1984 Gibson Explorer

CRAVE Guitars says…

Thumbs up: Very cool looks, minimalist approach, killer pickups, light weight, OHSC, artist association, vintage value

Thumbs down: Control layout, finish crazing, basic tone woods, basic model

Decree: A vintage rock guitar that demands to be played and in a condition where you won’t be afraid to do so. Go for it

Model Description:

This isn’t the place to go into the history of the Gibson Explorer from start to finish, so we’ll take a look at the 1980s models in context. After many years, Gibson reissued the classic‑design mahogany Explorer in 1976 in an attempt to capture the success it should have had (but didn’t) when first introduced in 1958. At the end of the 1970s, Gibson began experimenting with the Explorer template, resulting in a confusing array of names, styles and dates. So… this is my best interpretation in an attempt to bring some clarity to the matter. Following the original reissue, the layered and sculpted Explorer II/E2 (1979‑1983) was the first significant variant. The brief Explorer I/‘83 (1982‑1983) took over from the 1976‑1982 mahogany reissue Explorer with basically the same classic format. The bound and flame maple CMT with ebony fingerboards (which also carried the E2 moniker for no obvious reason) appeared in the early 1980s (1981‑1984). From 1983 to 1989 the basic model was called simply, the Explorer (as here). These models are easily identified by having no pickguard and the control knobs arranged in a triangle pattern, rather than in a straight line, which necessitated a larger rear electronics cavity. The pickup selector switch was also relocated to be next to the knobs. These models commonly used alder bodies with maple necks and rosewood fingerboards. There were other models including the Explorer Korina (1982‑1984) and short‑run Explorer Heritage (1983), as well as the limited edition Designer Series with Custom/Artist graphics adorning the base Explorer model. To add to the fun, there was also an Explorer III with 3 P90 pickups (1984-1985) and limited edition Custom Shop models began to appear from 1984, along with other miscellaneous variants such as the even pointier XPL. There were also many options including vibratos, hardware, woods and finishes. Phew! Throughout this highly active period, there seems to be some difference/overlap of identifying criteria, along with disagreement and dispute. Nowadays, Gibson, along with its budget brand Epiphone and the high‑end Custom Shop have the Explorer as a key model in the line-up, including signature models. Vintage values vary considerably depending heavily on the year and model. The 1983‑1989 base model Explorers are perhaps the most affordable vintage ones out there. To‑date, Gibson has not reissued this version of the Explorer.

Guitar Description:

Darkness abounds! Here is a 1984 Gibson Explorer in almost gothic black about to creep up on you. If ever there was a quintessential pointy 1980s heavy metal ROCK guitar, it would probably look something like this. It is astounding to think that the Explorer was designed way back in 1958 and was a commercial disaster at the time! The approach that Gibson took here is quite straightforward – create a minimalist all‑black Explorer with chrome hardware – job done. This example is both darkly sinister and strikingly cool at the same time. The very desirable Gibson ‘Dirty Fingers’ humbucking pickups are extraordinarily powerful yet articulate and not at all muddy. They are confident, strong, gutsy and, as the name suggests, can get down and dirty when needed. The fabulous pickups ensure the guitar sounds incredible not only for hard rock but for just about any electric musical style that could be thrown at it. It is a very versatile guitar and by no means the one‑trick‑pony it may seem prima facie, which undermines just about all preconceptions of the model. This Explorer is typical of the 1980s reinterpretation of the classic design, alder body, maple neck, no scratchplate and having the triangular control layout with the pickup selector switch adjacent to the knobs. A previous owner had temporarily fitted a Les Paul‑type scratchplate at one time (since removed), resulting in 3 small screw holes on the front. Why? Otherwise, she is in reasonable all‑original condition for her age, although the finish shows extensive nitrocellulose crazing all over the body and headstock and, weirdly, it almost looks as if it was intentional (it wasn’t), following the lines of the body as it does. This crazing wasn’t actually uncommon for guitars from this period. Old black finishes can also be notorious for showing any marks and imperfections, and this one is no different. If you can buy into the spec and the genuine ‘relic’ look, it works quite well. I think the imperfections suit it but perhaps that is just me. The construction makes it very strong, lightweight at just 6½lbs, and very comfortable to play with a great vibe, so grab one, turn the amp up to 11 and rock on.


  • Original black nitrocellulose finish with extensive finish checking
  • Solid alder body and maple neck
  • Unbound rosewood fingerboard with 22 jumbo frets and dot markers
  • Original mini Grover tuners
  • Scale length 24¾” (629mm)
  • Original chrome hardware
  • Original dual ‘Dirty Fingers’ humbucking pickups
  • Original Gibson tune‑o‑matic bridge and stop bar tailpiece
  • No scratchplate and rear electrics cavity
  • Controls (2 volume, 1 tone) in triangle pattern and 3‑way pickup selector switch adjacent to knobs
  • Weight: 6½lb (2.95kg)
  • Original Gibson hard shell case


The 1984 Gibson Explorer with its triangular control layout, adjacent pickup selector switch and no pickguard was the model favoured by Metallica guitarist James Hetfield between c.1984 and c.1989. Hetfield’s Explorer was finished in white and was adorned with a number of stickers over time, including the famous “so what” on the upper bass bout, giving the guitar its nickname. Hetfield’s Explorer originally had Gibson ‘Dirty Fingers’ pickups before they were swapped out for EMGs in c.1988. There are many photographs and videos of Hetfield using his white “so what” Explorer during this period.

Detail Gallery:

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