Let’s take a quick trip to 1958… Fender is the leading force in solid-body electric guitars after having recently released the Stratocaster and there are whispers that Gibson is “stuck in the past”. In an effort to challenge this notion and Fender at large, Gibson creates three wild new electric guitar designs – the Moderne (which never saw the light of day), the Flying V, and the Explorer.
Only 22 Explorers were made in the original production series. Because of this, original 1958 Gibson Explorers are worth well over $1 Million, making them even more valuable than the fabled Gibson “Burst” Les Pauls of the same time.
Thankfully, Gibson has re-released the Explorer over the years. However, brand new Explorers can run you anywhere from 1.6K-5K.
Thanks to the Explorer’s memorable and influential aesthetic, there are a wide variety of Explorer style alternatives worth considering.
Whether you want this style of guitar on a budget or with modern features, there is an Explorer alternative out there for you.
In this guide, we’ll share our top picks for the best Explorer style copy guitars to help you decide on the best fit for you.
Let’s get started
The Best Explorer Style Alternatives
- Epiphone Explorer
- Jackson Kelly JS32
- Dean ZX
- ESP LTD EX-401
- Chapman Ghost Fret Pro
- Schecter E-1
- Dean Z 79 Floyd Rose
- Jackson X Series Kelly KEXQ
- Solar Guitars E1.6
- Harley Benton EX-76 Classic
What better place to start your search for the ideal Explorer copy than from Gibson’s sister company, Epiphone?
The Epiphone Explorer is the ideal choice if you are dead-set on a spec for spec copy of the original Epiphone. This guitar shares the same body shape, pickup configuration, and body tonewood selection as the original 1958 model.
All of this comes at an attainable price point that is sure to get you rocking no matter your budget.
Here are some things to know about the Epiphone Explorer:
Laurel Fingerboard. A clear cost-saving choice that provides a similar playing experience to rosewood, but lacks the rich, dark, beautiful look.
Mahogany Body. Funny enough, this may be an improvement over the 1958 models, which used Korina. This wood sounded similar, but weighed less than mahogany at the cost of being carcinogenic to the workers.
12” Fretboard Radius. Flat enough for shredding, but round enough for grabbing chords. A nice middleground and comfortable for all playing styles.
While often considered “cheap Gibsons”, Epiphones are really a company all to themselves. If you are a die-hard Gibson fan, but can’t afford the accompanying price tag, an Epiphone Explorer is the obvious choice.
- Exact same body shape as Gibson Explorer
- Attainable price point
- Pickups modeled after PAF style humbucker
- 50’s era voicing and build
- Limited finish options
- Laurel fingerboard can’t compare to original rosewood
If you like the dramatic, offset body shape of an Explorer but are looking for modern performance at low cost, the Jackson Kelly JS32 is worth exploring.
Considering that this guitar comes in under $300, it has impressive features like a compound radius and reinforced neck for added stability. The pickups are high-wound for added output, so make sure you’re ready for high-gain tones if you choose this axe.
Another modern feature is the Floyd-Rose style bridge, which allows you to do 80’s era divebombs while staying in tune.
Interested in what the Jackson Kelly JS32 has to offer? Check out these specs:
Compound 12-16” Fingerboard Radius. Rounder at the headstock for easy chords, and flatter towards the body for smooth guitar solos.
Dual Humbuckers. High-output to send your amp into overdrive at lower volumes.
Cheap Tonewoods. Poplar body and Amaranth fretboard. All meant to save you money, but will affect tone when playing clean.
Jackson definitely took a futuristic, yet classic body shape and ran with it with the JS32. This guitar is designed for high-performance at low-cost and it works.
- Smooth playability due to compound radius and 24 jumbo frets
- Speedy, 1-piece maple neck
- Floyd Rose Bridge/Tremolo
- Cheap tonewoods
- High-output pickups won’t work well for clean tones
If you plan on sticking with heavy gain tones, need a low-cost instrument and need high-performance specs, the JS32 is a modern and affordable take on the classic Explorer design.
The Dean ZX is a nearly faithful adaptation of the Explorer with some added aesthetic value that some will find really interesting. It has a quilted maple top finished in tobacco burst and has binding across the top for a really classy, timeless look.
The fixed bridge even has the V-Tunematic combo that you see on traditional Explorers, and the pickup configuration is the same as well.
Honestly, the only dead giveaway that this isn’t a Gibson Explorer is Dean’s iconic head shape, which I think works rather well with this body shape. It’s almost like having a Flying V paired with an Explorer.
Here are some specs worth mentioning:
Quilted Maple Top. With a mahogany body. Gives you classic sounds with some added high-end from the maple.
HH Pickup Configuration. Classic setup, but would be the first thing I upgrade.
Bolt-on Neck. The biggest departure from a classic Explorer, which are set neck designs. Likely done to cut costs, but will have an impact on the feel and tonality.
- Quality tonewoods
- Classic, but updated look
- Closely resembles Explorer
- Bolt-on neck
- Cheap pickups
- No case included
The Dean ZX is a great budget-friendly option if you’re looking for a guitar that closely resembles the Explorer style. Even with cost cutting measures like the bolt-on neck and forgettable pickups, the quilted/bound maple top really makes the guitar look cool.
If you know you want the Explorer body shape, but you need modern specs for your playing style, look no further than the LTD EX-401 from ESP.
The neck is LTD’s 3-piece, Thin-U shape, and set-through design gives you the optimal combination of tone, comfort, and stability. The neck is made to feel smooth and fast.
The fretboard is made of pau-ferro and is set for a 13” radius that allows for easy bending and quick scale runs.
What will likely make or break this guitar for you is that it uses active EMG humbucker pickups. These are designed for use with high-gain tones, so I would only recommend this guitar if you plan on utilizing it for that style of playing.
Here are the notable specs for this instrument.
Active EMG 81/60 Pickups. These are designed to sound aggressive and to add as much harmonic content as possible with high-gain settings. 81 in the bridge and 60 in the neck.
Thin, flat maple neck. This guitar is built for shredding. The neck is well thought out and will feel comfortable if you need to play fast.
Grover tuners/tune-o-matic bridge. This combo will definitely help with tuning stability and intonation, but some will miss the trem bar that this kind of shredding guitar often utilizes.
- Neck is built for speed
- Quality build and tonewoods
- Guitar has a purpose to its design and achieves it
- Budget friendly
- Won’t work for those looking for classic Explorer guitar
- EMG pickups make this guitar a one-trick-pony
If you want to learn more about LTD and ESP guitars, and which is right for you, check out our article here.
Looking for a guitar that’s more on the high-end of things? The Chapman Ghost Fret Pro has specs that make all the difference between a budget guitar and a lifelong instrument.
It’s all about the details with the Chapman Ghost Fret Pro, starting with the stainless steel frets. While most guitars have nickel frets, stainless steel offers durability that will last a lifetime with no re-frets necessary. They also offer a slightly brighter tone.
Even with modern features like stainless steel frets, a flat 13” fingerboard radius, and locking tuners, the Ghost Fret Pro has other features that call back to the classic Explorer. One such example is the passive humbuckers, meaning that this guitar is perfectly suitable for shredding as well as classic rock sounds.
Here are some other highlights to keep in mind:
Dual Humbuckers. With coil tapping functionality to give you passable single coil tones
Satin Finish. This makes moving across the C-shaped maple neck is nice and smooth feeling, without that sticky feeling that can come with nitro finish necks.
Carved Maple Top. Not only does this add a slight flame to the guitar’s top, it adds a certain snappiness that you can’t get from a purely mahogany body.
- Balance of classic and modern features
- Stainless steel frets will last for decades
- Versatile sounds with coil tapped humbuckers
- Equally as expensive as a Gibson Explorer
The Schecter E-1 isn’t shy about its influence, but it has plenty of hidden attributes that set it apart from the other Explorer alternatives on this list.
The body is three-piece mahogany with a maple top, giving you classic tonewoods with the snapiness and aesthetic only maple can offer.
The pickups are the standout feature here. The neck pickup is a Sustaniac pickup, which when switched on gives you the ability to sustain a note for as long as you are holding it out. The bridge pickup is a more traditional, yet still aggressive Apocalypse VI alnico humbucker.
These pickups are controlled using the E-1’s unique control layout of 1x Volume, 1 x Tone, 3-way toggle pickup switch, 2-way mini-switch (on/off), 3-way mini-switch (Sustainiac modes).
At first glance it looks like an obvious Explorer clone, but there are a few specs worth mentioning that will make this piece of gear play and feel completely different.
The Fretboard. Ebony, 12-16” Compound radius and 24 frets. This gives you some extended range and the compound radius makes navigating the fretboard easier.
Scale Length. The 25.5” scale length will definitely feel different than your standard 24.75” radius that Gibson favors. I suspect this is to get the 24 frets in, but the strings will feel tighter and bends will be more challenging, not unlike the feel of a Fender guitar.
Floyd Rose 1500 Tremolo. Talk about a serious trem system. This tremolo, paired with the locking nut, means that you can do dive-bombs and the guitar will stay in tune… usually.
Schecter makes incredible guitars, and while this is one of the more expensive models on this list, the features that come with it are what make it a good value.
- Unique and versatile pickups
- Extended range of 24 frets
- Classic tonewood selections
- Not for those looking for a direct clone of an Explorer
The Dean Z79 Floyd Rose is a step-up in terms of functionality from the ZX model above with the addition of a Floyd Rose tremolo system, as opposed to a fixed bridge. I think that his feature is what really brings the Z 79 into the metal world, as opposed to the ZX which I think works better for classic rock styles.
Even with the addition of a Floyd Rose tremolo, the Z79 is an accessible guitar in terms of price. This is mainly because of the tonewood selection.
The body is basswood, which is lightweight and has a similar tonal characteristic to mahogany, with less sustain and a less noticeable midrange.
The neckwood is mahogany and is shaped into a V-shape, which is an interesting choice for a shredder style guitar, which typically uses U or C slim shaped necks. This V neck will be comfortable to play and makes grabbing chords easy.
Here are some other specs worth mentioning.
22 Jumbo Frets. Jumbo frets are comfortable to some, and not-so for others. They make bends easier, but can give the feeling of “nothing but metal” under your fingers.
Passive Humbuckers. They are still relatively high output, but it’s nice to know you won’t need to replace a battery on a gig.
Gloss Finish. Don’t expect this guitar to age like vintage Explorers will (these have nitro finishes), but the shine on the maple tops are really nice.
- Perfect for 80’s style metal
- Traditional look, except for the awesome headstock
- Nice maple tops
- Overpriced for the specs and tonewood selection
Choosing between the Z79 and ZX models will come down to personal preference of tonewood, finishes, and bridges, but both are good guitars.
The Jackson X Series Kelly is a step up in price from the JS32 reviewed above.
It shares a lot of the same features as the JS32, including poplar body construction, neck-through design, dual hot humbuckers, and a Floyd Rose trem.
It seems that the only thing you are really paying extra for is the maple top. While the quilted top adds some exotic flare to the instrument, is it really worth the extra $400?
I think if you’re interested in Jackson guitars, they are a great alternative to the Explorer. They are aggressive in looks and in sound.
All that said, I would pay close attention to the specs and what you’re paying for.
Poplar bodywood. A cheap hardwood that doesn’t accentuate any particular frequency range. Great for dialing in heavy gain tones using your amp for EQ.
Floyd Rose/Locking Nut. Allows for dive bombs while keeping the guitar in tune.
Lightweight design. This guitar weighs under 8 lbs, making it a lightweight guitar for thrashing around on stage.
- Compound radius makes for easy shredding
- Unique body shape and pretty topwood
- Not enough features for price jump
- No case included
If you’re looking for one of the most modern adaptations of the Explorer available, you should definitely look into the Solar Guitars E1.6. This guitar is like the MacBook Pro of metal guitars.
One reason this guitar might be right for you is if you require active pickups. The Fishman Fluence Modern pickups are some of the best sounding active pickups available today.
The fretboard material is ebony, with 22 Super Jumbo frets over a 24.75” scale length and almost 14” radius, meaning that this guitar will feel like a vintage guitar with modern materials.
The bridge is the highly-talked about Evertune bridge, which does a great job of keeping your guitar strings in tune, especially when paired with the locking tuners.
Overall, this guitar looks hardcore, but understated and well built at the same time. It looks to have a satin finish, which makes it smooth and comfortable to play.
Alder body. Normally seen on Strat style guitars, alder provides a full-bodied and resonant tone, with present highs and moderate sustain.
No Fret Markers. Except for the logo engraving at the 12th fret. Side markers are also present.
Stainless steel frets. Slick feel makes great for bends and will last you a lifetime.
- Gig bag included
- Modern look and features
- Top of the line active pickups
- May not be for those who prefer vintage style instruments
This is one of the more expensive options on this list, but if you are open to modern guitars, it is a great instrument.
This is arguably one of the closest adaptations of the Gibson Explorer you can find on a budget, as it is part of Harley Benton’s Tribute series.
It has all the specs you would expect from this era of guitar – mahogany body, 22 jumbo frets, dual humbuckers, tune-o-matic bridge, and an antique natural finish to top it off.
That being said, there are some features that will satisfy modern players as well. The radius is 15”, one of the flattest on this list. It has locking tuners to help keep the guitar in tune better, plus string changes will be simple.
What’s even more impressive is that this guitar comes in for under $400, making it a very accessible Explorer alternative.
Here are more specs to keep in mind.
Gold Hardware. Adds to the vintage vibe
Amareth fretboard. Basically a knockoff of rosewood sonically and visually, but not quite as nice for either and is a cost cutting measure.
Roswell LAF Alnico 5 Humbuckers. Rather close to a PAF style pickup and a great value.
- Classic, tribute-worthy looks for the Explorer
- Good mix of classic and modern features
- Accessible price point
- Could be used in a wide range of genres
- Would like to see a better fretboard material
How to Choose The Best Explorer Copy – Buyer’s Guide
Having all the information about the above guitars is nice, but how do you sort through all that information? How do you really know what you need?
Since you’re considering Explorer alternatives, you clearly like this style of guitar.
The question really becomes, what do you like about this type of guitar?
When choosing an Explorer copy, it helps to think about which features are found on the original design, and compare it to the copies. Then, pick the features that are most important to you to keep, and the right copy will reveal itself to you!
As a reference, when comparing specs on a Gibson Explorer, I am looking at modern re-issues, which are more available to most players today as opposed to a 1958 model.
Materials & Build Quality
The Gibson Explorer features an all-mahogany, set neck construction with an antique, natural finish. The build quality is quite good when ordered from Gibson USA, with an adequate amount of consistency from unit to unit. The finishes are nitro and will age with time the more you play it.
When it comes to copies, many budget level guitars swap out mahogany for basswood or poplar. This changes the sound somewhat, but saves you money.
If you like to see your guitar age, there is no substitute for nitro finish. I’m pretty sure that none of the guitars on this list utilize nitro.
If you want the same build quality as a Gibson, or better, you’re more than likely going to have to spend the same amount of money.
The Explorer has a fixed bridge.
One modern feature that a lot of copies utilize is a Floyd Rose bridge, as it is favored by metal players that want extreme trem effects.
A lot of modern copies have the advantage of locking tuners, which I think really add to the stability of your guitar. This is one reason why I think a modern copy is a better choice than the original models.
Stainless steel frets are another modern feature that some copies use. This is a rather divisive feature, as stainless steel has a slicker feel and adds a small amount of high-end brilliance that some don’t like. If not specified, your guitar likely has nickel frets, which sound good, but wear out with use.
Genre of Music
Because of the Explorer’s angular, aggressive look, it is often favored by heavy metal players. Because of this, a lot of modern copies accentuate the angular aspect of the guitar to make it even more wicked looking.
If you are a blues player or otherwise, a vintage look may be more appealing to you.
Any guitar can be used for just about any style of music. What matters is how you play it.
The pickups and features have a large role to play as well…
Because the Explorer often falls in the hands of heavy-gain players, modern copies often swap out PAF style humbuckers featured in the OG Explorer for high-output or even active humbucking pickups.
Active pickups really push the front end of your amp and don’t sound anything like a vintage PAF humbucker. They also require batteries.
If you want to play metal guitar tones, many of the copies on this list will work for you. If you prefer vintage sounds, you may want to consider an Epiphone, or even a classic Gibson Explorer reissue.
The Gibson Explorer has a 12” radius and medium jumbo frets. This works best for classic rock, medium speed playing.
If you want a shred machine, the Explorer will work, but many of the copies on this list have flatter radiuses, larger, stainless steel frets, and hardware upgrades that make the notes fly under your fingers.
Another thing to consider is the scale length. Gibson Explorers are 24.75” and they have a certain feel. Some copies add frets up to 24, which require a longer scale length.
Because all the guitars on this list are inspired by the “Z” shape of the Explorer, they will all feel comparable in terms of balance and weight. It’s the minor details that will separate each guitar from one another, so try as many as you can.
Price is going to be a major factor for anyone looking at alternatives. The Gibson Explorer is a quality instrument and comes in at a higher price point of around $1700 new.
All of the guitars on this list come under that price point, some more than others.
With a higher price comes better tonewoods, better electronics, and better playability.
If price is of no issue and you want a period correct instrument, you can’t go wrong with a proper Gibson Explorer reissue.
No copy or alternative is exactly like the original.
Determine what you like about the explorer – the finish, the body shape, the pickups, the frets, the radius, the scale length. Then determine which of these you want the most and start your search there.
Even with the budget friendly models, the sense of “tribute” to the original Explorer is prevalent. All of these guitars will remind you and your listeners of an Explorer in one way or another.
In my opinion, they are all the right choice for one player or another!