The Gibson Explorer was ahead of its time when it was released in the 50s, and still seemed like a bit a quirky anachronism in the 70s. But in the 80s it found itself at the centre of a revolution in guitar: thrash. This highly technical, highly aggressive new form of music required a guitar that could have plenty of punch, was playable, and looked badass. Certain players took the Explorer and popped a set of EMG pickups in it, and went on to create history. The 1984 Explorer EX pays tribute to the meeting of Explorer and EMG that helped to define the future of heavy music.
This model isn’t exactly like the Gibson that certain blond thrashers were modding in the 80s. It has a simple volume/tone control layout instead of the Explorer standard volume/volume/tone, for instance. But it still has that aggressive retro-futuristic shape, mahogany body and neck, 22 frets and a whole lot of attitude.
The neck is a SlimTaper “D” profile which positions the hand perfectly for complex riffage, aided by the 12” fretboard radius which gives you a flat-but-not-too-flat playing surface. The fingerboard is made of rosewood and it has simple dot inlays that are in keeping with the minimalist vibe of the pickguard-less body. The strings pass over a LockTone Tune-O-Matic bridge on their way to a StopBar tailpiece , and the nut width is 1.68”. The classically-shaped headstock carries six Grover tuners with small buttons, and it’s painted black no matter whether you get the Apline White model or the Ebony one. No other colours are available. Sad but true. Wink.
The active pickups are an EMG 81 in the bridge position and an 85 in the neck. There’s a battery compartment in the back, and a 3-way pickup selector gives you bridge, bridge/neck and neck options. The pickup choice is an interesting one because certain thrashers favoured an EMG 60 in the neck position. But this is not designed to be an exact copy of anyone’s guitar and frankly if it came with a 60 in the neck it would probably nudge just a little closer to an ‘a-hem’ letter from someone’s attorney.
So how does this beast sound? Well it’s big, mean, precise and powerful. The EMG 81 keeps up with ultra-fast alternate picking while striking the perfect balance between attack and body. It also keeps up with downtuned riffs perfectly well, so don’t be scared to drop it down to C, and it has exactly the kind of slightly cold, slightly sterile, slightly compressed clean tone that many thrash players look for. The neck pickup isn’t as smooth and bluesy as the 60 would be, but again it gives you great attack and definition for fast playing – which is especially important in thrash soloing where you’ll find yourself doing everything from bluesy bends to rapid-fire arpeggios, string skips and tapping. It’ll mesh with multiple overdubs quite nicely too if you’re into lead guitar harmonies. The neck pickup’s clean tone is a little more lively than the bridge, approaching an almost jazzy texture at times, and it definitely expands the sonic versatility of this guitar.
Epiphone has been careful to ensure that the playability of the 1984 Explorer EX puts up just enough of a fight to prompt you to whack the string hard and generate those big punchy tones. It’s not a hard guitar to play but it doesn’t do all the work for you either. You’ll need a heavy pick to get the right kind of crunch, and maybe a really long strap so you can really give it some fuel and fire with your picking hand.
Although fans of certain thrashers are probably the most logical, obvious prospective owners of this guitar, it’s an all-round great metal axe which can cover a lot of ground, from hard rock to Open C extreme metal of the Strapping Young Lad variety. And it has enough of its own thing going on that you can choose to celebrate its similarities to those axes used in the 80s and early 90s, or you can approach it as an instrument for your music right now. Personally I really dig it and I’d love to own one some day. It was a sad day when I had to take this one back after the review.