The dramatic edges and eye-catching silhouette of the classic Explorer shape have captured guitarists’ imaginations for decades now.
Although the Explorer is probably best known as a heavy-metal classic, as wielded by the likes of Metallica’s James Hetfield and Airbourne’s Joel O’Keeffe, the guitar is much more versatile than that.
An Explorer has a naturally brighter sound than most other Gibson guitars, which is why it has long been a favorite of U2’s axeman The Edge. Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Allen Collins, too, was a devoted player of the Explorer.
Modern players looking for the Explorer shape need look no further than this list. There are a range of affordable non-Gibson models to suit guitarists of all budgets.
Best Explorer Style Guitars (Top Non-Gibson Models)
Table of Contents
- Best Explorer Style Guitars (Top Non-Gibson Models)
- Buying Explorer Style Guitars & A Note on Copies
- What Makes a Good Explorer Style Guitar?
- Final Word
1. Jackson Kelly JS32
Jackson has been one of the foremost names in high-octane shred guitars ever since the 80s. The Jackson Kelly is the Californian builder’s take on the classic lightning-bolt silhouette of the Explorer.
The first thing you notice upon pickup up a Jackson Kelly is how light the poplar body is. It does not feel nearly as heavy as many other solid guitars.
The bright red color really pops in person, too. It reminds me of the color of a classic Italian sports car. The old adage that red cars go faster may well apply to guitars, too.
The guitar’s maple neck feels reasonably comfortable in the hand, and the compound radius is a welcome addition in comparison to some other supermodel-thin shredders’ necks I’ve tried.
I personally prefer the beef and heft of a classic ‘50s style neck, but these slender necks are popular with shredders. Minor gripes with the thin neck aside, the guitar plays beautifully. The fretboard feels a little dry under my fingers, but that’s nothing a bit of lemon oil won’t fix.
When plugged into an amp, the Kelly’s twin humbuckers have enough crackle and grit to produce a convincing distorted tone, although the clean sound is a touch muddy.
The guitar’s stock pickups leave a little to be desired: the creamy, red-hot lead tones of ‘80s metal don’t exactly spring forth from the Kelly. However, this could be a relatively simple fix.
It’s a popular modification to swap out a guitar’s pickups, especially a lower-budget instrument like this one. The Kelly’s build quality is high enough that some new pickups, such as Seymour Duncans, could really make this an excellent-sounding instrument, particularly considering its playability.
2. Epiphone Explorer
Epiphone have been churning out budget alternatives to Gibson guitars for at least as long as I’ve been playing the instrument.
This “Inspired By Gibson” Epiphone Explorer is about as close as you can get to a real Gibson Explorer without actually being one.
First of all, this guitar is, despite its considerable weight, far more comfortable to play standing than sitting. The lower body contour is a little too angular to sit comfortably on your knee, so guitarists who do most of their playing sitting down may want to look elsewhere.
Having said that, I can’t picture anyone who wants an Explorer to be the type who does most of their playing sitting down!
However, as you’ll be playing this guitar standing up, you’ll want to invest in some locking strap buttons. The guitar is heavy enough to wear out the button hole in most cheap straps, and you don’t want it crashing to the ground while you’re halfway through “Master of Puppets.”
The slim, fast neck of this guitar is nicely comfortable. It’s more like an SG profile than some of the ultra-slim necks you’ll see on shredders’ guitars, and it felt very comfortable in my hand.
Plugged in, the Epiphone Explorer’s pickups were surprisingly hot. In fact, they’re so hot they felt almost like active pickups, and sounded better as I turned up the gain on my amp.
It could just be the jet-black paintjob and the guitar’s shape, but the Explorer summoned classic Metallica riffs from my hands and delivered that crushing high-gain tone in spades. “For Whom The Bell Tolls” and “Blackened” thudded and sizzled exactly as they’re supposed to.
3. ESP LTD EX-201
There’s something brutally beautiful about the uncompromising, straightforward promise of a solitary bridge humbucker. In keeping with the grand tradition of single-pickup instruments, this Explorer-style guitar from ESP LTD is a no-frills rock machine.
The EX-201 has a little more meat on its bones than the classic Explorer silhouette. The horns have a slight curve, so this guitar is heavier than, for example, an Epiphone Explorer.
The difference in weight is noticeable upon picking the guitar up, and will take some getting used to for players used to lightweight shred machines. However, the dramatic cutaway where the neck meets the body offers incredibly easy access to this guitar’s upper frets.
If you’re going to have 24 frets on the guitar, you may as well be able to use them all, and it’s very easy to access the extended range of this guitar.
Single-pickup guitars rely heavily on the quality of their sole electronic component. The ESP’s stock LH-150B humbucker is excellent. You’ll never mistake it for a specialty pickup from a boutique builder, but the tone it provides is more than adequate.
Where this guitar is more versatile than other single-pickup instruments is its coil-tapping capability. Removing one of the humbucker coils with a pull of the sole volume knob thins out the guitar’s tone.
It doesn’t turn this guitar into a Strat soundalike, but it does remove some unnecessary warmth from the guitar’s clean tone, giving it some much-needed snap and clarity. When engaged with a dirty tone, I can see the coil tap helping cut through a muddy or very busy band mix.
The guitar sounds best, however, for full-bore rock and metal, as its menacing look implies.
4. EVH Star
The EVH Star is based heavily on a homemade Charvel guitar Edward Van Halen once played in the early ‘80s. The Charvel was itself a replacement for the “Shark” guitar Van Halen crafted from a 1975 Ibanez Explorer copy. This makes the modern EVH Star a copy of a copy (of a copy… of a copy).
Fortunately, like all the guitars bearing the legendary Van Halen axeman’s branding, the Star is an extremely high-quality instrument.
First of all, the quartersawn maple neck feels great in the palm of your hand. I’m a huge fan of these necks, which feel closer to a ‘50s Strat than to an ‘80s shred machine. Of course, it’s plenty fast enough, as you’d expect from a guitar bearing the EVH logo.
The ebony fretboard is nicely slick under my fingers, requiring no lubrication or adjustment. A light left-hand touch works wonders on this guitar.
The guitar isn’t exactly comfortable to play while sitting down. I found the rear bout digging into my torso a little, and the guitar does not sit comfortably on one’s leg.
As expected, the solitary Wolfgang humbucker in the bridge position is a high-gain rock monster. The riff from “Unchained” chugs appropriately. Power chords and lightning-fast legato runs fizz and crackle like a prime steak on a hot skillet.
A counterclockwise turn of the guitar’s sole volume knob massively cleans up the guitar’s tone without losing any brightness. The result is a stunning, spanking clean sound well-suited to a variety of genres.
Don’t let the guitar’s heavy-metal looks fool you. You could use this guitar for just about any gig.
5. Schecter E-1 FR S
Schecter has long been a major name in modern metal guitars. The E-1 FR S is, as its distinctive appearance implies, built for uncompromising 21st-century heavy metal playing.
The guitar’s flamed maple top is absolutely gorgeous in person. The finish looks almost 3D when viewed under direct sunlight. This Schecter guitar is one of the best-looking instruments I’ve ever played.
The guitar is reassuringly weighty when played standing up, but not so heavy that it might discourage playing.
The guitar’s plugged-in sound, with plenty of distortion, is terrific. You can clearly make out all the notes in any chords, and the ebony fretboard makes extended chord fingerings easy and comfortable. You won’t be struggling with a thirsty, dry-feeling fretboard on this guitar.
The bridge pickup is great for chunky rhythm playing, but I was particularly impressed with the Sustainiac neck pickup. Of course, I had to try out the “endless note” from “Parisienne Walkways” on this pickup, and the result was a sweet, seemingly never-ending tone. T
The cutaway where the body meets the neck isn’t particularly dramatic, but upper-fret access is similarly easy. For playability, this guitar feels extremely comfortable and I could easily play it for hours on end.
However, I did take issue with a design flaw: the tremolo arm hinders access to the volume knob. I tend to fiddle with my volume knob while playing, particularly while playing lead lines such as those well-suited to the Schecter’s Sustainiac neck pickup.
It was easy to just move the whammy bar out of the way when needed, but you really shouldn’t have to do that. It feels like a major oversight in the guitar’s design.
6. ESP LTD James Hetfield Signature Snakebyte
Designed to the Metallica frontman’s exacting specifications, the ESP LTD Snakebyte is an aggressive, powerful thrash-metal machine.
Upon picking up the Snakebyte, I was struck by how well-balanced the body and neck is. There’s none of the neck dive that can plague similar guitars, and the guitar is relatively comfortable to play while sitting down!
The satin finish on the body can feel a little sticky after a lengthy period of playing, particularly if you tend to rest your forearm across the body of the guitar like I do. That’s standard with satin finishes, though, and it’s nothing you can’t fix with some polish and a cloth.
Another warning for those who want to take this guitar on the road: the finish is a little fragile. Matte finishes are prone to showing even the lightest dings and dents. You can create a little indent with a fingernail, let alone with a guitar pick.
Where this guitar truly shines, however, is its stellar plugged-in tone. The twin EMG pickups yield the crushing, powerful distorted tone that Papa Het made famous in the 80s.
Aggressive, downstroked palm mutes and economy picked lead lines sound particularly good when played through a high-gain amp. I used my Hughes & Kettner TubeMeister on its Lead setting and the tonal results took me straight back to high school, discovering Metallica for the first time.
The guitar’s clean tone is somewhat brittle, as is standard for EMG pickups, although if you appreciate the icy chorus-laden clean tone of old-school metal it may well be for you. Of course, nobody buys a Snakebyte to play country or jazz, so the clean sound may as well be an afterthought.
Buying Explorer Style Guitars & A Note on Copies
The most important thing when looking at a new guitar is your own taste in music. What kind of music do you like to play, and will your new guitar encourage you to play it?
Back in the 1970s, when high-end American guitars were hard to get outside the States, Japanese guitar builders turned their attention to building copies of the biggest-selling models on the market. Some of these were excellent instruments. Others were barely useful as firewood.
The resulting copies of Les Paul, Stratocaster, and other models became known as “lawsuit” guitars because Gibson and Fender took the manufacturers to court over copyright infringement.
Should You Buy Cheap Copies?
Today, there are countless cheap copies of the most popular guitars, particularly the distinctive shapes owned by the likes of Gibson and Fender. The ultra-cheap, typically Chinese-made Gibson clones tend to reflect their price point in their quality.
These are usually poorly made, fail to stay in tune, and come with no manufacturer’s warranty.
Often, these cheaper brands require extensive work such as setups and parts replacements to become playable instruments. In my opinion, given that most cheap guitars are aimed at beginner players, that’s a huge waste of time and money.
By the time you’ve put the time, energy, and money into making a cheap guitar playable, you may as well have spent the cash on a guitar from a reputable builder!
Affordable Copies by Reputable Brands
Official budget versions of the Explorer are made by Epiphone, for example, under Gibson’s umbrella, and there are competitor models from reputable builders like Schecter and EVH as well.
When you buy from a reputable guitar maker, you not only get superior components, build quality, and playability, but the manufacturer’s warranty to cover any potential issues with the instrument.
What Makes a Good Explorer Style Guitar?
The best guitar is a guitar you enjoy playing. A guitar you enjoy playing will encourage you to practice and play, and make you a better guitarist in the process.
However, there are a few factors and features that make some guitars better than others. When looking at an Explorer-style guitar, I prioritize tone and playability.
Chief among these is the combination of playability and sound. Playability is how easy it is to play a guitar. You don’t want to battle the instrument every time you’re running through scales or chords.
The guitar’s weight, the shape of its neck, the shape of the body, action (that is, height of the strings from the fretboard) and fretboard material all impact playability.
While what makes “good tone” is entirely subjective, some guitars do sound better than others. An Explorer-style guitar’s tone comes from the combination of woods used in its construction and its pickup choice.
As a general rule, higher-output pickups are better for heavier styles of music. Humbuckers, as opposed to single coil pickups, are best for higher output.
When a pickup is described as “hot” that means it has high output and is well-suited for distorted guitar playing. Lower-output pickups are better suited to clean playing. High-output pickups can offer a great clean tone, but it’s more or less unheard of for a low-output pickup to provide a usable dirty tone.
Some guitars are built using better materials than others. The quality of a guitar’s woods, paint, hardware, and electronics are often reflected in its price point.
Cheap copy guitars are typically made with inferior woods and cheap electronic parts. Cheap electronic components, in my experience, tend to give out after a short period of time, leaving you with a noiseless chunk of cool-looking wood.
Generally, guitars built by major manufacturers, such as those on this list, use higher quality materials than the dirt-cheap copies you can find on eBay.
Regardless of your budget, there’s an Explorer-style guitar out there for you. These days, you don’t need to break the bank with a full-priced Gibson Explorer to get your hands on the iconic silhouette and take-no-prisoners tone of this hard-rocking guitar.
Guitar technology has never been better, and modern pickups can make almost any well-made guitar sound truly incredible.
With plenty of excellent alternatives at just about every price point, there are Explorer-style guitars for any player.