1984 Gibson Explorer Designer Series ‘Union Jack’

Thumbs up: Striking custom design, rarity, condition, originality, pickups, light weight

Thumbs down: UK connection not for everyone, triangular control layout, vibrato, mod, non‑OHSC

Decree: Not quite one‑of‑a‑kind but not far short, especially with the vibrato. A terrific patriotic rock axe.

Model Description:

Gibson was certainly on a crusade with the Explorer during the first half of the 1980s. There was a bewildering array of models, variants and options that confuse even the experts from time to time. While there was the E2, the CMT, the I/’83, III, as well as the emergence of the Custom Shop, the stalwart of the range settled on the basic Explorer (1983‑1989) with its stripped back appearance, no scratchplate,, uncovered pickups and peculiar clustered control layout. Alongside the Explorer was a corresponding series of Flying V counterparts. During the ‘yuppie’ era, Gibson looked at what they could do to add extra ‘designer’ appeal to some of their instruments and to charge more for it at minimal cost. Gibson’s clever solution was to smarten up the basic Explorer (and Flying V) by releasing limited numbers of Custom Graphic and Artist Original models under the broad banner of the ‘Designer Series’. The Artist Original versions were signed one‑offs in a variety of unique paint jobs (often crude splatter designs). The Custom Graphic versions tended to add various pin striping intended to complement and accentuate the already aggressive appearance of the Explorer (Styles 20, 21 and 22) and Flying V (Styles 30, 31 and 32). In addition, there was a very limited number of patriotic guitars with designs including the American Confederate flag and the UK Union flag (on the Explorer only). Interestingly, none were released with the modern U.S.A. ‘stars ‘n’ stripes’ flag. The Designer Series guitars came with Gibson’s uncovered and powerful ‘Dirty Fingers’ humbucking pickups, easily recognisable by 12 adjustable pole pieces. Craftily, the enhancements were mostly low cost and largely cosmetic. Factory Kahler vibratos were also offered as an option and to differentiate the guitars from the base model. Gibson’s marketing and advertising targeted consumer aspirations for up‑market designer‑label exclusivity. Prices vary for Designer Series Explorers, as they were often the base models with a few extra ‘go faster’ stripes but their rarity gives them a bit of a value uplift on the vintage market.

Guitar Description:

Now, here’s a guitar you don’t see every day! How about a Gibson for the patriotic (or xenophobic) sorts out there? Why Gibson should decide to put a Union Flag (as the Union Jack is properly called) on a distinctly ‘Made in U.S.A.’ Explorer isn’t known, although they did also issue a few Explorers with the American Confederate flag (but no stars ‘n’ stripes – go figure!). Gibson’s administration wasn’t great at the time, so unconfirmed stories go that only 500 Union Jack guitars were planned and only about 150 (or less) of them were eventually built and shipped. If that is anywhere close to the truth, this is one very rare artefact indeed. Strangely, Gibson’s marketing for the Designer Series at the time only showed a ‘Union Jack Explorer’ with a traditional white scratchplate and 3‑in‑a‑line controls. The ‘real thing’ looks much better without a large white bit of plastic in the way of the flag design. Like many early 1980s Explorers, this one has the lighter alder body, no scratchplate and has the triangular control pattern with the pickup selector switch adjacent to the knobs. It also has the factory Kahler vibrato and locking nut, so you can dive bomb till the (British) cows come home (for a cup of tea?) and still stay in tune. At one time, it had a mini switch next to the control knobs (why, when you have a superb stock ‘Dirty Fingers’ pickup as original?). The original pickup has since been restored and the redundant switch removed, which is the only unoriginal aspect to the guitar. There are some signs of finish crazing but that is not unusual, especially with this type of custom design. As you might expect, especially with those pickups, this guitar sounds awesome, especially for heavy/hard rock. This is one seriously great playing and sounding guitar. Flag one down (sic!) if you ever get to see another one. This one is definitely staying in the UK, especially after Brexit and now that Europe is no longer part of the UK.


  • Made in Kalamazoo, Michigan, U.S.A. in July 1984
  • Rare Gibson ‘Union Jack’ Custom Graphic finish to front and matching headstock
  • Plain blue on remainder of the body and neck
  • Set maple neck
  • Unbound rosewood fingerboard with 22 frets and pearloid dot markers
  • Original chrome Grover tuners
  • Scale length 24¾” (629mm)
  • Chrome hardware
  • No scratchplate and controls in a triangular pattern
  • Factory original Kahler vibrato and locking nut
  • Original dual uncovered Gibson ‘Dirty Fingers’ humbucking pickups
  • Weight: 7lb (3.18kg)
  • Vintage fitted non‑original hard shell case

Detail Gallery:

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