This past week, I was paging through an old issue of Guitar Player mag, and noticed a picture of Nancy Wilson [who wouldn’t notice that absolutely beautiful angel of rock] playing an Epiphone Les Paul in an Epiphone ad. Epiphone is a brand that guitarists know, and is considered to be the “bargain” line of Gibson. But I was curious to find out more, so I did a search to see if I could find a history of the brand. It’s an amazing story!
After I read the article, I remembered that I have an Epiphone 58 Korina Explorer collecting dust in my garage. I originally purchased it for my son as a Christmas present a few years ago, but sadly, he’s given up playing for awhile (he’s devoted pretty much all his time to ice hockey, and that’s okay with me). So I reclaimed it for myself. Unfortunately the Explorer has not been touched for quite some time.I think part of my not playing this guitar so much is that I had this bias about Epiphone being a “cheap” brand. But after seeing that ad in GP, and then seeing that a lot of other great guitarists play Epi’s, plus after reading the Epiphone history, I decided to take my Korina out, and give it a whirl. Also, I’ve had this view that the Explorer is more of a pure rocker’s guitar (think Matthias Jabs of the Scorpions), and I was admittedly very intimidated by the legacy of great players who play the Explorer. So it was with a bit of reluctance that I took it out to play it.
As the guitar had been sitting for a long time, it was obviously very out of tune. Luckily it was dust-free as it sat in a great hard case that I purchased for it all these months; and luckier still that before I put it in the garage, I restrung it with my favorite Fender nickel plated steel strings (Fender Super 250s – actually pretty cheap strings, but I love their tone), so I didn’t have to worry about re-stringing the instrument. After a quick check, and re-adjusting the low E-string’s intonation ever so slightly, I plugged the guitar into my rig, and tuned her up. Once I got her tuned, I strummed a chord, and was completely surprised by the “OH MY F^&KIN’ GAWD!” response that came over me.
The sound that this supposedly “cheap imitation” produced was absolutely gorgeous! Oodles and oodles of sustain, a real natural, overdriven tone, and a beautiful punch from the dual humbuckers. I gotta tell ya, I’m absolutely giddy from the sound that this produces! No wonder Michael Schenker has played an Explorer all these years! So let’s go into a bit more detail, shall we?
First off, this is a very mid-rangy guitar, when you’re using both humbuckers. Setting the switch to the neck position deepens the tone ever so slightly, and turning the volume knob down produces a beautifully clear clean tone. As one might expect, the bridge pickup picks up more of the high-freq tones, but it’s not “tinny” as many bridge position pickups tend to be. Mind you, this is a guitar that is not for the faint of heart with respect to overdriven tone. The Explorer wants to growl, and any volume position higher than 3 will produce breakup. That may be just this particular guitar, but it’s something I totally appreciate in it. As a side note, another reason why I didn’t play this guitar was at the time, I was a bit intimidated by playing with an overdriven tone. I didn’t know how to control it. But now that I do, I have a renewed appreciation for what this guitar delivers.
Did I mention sustain? The Explorer just loves to sing, and I was totally amazed at the natural sustain that this thing has. Adding my OCD to the signal, just enhanced that sustain with beautiful overtones and harmonics. Then punching in my TS-808 beefed up the midrange. While you might think this was overkill, the sound didn’t get muddy at all! It’s pure ear-candy!
Now even though this guitar wants to growl, it responds well to the volume knob. Increasing levels of volume add more drive and chunk, but the cool thing is that it’s very gradual. Some guitars I’ve played have a threshold where drive comes on suddenly at a certain point. That’s tough to control – especially if you’re in the middle of a song. With the Explorer, it’s easy to dial in just the right amount of break-up that you want. What I’ve done is set the volume knobs to about 4 or 5 to get a nice rumble, then let my TS-808 and OCD pedals add more texture. It’s a nice combo.
Finally, a very pleasing feature that I played around with is feedback. It’s even easier to get this puppy to feedback than with my ES-335, which is known for the nice feedback it produces. The feedback from the Korina is higher in pitch than my 335, and is much more subtle. The 335, on the other hand produces a feedback that’s very robust – a bit too much. But the Korina seems to just make the feedback part of its delivery, and it comes across almost like an overtone – nice!
The neck is narrow with a shallow, C-shaped back. In other words, it’s a very fast neck. I had my Korina set up with a pretty low action, and had the frets ground down a bit for my son. That was a good call on my part because that’s how I like my necks anyway. I don’t like to dig in too much, and rely on bending and rocking to produce vibrato.The rosewood fretboard (which is something I absolutely love), has a real nice feel to it, and begs you to dig in and apply all sorts of vibrato. Like other Gibson-esque guitars, the neck’s position in relation to the body really draws you to play in the upper registers. Contrast this to a Strat, where I have to move the guitar a bit left to get to the upper registers. It’s not bad, it’s just different.Frankly, even though the Explorer has a space-age shape, it’s a very balanced guitar. The pickups are perfectly positioned, so you can rest your forearm on the body a tad bit, and really articulate the strings with your picking hand. Also, I found that because of the position of the pickups, I could get pinch harmonics without moving around much to find the nodes. On the Korina, the strongest-sounding nodes are just in front of the bridge pickup.
Surprisingly enough, the Explorer feels even lighter than my Strat! The size of the body might suggest a heavy guitar, but it’s quite light, and will be very easy to move around with on stage.
Summing it up…
I should really kick myself for my “cheap” bias surrounding this guitar. After all, I chose a $500 Made in Mexico Stratocaster over a $2400 American Standard. Why? Simply because its sound kicked ass over the American Strat. Here’s the kicker with my Korina Explorer: I paid $200 for it, then spent another $100 getting it cleaned and set up. The guy I bought it from said it was a sweet-sound guitar that played much better than what I was paying for it. He wasn’t wrong. I’ve had a hidden gem in my collection of guitars for all this time, and I didn’t even know it!