The Explorer Bass Story
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Most vintage guitar buffs are aware of the “Modernistic” guitars of Gibson’s golden
era. In the late fifties the Flying V, the Explorer and the Moderne designs all made their
debut. Ted McCarty,the innovative and progressive president of Gibson, originally con-
ceived the radically shaped trio to compete with Leo Fender’s popular Telecasters and
Stratocasters. The Flying V and Explorer guitar prototypes were built in1957 and ap-
peared at the1958 NAMM show. Only the Flying V made it into the Gibson catalogue
in 1958, a watershed year for Gibson that saw the introduction of the new ES-335 thin-
line classic, the matching EB-2 bass and the new cherry sunburst Les Paul Standards. The
Explorer was listed with the Flying V in the July 1, 1958 price list (as "Modernistic" guitars)
for $247.50. The third new design, the Moderne, apparently existed only as a line draw-
ing on the patent application. No example of this Grail-like instrument has yet surfaced in
the vintage guitar world.
The Flying V and Explorer bodies were constructed from African Limba wood, which Gibson marketed
as “Korina”. Available information suggests that Gibson may have produced three
batches of 40 Flying Vs in 1958. In that year, 81 of them were shipped, with 17 more leaving the factory in 1959. Theoretically 22 of them remained at the plant in Kalamazoo. The Explorer totals have been a point of contention, but many Korina collectors think that one batch of 40 was produced. The Gibson production logs cryptically indicate that 19 “Korina (Mod. Gtr.)” left the factory in 1958 and 3 more in 1959, for a total of 22. Since no Modernes are known to exist, it is assumed that these “Mod. Gtrs" were (Modernistic) Explorers. Does this mean that at least 16 Explorer bodies remained in the factory after 1959? Heritage Guitar employee Jack French remembers being shown the remaining Flying V and Explorer bodies (with necks glued on) stacked in the “40” racks as a young Gibson employee in 1960. Eventually, an unknown number of Explorers and V’s were assembled from that stock and shipped in 1962 and 1963. These guitars had patent number pickups, nickel-plated tuners and bridges with plastic parts, metal-topped control knobs and black cases with yellow interiors.
The only known Explorer bass was apparently manufactured from one of those Explorer bodies and shipped in 1960. It’s volume and tone potentiometer dates read 50th, and 43rd weeks of 1959, respectively. The bass appeared, caseless, at Glenn Hughes Music in Cincinnati, Ohio in late 1960 or early 1961.
Who ordered this bass? I’ve uncovered three different claims. Cincinnati singer-bassist
Roger “Jellyroll” Troy first relayed this story to guitar historian Robb Lawrence. His
version of its origin was commonly accepted as gospel about the instrument for many
years. Roger claimed to have ordered it from Gibson, after being inspired by Lonnie
Mack’s Explorer guitar. My research indicates that Troy, while knowlegeable about it,
neither ordered nor even owned it. He also reported that he had played a second
Explorer bass, finished in sunburst. The “second Explorer bass,” has never come to light.
Claim #2: Cincinnati bassist “Hap” Arnold ordered the instrument in 1959. “I’d seen the Explorer guitar and when I found out there was no bass like it, I custom-ordered one through Glenn. You see, I was always trying to invent something new in those days. I even hoped that I’d get some kind of endorsement deal from Gibson because of it.” The road called first. Hap was slated to tour with guitarist Rusty York, who had a regional hit with “Sugaree”. Hap ended up buying a Fender Precision and never picked up the Explorer.
The third (and most credible) claim was told to me by Leon Moore. In 1960 Leon was a young Cincinnati bassist. His sister Carol, a female drummer, was a bit of a rarity for the time. Leon claims to have found the Explorer bass at Biddle’s Music in Reading, Ohio. It had apparently been ordered but never claimed by Richard McKinley, a bassist with Otis Williams and the Charms. Moore told me that at one time the bass hung in Biddle’s window beside a matching Explorer guitar. The guitar was eventually sold and Leon decided to upgrade from his Kay bass to the Explorer. He bought it for $325, but he disliked it almost from the beginning. He walked it into Glenn Hughes Music in Norwood and traded it in for a sunburst Precision bass.
Lonnie Mack had previously bought his Flying V (and an Explorer
guitar) from Glenn Hughes in 1959 and it was Hughes who fabric-
ated the hardware to attach the now-famous Bigsby vibrato. 19 year-
old Wayne Bullock, a fishing buddy of Lonnie’s, now enters the picture. Bullock began as a saxophonist in Lonnie’s band and then inherited the bass chair from Troy Seals. “I started out playing a plywood Danelectro through a homemade cabinet full of car radio speakers that had been built by (Lonnie’s drummer) Gene Lawson,” says Wayne, who still lives in southeastern Indiana outside of Cincinnati. “Finally I had to get a new (white Tolex) Bassman with 2 (2-12) bottoms just to keep up with Lonnie.” Wayne remembers that this was in 1962. The Explorer bass had been hanging in Glenn’s store for at least a year by then. “Every time we went into the store, Lonnie would try to get me tobuy that bass,” remembers Bullock. “But it was expensive, close to $300 and I didn’t particularly care for the way it felt.” Finally, on the eve of a road trip with Lonnie, Hughes offered the bass to Bullock for $150. It was a deal he couldn’t refuse.
The following year, Wayne used the Explorer on Lonnie’s first album on the Fraternity label, “The Wham! Of that Memphis Man”. Carl Edmonson producedthose sessions, yielding two of Mack’s most famous hits, “Memphis” and “Wham!”. “That Explorer bass was the only bass that I’d let into the studio that wasn’t a Fender,” Edmonson remembered recently. Lonnie and Wayne were returning from a long road trip backing Seals when they heard "Memphis" playing on the Caddie's radio. A telephone call to Fraternity told them to get home and get ready to go out again, as headliners. "Memphis" was streaking up the charts.
As the early publicity pictures show, the bass originally had banjo tuners, a black plastic pickup cover with centered pole pieces, a tone and volume control and the stock “baritone” or "choke" push-button switch common to EB-2 basses after 1958. Along the way, the switch was replaced by another pot (dated 44th week of 1962) that blends the tonal effect into the signal. The capacitor is mounted beneath the bridge, in similar fashion to a stock EB-2 of the time. The pickguard material is identical to that used on the Explorer guitars, a four-ply white-black-white-black. The control cavity cover is made of the same cocoa-brown plastic found on those guitars. The body obviously started out as an Explorer guitar, as it is routed for two humbucking pickups (filled at the factory) and a selector switch in the horn. Additionally, the stop-tailpiece screw fittings for an ABR-1 bridge remain under the pickguard. (See "In Detail" for photos).
The bass’ original Korina finish was an early casualty of the road. Wayne
relates that the band was traveling for hours through sub-zero weather to a
gig in Minnesota. When they arrived and began setting up to play in the
steamy roadhouse, he strapped the Explorer on and Lonnie immediately started
laughing and asking him what waswrong with his bass. The lacquer finish was
falling off of it in large flakes. When he returned to Cincinnati, Hughes Music
guitar tech Dick Westendorf refinished it metallic green. A few years later, when this finish began to come off on his clothes, Bullock had the bass repainted metallic blue. Along the way, Lonnie's "# 7" was repainted red.
Dick Westendorf (l.) and Wayne Bullock
in Cincinati, 2003
Bullock says that the bass never had a proper case from the factory, just a wooden box that he built himself to protect it on the road. In January of 1964, that case did its job when the band’s equipment van skidded off U.S. 69 in Leon, Iowa and was demolished. The band’s organist, Marv Schuck, and saxophonist Marvin Lieberman were both injured in the crash. The organ was destroyed but the Explorer bass and Lonnie’s V survived.
Right- the wrecked Econoline in an Iowa field. Lonnie's Cadillac can be seen in the background. The key that Wayne pulled from the still-running van is taped to the photo.
Wayne accompanied Lonnie to the Gibson factory in early 1964. “Lonnie was talking to them about some kind of endorsement deal and I was just hanging around. About that time they were just coming out with the Thunderbird bass and they asked me what I thought of it. I said that I was just as happy with my Explorer.” When the Gibson reps realized that Bullock had the Explorer bass in Lonnie’s Cadillac, they asked him to bring it in. They brought an “elderly, well-dressed gentleman” in from the production line and told Wayne that he was the man who had built that bass. The identity of this man remains a mystery.
Westendorf, the guitar tech, claims to have had a conversation in the Sixties with Gibson service manager Ray Juday, who told him that Gibson built two Explorer basses from existing guitar bodies. This would substantiate Roger Troy’s story. I managed to reach Juday in Kalamazoo but unfortunately he now has no specific memory about the Korina guitars. Sadly, almost sixty years after their manufacture, many of the people who could answer questions about these rare instruments no longer can or have passed away.
According to A.R. Duchossoir, in his book Gibson Electrics, Gibson claimed that there were 38 original Explorer guitars when they re-issued the model in 1976. Assuming a production run of 40 Explorers, could the two basses be number 39 and 40?
Does the other Explorer bass exist or has it been destroyed? The one that we know of has raised its share of questions. Some skeptics have argued that the lack of a serial number on the headstock invalidates it as a factory product. Since this bass was made from an Explorer guitar body, the original Korina guitar neck with inked-on serial number was removed. It appears that a stock EB-2 or EB-O neck was then fitted to the body. In classic Gibson style, the neck of the bass is made of mahogany sandwiching maple at the neck joint. The width and depth dimensions are identical to a 1959 EB-2 neck. The “scimitar” headstock was a complicated construction that consisted of at least three core pieces as well as veneer pieces of black-painted holly on the front and Korina on the back. The stamped serial number (if it ever existed) on the back of the EB-2 or EB-0 headstock would have been cut off when they constructed the scimitar. And so, having lost its two previous serial numbers, the instrument probably left the factory unmarked. All other hardware and parts on the bass are from the Gibson factory.
Wayne Bullock left Lonnie Mack for a stint in the Coast Guard in 1965. When he got out, he rejoined the band, now as an organist! He still plays his Hammond B-3 to this day. He wrapped the blue Explorer bass in a blanket and relegated it to a closet. Robb Lawrence was writing the Rare Bird column for Guitar Player when Roger Troy contacted him in 1973 and told him about the unique instrument. Robb subsequently purchased it from Bullock and found that at some point the "Gibson" logo had been removed from the headstock. Lawrence carefully restored the logo and repainted the face of the headstock and refinished the body back to a stock “natural” finish. After the bass had been shown to players Jack Bruce and John Entwistle, among others, guitarist Rick Derringer saw it. Derringer, an Explorer aficionado, convinced Robb to sell the bass to his manager, Steve Paul, who later gave it to Randy Jo Hobbs. Hobbs was the original bassist in the McCoys, Johnny Winter And and Edgar Winter's White Trash. Around 1977, Randy sold the Explorer to brothers Steve and Richard Friedman in Manhattan. Steve played the bass on Lou Reed's "Street Hassle" (1978) on the song "Leave Me Alone". Subsequently, it hung in the window of their store We Buy Guitars for several years. Guitarist and vintage instrument supplier to the stars Tony Dukes bought it around 1981 and brought it to Texas. The bass remained in a private collection in Victoria, Texas until 1995, when dealer John Nelson purchased it and returned it to California.
While the existence of a second Explorer bass remains to be proven, this one-of-a-kind existing example is real and has had a rich and colorful history. Already unique due to its status as the only Gibson Korina bass, it has recorded history from the seminal recordings "Wham!" and "Memphis" to playing with New York City's poet laureate of rock, Lou Reed. This instrument truly deserves its place in rock and roll history.