neck. I know that the Nitro finish will eventually wear, but it is not my favorite feature.

The neck feels a little wider than usual, which is hard to explain. The Epiphone Explorers have a much fatter neck, but are not quite as wide. Overall, the neck is very comfortable to play… minus the paint. I like the wide feel, especially higher up the neck when playing solos.

I think pushing the pickup selector and knobs further away from the bridge than the original Gibson 80’s Explorer models is a great idea. I palm mute near the bridge often, and having that switch far away is perfect for most Metal players. The single tone knob also works well for what this guitar is made for… Metal.

Otherwise, you have to take an Explorer for what it is, and it definitely isn’t comfortable. The top of the body digs into your forearm, and it can feel awkward while playing sitting down. The strap button was moved to the back, so that helps a lot with neck dive and balance. This is just the nature of this guitar style.

But if you love the shape, and understand how to “work” with the Explorer shape, then this guitar is absolute wish-fulfillment. It is exactly what you would expect from a Gibson 80’s Explorer in every way, and the enjoyment of playing it will depend on the player.

The Pickups

The original Gibson 80’s Explorer models came with the famous Dirty Fingers pickups. These were hot ceramic humbuckers that were meant to push the amp hard. back then, in the 70’s and 80’s, amps needed to be pushed to get a dirty sound. This is why we call it “overdrive”!

The new Gibson 80’s Pickup Set can only be found in this guitar, and the Flying V companion. The sound is not exactly what I was expecting, but I like them! They are a far cry from the original Dirty Fingers set, but this gives the 80’s Set its own character.

The neck pickup measured in at about 7.5K, which is relatively low output. It also lacks the woof that a Gibson neck humbucker usually has, that extra bass that we try to dial out usually. So it was a surprise that this pickups is lower output. Turning down the tone knob gives you that creamy solo tone we all love.

The bridge pickup however, is around 17K, which is more than double the output of the neck pickup. The tone is absolutely dirty as hell, even on the clean channel. It almost reminds me of the output of a Duncan Invader, and that biting tone is exactly what we need for playing heavy stuff.

The bridge pickup not only has bite, but also a ton of bass response. There seems to be a big dip in the midrange, and that works really well for chugging sounds. The bite is not all treble, but it does stick to the upper mids.

The original Gibson 80’s Explorer came with Dirty Fingers pickups, as we have mentioned. Those are very high output, but I think I know why the new set is different. People that know Metallica, know that James will often switch to the neck for clean tones. This custom 80’s set just so happens to be perfect for that style.

So I think Gibson tried to replicate that layout for this guitar. You can roll off the volume for the neck to get a pristine clean tone, or you can just have a lower output pickup. So I understand this approach, and if you want to clean it up more then you can always lower the pickup itself.

But this does cause a bit of volume jump when switching between the bridge and neck pickups. The output difference is pretty stark. But I adjusted the pickups so they were a little more balanced when you use the middle position. If you lower the bridge pickup, then it balances without any loss of edge.

The Gibson 80’s Explorer pickups are excellent for going after a very particular type of sound. This isn’t exactly a versatile set by any means. But I think Gibson knows the type of people that will be buying these guitars, and those people are going to be playing heavy stuff.

Wrapping Up…

I started my journey in the 90’s with Gibson and Epiphone. I have always wanted this guitar in particular, and trying to find them on the used market was always hassle. I bought the “Gothic” Explorer versions, as well as many other versions.

I think the Gibson 80’s Explorer scratches an itch that a lot of players have had for a long time. When we see those old Metallica videos of James and Kirk playing Gibson guitars, it stirs something in all of us. It was the beginning of a new Metal movement that changed many of our lives.

I know there have been some bad reviews so far, but the two I got try were very good. There are some rough fine details in those reviews, and I get it. I am hoping that Gibson has made a turning point in the QC department. But I also have some other hopes for Gibson…

Gibson is at the precipice of pricing itself out of the market. We cover budget guitars all the time, and it can be hard to justify a Gibson when other brands, even Epiphone, compete when it comes to features and specs. Younger players just don’t care about Gibson, or “lifestyle” brands in general.

I saw the last Warped Tour, and something I noticed during that festival was the lack of Gibson players. So I started paying attention at other festivals, and Gibson Guitars are not very common. New players are playing Ibanez, ESP/LTD, Schecter, and Fender.

The younger players are going to buy guitars that have the features they need, with the lowest price tag. I put my Schecter E1 Koa against the Gibson 80’s Explorer and I still prefer my guitar. The nostalgia won me over in the beginning, but the quality is better with the Schecter. In fact, the Schecter is a neck-thru construction that offers better access, and has better woods.

So Gibson might be trying to appeal to newer players, and some Millennials and Gen X like myself. But at this price point, it will be hard to attract younger players with such a high price point. This is still a “classic” guitar when it comes to features, and I get the idea. I know that is how Gibson operates, and it seems there is better QC.

All of that is great, but Gibson has to make a move soon that draws in some new players. Time moves on, with or without you. What happens when players like Slash retire? Does Gibson think that the nostalgia train will just continue?

So while the Gibson 80’s Explorer is a step in the right direction, I still feel like Gibson is dragging it’s heels when it comes to new player appeal. Something will have to change if Gibson wants to stay in the game, and while I appreciate the nostalgia, I don’t know if it is worth the price of admission.

Gibson 80s Explorer Electric Guitar Ebony

The ’80s Explorer is based on the popular 1984 model with a fast-playing SlimTaper mahogany neck and a rosewood fretboard. The iconic-shaped mahogany body is outfitted with ’80s Tribute pickups that accurately capture the unique fat-toned sound and rich sustain of the models from that era. A hard shell case is also included.

Dows The Gibson 80’s Explorer & Flying V Come With a Case?

Yes, both guitars come with a custom hard shell case.


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