The Limited Run Gibson Melody Maker Explorer Review – Three to play, two to own for first impressions
I am constantly on the prowl for interesting instruments to play, to record, to enjoy. It is in my inner fibers, I guess… I really like the balance and the chunk of Explorer- and Firebird-shaped guitars. I’ve played tons of them, in many brands, in many configurations, of many ages.
I don’t have a huge budget, so snagging $800+ guitars (used, $1400 new) on a several-times-a-year basis is not really feasible. Some of the Asian-made guitars are fun and nicely made, but they always leave me wanting… a cheap LTD ESP EX401 might play nicely, but it doesn’t make me want to pick it up and play it!
Enter Gibson’s 2011 Limited Run guitars. Among these? A line of blue (yay! something other than cherry or walnut!), white, and black Melody Makers in new configurations! SG, Les Paul, Explorer, and even a Flying V! These things are low-cost, American-made, come with a NICE gig bag, and sound amazing!
Other than some market confusion on specs, these guitars are out-of-the-ballpark. I’ve owned a few and customized several for friends/customers. I’m really enchanted with the Explorer version of the Melody Maker. Here’s why…
Quick Opinion: The Gibson Melody Maker Limited Run Explorer is a bargain. They sound like the growly stuff you expect from a USA Gibson Explorer, are easy on the shoulder (and say it again, wallet). They’re bone-simple to own, play, and enjoy. And, if you’re a Dr. Frankenstein like me, you can easily make wonderful concoctions with these at a low price. I’m always hesitant to mod a Gibson Standard (anything), other than a knob or maybe a careful pickup change. I think Gibson gets them right nearly every time. Even when I buy used Gibsons, I appreciate the way they’re made and how they’re configured. But, I will be me, after all. Modding Fenders is a blast. Modding a Gibson is fun, too!
The Gibson Limited Run Melody Maker Explorer is a joy to play. They’re very affordable, and sound terrific. Hand made in the USA. What’s not to like? I love mine!
The Gibson Melody Maker Explorer (and V and SG and Les Paul) Limited Run guitars may not be available by the time you read this, but you can see more about Gibson Melody Maker guitars here at zZounds. I truly like their “love your guitar” guarantee.
Playability: Playability is one of the places the Melody Maker Explorer really shines. Turn the volume knob up, jack in, and play. Sounds zzounds! The neck is a cool Melody Maker variant. It’s not an LP neck (any vintage), it’s not an SG neck (any vintage), it’s not a Fender-y neck for the most part. What is it like? It’s a “C” shape for sure on the ones I’ve kept (they’re not all the same, I assure you). The neck is medium in every way. It’s a beginner’s guitar by its description – entry-level for folks who have a variety of capabilities, hand sizes, and such. It is narrower than my Firebird or my Les Paul Standard in most ways. It is thinner than my SG Special or my Firebird.
Similarly, it is somewhat reminiscent of a 60’s Les Paul neck, just smaller in two of the dimensions. It’s kind of like a wide, thinner Telecaster neck. It doesn’t feel like a broom handle or baseball bat. It’s nothing like a Gibson ES neck… As I said, the neck is a “Melody Maker” neck. Something like the 2007 Melody Maker reissue (one single coil in a narrow-bobbin format) I used to have.
My MM Explorers are a joy to play. They’re lighter than their larger standard Gibson Explorer cousins – and about 1/5 smaller in most ways, too. They’re VERY easy on the shoulder and can be played for a long time. They’re easy on a strap, and mostly easy when you are sitting down. Here’s another difference between the MM Explorer and the “standard” Explorer: The MM likes to slide a bit on my knee and need occasional fidgeting to adjust it as I play it. Not really a big deal – but it happens… I do like the smaller top half of the body: my picking hand is all over the play area with NOTHING in the way. The fretting hand has access to everything. It’s like the body just isn’t in the way. I LOVE it. In general, I like Firebirds and Explorers – and one of the reasons is the small amount of body wood over the connection to the neck. And… the MM Explorer has less wood than the big cousins do.
Here’s something that’s squirrelly about my Limited Run Melody Maker Explorers: even with a set of .010-.046 set of nickel or nickel-plate strings, the Explorer actually get’s tuning-crazy when I grip the neck/fretboard/strings with my hand with any strength. This guitar likes thicker strings! It’s a regular Gibby 24 3/4-scale neck with a 1 11/16 nut, but it just doesn’t feel substantial enough to handle a tight grip. By contrast, my (same year, similar construction) Limited Run Melody Maker SG in white does not play the same way. Seriously. I’m experimenting with Ernie Ball STHB (Skinny Top Heavy Bottom) strings… I’m TRYING to find some more Carlos Santana GHS Strings at .0105 for the high E, but have had no luck. I think they’re a perfect match for my MM Explorers. From the factory? The factory strings are bulk .010s and feel a little squeamish. We’ll see. If I have the time again someday, I’ll write a long-term review and talk about it some more.
For a beginner, these guitars play VERY easily. My students love them when they’re starting out.
Sound: There are many components to sound quality in an instrument. Like the Gibson LP Studio Baritone, the “sound” portion of this review deserves a little more depth than usual. I’ll explain as I have done in other reviews of recent vintage:
2) Tone woods, body, neck, bridge
3) USA Made and Simple
Pickups and Electronics: These are the simplest Gibsons I’ve ever played. One simple potentiometer (pot) for volume, a little braided vintage-style push-back wire from the pot to the jack and another from the pot to the pickup. No capacitors, switches, or three miles of wire to interfere. Just. Plain. Simple. It pays off in droves on these guitars. Almost like taking the sound directly from the guitar into the amp in a “mainline.” The parts are good quality Gibson-usual stuff.
Here’s a point of some contention on the internets and interwebs: What pickup comes in my Melody Maker? It turns out, in the real world, that it varies, really. And, it’s not consistent in each model of Melody Maker, either. The sales sites and even some Gibson pages indicate that a Seymour Duncan “Duncan Designed” HB10x pickup is used in the Melody Maker Explorer and V. However, I’ve seen differently with my own two eyes and my own two paws. Like my Melody Maker SGs of this run, all three of the Melody Maker Explorers I’ve modded or opened have a Gibson 491T (ceramic magnet bridge pickup), just like the three Melody Maker SGs I’ve opened and modded. (BTW, I do have one Explorer that’s not modded… I liked it enough to keep it as-is).
So, it depends on what day it was, and what was in the pickup bins when the guitars were made? I don’t know for sure, but I DO know that there are variances in what was actually used. In EITHER case, the pickup – either the Seymour Duncan or the Gibson, sounds GREAT! The pickup is more articulate than inexpensive humbuckers from other manufacturers. Period. It’s bright and snotty when you want it to be, and it can play almost clean when you lightly play. Overall, this pickup is designed to drive the tubes. It is not a Jazz or New Age pickup. It’s loud, proud, and in the cloud!
One more note on the pickup: They sound hotter than a 490T to me… the 490T can clean up more, but the 491T can get the brown sound going MUCH easier!
Tone woods: The Gibson Limited Run (yes, different from other MMs – for posterity’s sake, that’s why I keep calling them that) Explorer has an interesting set of woods. The neck is quarter-sawn mahogany glued-in with a mortise and tenon joint, the body is a resonant solid maple, and the fretboard is a “baked maple.” Since the guitar is coated with a somewhat thin coat of nitrocellulose lacquer, it breathes well and is VERY resonant.
Interesting? I really like maple fretboards in general… I like the way they sound and the way they play and the way they feel (Yes, I like ebony, rosewood, mahogany, and even some of the composite fretboards, too! Maybe I like ebony and maple the best? Well, it depends on what I’m playing…). When you pick up one of the 2011 Melody Maker Explorers, your brain says, “that’s a rosewood fretboard all day long.” Actually, Gibson made them from maple – they just “bake” the wood and heat-treat it to make it brown. I think the new maple fretboard is pretty neat. It sounds and feels like that plank-spankin’ maple, but looks like traditional Gibson stuff…
USA Made and Simple: Tone? Great tone sometimes comes from excellent craftsmanship of the finest, yet SIMPLEST things. These Melody Maker Explorers are no exception to that. REAL craftsmen/craftswomen made these in the USA – and did a great job making them sound great. The simplicity and selection of parts and the care of craftsmanship all speak volumes in the sound of these guitars. I’m sold. When are they making more? I never got to get a V or a Les Paul version with which to tinker.
Quality: Other than a few foibles I’ve seen on the internet for other people’s Melody Maker Explorers (warped pickguards, errors in finish), I’ve had nothing but superb success with my Melody Maker Explorers. The quality is absolutely top-shelf. Seriously. These are FAR better than the $800 Epiphone ES-339 Ultras I tried to buy and play.
The paint is consistent in thickness, evenness, and smoothness. These are thicker-applied lacquers than on my “faded” SG Special or the Faded Vintage Mahogany Les Pauls I’ve played. Overall, the paint is more perfect than its price-point demands. The plastics and metals are excellent in consistency. And, the general shape of the body and neck is consistent enough for everyday play.
Value: Value is one of the strong points of a Limited Run Gibson Melody Maker Explorer. When they were introduced, they were just over $500. Later in their for-sale-new life, they’ve come to the low $400 range. I believe the guitars are worth the original price point (allowing for the occasional sale). The quality, the craftsmanship, the sound, the gig bag, and the USA-made-ness of these is well worth the money.
These are far higher in quality than equally-priced low-end Asian explorer-type-body guitars. The sound is largely equal or better than those in its price point. When the price went way down at the end of the availability for the 2011 models, I could have blazed trying to get some money together to grab a few before they were gone. In the end, I did snag a couple, but to tell you the truth, these are a modder’s dream for those like me who can appreciate a simple quick change to a limitless number of new one-pickup sounds.
Features: Simple. Features are not the point with a Melody Maker. Playability and price are the strongest points of a Melody Maker (and, methinks that’s the way it has been for a long time).
However: Here’s the interesting stuff:
* One of my Melody Maker Explorers has genuine Kluson white-button Deluxe tuners. One of the others has Gibson Deluxe white button tuners. According to the Kluson folks, they’re not the same thing (or, at least they weren’t when I talked to a rep back in 2010). I think it is interesting that I’ve gotten variations on one or the other on the five different Limited Run MMs I’ve had/owned in the past year’s time.
* As mentioned before, the pickups aren’t always what they seem. All of the Melody Makers I’ve opened have had Gibson USA 481T pickups and not Duncan Designed HB10x pickups.
* I love Gibson: but the smoothed black top-hat knobs are HARD to grab when you’re trying to do volume swells or fast changes to volume. Really. I understand the tradition and vintage-y thing, but these smooth slippery top-hat guys don’t work easily on anything but Eddie VanHalen low-friction pots. The Gibson OEM pots don’t turn that easily when new… I almost always swap them out for knurled metal screw-bound knobs or Gibson speed knobs.
* The gig bags are ABOVE PAR. Nicely-padded, attractive, and included in the price.
Wishes: Not much to wish for on these, Gibson… However: Offer a two-pickup version (next time around) for a bit more? One thing that would have sold boatloads of these would have been to put banana headstocks on all of them (including the Les Paul). Maybe some consistency as to what pickups and parts were used?
Could we please have a MM Explorer-sized Gibson Gear hard case? I’ve ended up with a full-size Explorer case for one and a bass case for the other. The guitars bang around… too much room…
P.S. I really wish the control routing was big enough for deep pots (like a concentric or push-pull) and for enough room for me to put in a tone pot or a battery (for active pickups like EMG or Seymour Duncan). I’m not so good at routing – don’t have a woodworking shop…