The Flying V and the Explorer are two of the most iconic guitars of all time. Dave Davies, Allen Collins, Jimi Hendrix, The Edge, Neil Young, Albert King, Brent Hinds, Gary Moore, Matt Heafy, and so many more have used these classic guitars on-stage and in the studio to create their music. Though these guitars are now beloved legends of the guitar world, they weren’t always so popular…
In this article, we’re going to be talking about the origins of the Flying V and Explorer and how they were ahead of their time. The history of these guitars is a fascinating deep dive into the rivalry between Gibson and Fender and a textbook example of something being ahead of its time, so get ready to learn all about the complex origins of these incredible guitars.
The story of the Flying V and Explorer begins in the early fifties, years before they were ever put into production. In 1951, Leo Fender introduced the Telecaster. The guitar ended up changing the face of music as we know it, and it quickly became the most popular guitar of the time. Gibson, being focused on hollowbody guitars and acoustic instruments, realized that Fender was preparing to take over the market and knew they had to do something about it.
In 1952, Gibson released the now iconic Les Paul, their attempt to compete with the Telecaster. Though the Les Paul was a great success at the time, Fender released their new Stratocaster just a few years later in 1954. Yet again, Fender released a new guitar that shook up the market and became the guitar everyone was talking about. With a modern look and space-age name, the Stratocaster captured the American consciousness in a way that Gibson’s more traditional instruments couldn’t. The Stratocaster was a modern guitar for modern America, while Gibson’s guitars just seemed old-fashioned in comparison.
The Gibson company knew that they had to continue competing with Fender, otherwise Fender would continue to grow and take over the guitar market. In response, Gibson once again went to the drawing board to come up with something to rival Fender. However, they had no idea how poor (and well) their plan would work.
In 1957, Gibson put together a team consisting of Ted McCarty, Jon House, Larry Allers, and Rendall Wall to create three new “Modernistic” guitars to compete with Fender—the Explorer, the Flying V, and the ill-fated Moderne. They wanted to introduce these guitars at NAMM and make waves in the industry. Seth Lover was also involved to an extent, though specifics about the team and their work are hard to find.
Design wise, the Flying V and Explorer are very similar other than shape. They both featured Gibson humbuckers, a 24.75” scale length, 22 frets, tune-o-matic bridge, rosewood fretboard, and a Korina body and neck. The choice of Korina is particularly interesting since it was not commonly used for guitars at the time. Most manufacturers would have chosen mahogany, but Gibson opted for Korina, likely due to the fact it looks similar to blonde Fender guitars. Gibson had also made lap steel guitars with Korina, so it’s possible that having extra Korina laying around factored into the decision.
After creating these three designs, Gibson filed patents for the guitars’ designs. This was an unusual move for Gibson, as they typically only got patents for tech focused things like pickup designs. It was likely a response to Fender since they applied for patents for the Telecaster and P-Bass designs.
It’s unsure which of the three guitars actually made it to NAMM. There is a photo of an unfinished Explorer at NAMM, but no confirmation exists of the other two guitars being there. However, it’s likely that the other models were there, as the event was used to gauge interest and enthusiasm for the designs. The Explorer and Flying V were both eventually put into production, but the Moderne did not—suggesting that all three guitars were viewed at NAMM, but the Moderne didn’t do well enough to make it to production.
In February of 1958, Gibson put the Explorer and Flying V into production. Finally, Gibson’s new rivals to the Stratocaster were hitting the market. There was one issue though—they weren’t selling. Only 81 Flying Vs and 19 Explorers were produced in 1958, meanwhile 434 sunburst Les Pauls were sold the same year. While the Flying V had some success, both guitars were failures at competing with the Stratocaster.
Despite their poor sales, Gibson tried to put a positive spin on the poor numbers. They argued that many music stores found them to be useful as window dressing, attracting customers with their wild designs and encouraging sales of other instruments. Still, most stores didn’t even find success using them as a marketing tool.
Gibson hoped sales would improve the following year as more people knew about the guitars, but that was sadly not the case. Sales of the Explorer and Flying V were even worse in 1959, selling 3 and 17 respectively. Combined, Gibson only sold twenty Explorers and Flying Vs in 1959, a bad sign for these two guitars.
By the end of the year, Gibson stopped producing both the Explorer and Flying V. Though the guitars were great instruments worth thousands now, the guitar world just wasn’t ready to embrace the wild designs. They simply were ahead of their time. Thankfully, 1959 would not be the end for these two incredible designs.
The Times Catch Up
Gibson may have stopped production, but the Flying Vs and Explorers they did make were still out there. These guitars were hanging up in music stores all over the country, waiting to be bought and played. Their eye-catching designs would soon lead to their renaissance, bringing the guitars back into the public consciousness.
Dave Davies of the Kinks was in a local music shop in 1965 when a Flying V caught his eye. He bought the guitar and began using it on stage. Surprisingly, people were very interested in Davies’ guitar and wanted their own. As demand started to build for more Flying Vs, Gibson was reluctant to try again since the guitar failed so spectacularly last time. However, the demand would eventually be too much for Gibson to resist.
By 1967, Flying Vs were back in production. Soon, some of the most popular artists in the country, like Jimi Hendrix, could be seen using the Flying V. The times finally caught up with the Flying V, and guitarists of the time finally saw how incredible of a guitar the Flying V was. As the years went by, the Flying V was released and re-released countless times. Now, Gibson and Epiphone both make a variety of Flying V models, and they are still popular guitars.
So what about the Explorer? How did that make a comeback? It took a bit longer, but the Explorer’s comeback happened in a similar manner to the Flying V. The few Explorers in existence got played and eventually got some buzz in the guitar community. In 1975, Ibanez released a copy of the Explorer called the Destroyer. The guitar would be used by Ace Freehly of Kiss, as well as others, and start to gain popularity.
With demand building and rockstars using copies of their Explorer on-stage, Gibson decided it was finally time to bring back the Explorer. In 1976, Gibson reintroduced the Explorer and sued Ibanez over trademark infringement, leading to the Destroyer’s discontinuation in 1978 (though they did reintroduce a modified version later). Just like the Flying V, the Explorer has now been released and re-released countless times. It is a classic and essential part of the Gibson product line, still selling well to this day.
The Flying V and Explorer are iconic guitars in 2022, but it took a long time to get there. Gibson originally introduced these guitars to compete with the Startocaster, but they were too ahead of their time and failed. As the years went by and the public started to change their minds about them, Gibson realized that the time was finally right for their modernistic designs.
Gibson re-released the Flying V in the 60s with the Explorer following suit in the 70s. Since then, both of these guitars have only continued to gain notoriety, eventually becoming two of the most iconic guitar designs ever. They may have been failures at first, but these guitars eventually earned the recognition they deserve.