The Epiphone Explorer 1999 Korina Natural Finish Review!
I’ve been looking for an older Epiphone Korina Explorer (natural finish, as opposed to ebony) for quite some time. I wanted the old generic tulip/keystone tuners, the “sandwich” body, the excellent medium-output “Epiphone” engraved gold-cover humbuckers, and a simple rosewood fingerboard. I found one the other day on one of the main Internet used guitar sites at a price that was very attractive. It looked like it had hardly been played! There were no chunks worn out of the first 7 frets from barre-chord hard strumming – as a matter of fact, they looked unplayed, still tall and rounded on the top.
The sandwich wood is three-piece with one particularly nice-sized piece in the upper half of the body. The coloring and dyes used are very consistent and have that lovely “Old Gibson” golden yellow tint.
I wanted this guitar to do some experimenting with sound, with pulling the tuners, wiring, and pickups carefully out and preserving them for the future. (When I originally bought this guitar, I built it with this in mind: modding it with a very specific set of electronics, solder, tone cap, and some truly wonderful USA-made humbuckers… I’ve since changed my mind and have left it completely alone other than strap locks and 19:1 tuners. Read the “Sound” section below.)
When I saw this 1999 model, I jumped on it VERY quickly because it was un-damaged, mostly un-played, and un-modified. I am truly pleased to have this example in my library.
The 1999 Korean-made Epiphone Korina Explorer is a great guitar. Its features and sound are fantastic, and it’s always a sure bet when you’d like to put on an Explorer at a low cost.
I’ve always found the Sandwich Epiphone Korina guitars (Firebird Studio, Explorer, SG, and Les Paul) to be a little funny to behold at first, as the front and back veneers always look so nice, with BRIGHT golden sides of much less dense and pretty Korina wood in the middle. Once you get past the visual edge between the veneer and the center wood, they’re really great instruments. The SG is the one that has the most striking veneer demarkation, as the veneer is only on the front-most part of the horns, with the cutaway being the sandwiched wood. C’est la vie.
Overall? The Epiphone Korina Explorer is a great bargain, a good-looking guitar, and a joy to play. The fretboards are especially nice and thick… The older, non-stickered but embossed pickups are really sweet – especially if you are looking for that Tar-Back sound (more on this in the “Sound” section of this review.”
Feature-wise, my Epiphone Korina Explorer is set up with pretty much a modern interpretation of the original Korina 1958 Explorer.
Gold hardware and pickup covers
Korina gold/yellow/amber body coating (nitrocellulose lacquer on the original, poly on the 1999 Epiphone)
White pickguard with pickup selector switch near the upper-treble-side horn/bout
Tulip/keystone tuning keys above the hockey-stick headstock
Three controls, Bridge Volume-Neck Volume-Tone
Jack on the bottom of the lower bout edge
Slender control cavity cover on the back of the body
Glued-in set neck with the traditional Gibson bump on the base of the neck
Rosewood fretboard with dot inlays.
Here are the actual specs for my individual 1999 Epiphone Korina Explorer (yours actually could vary, as parts sometimes get switched mid-year):
* Korina “Sandwich” body (Korina veneer on top and back, three pieces of Korina sandwiched in the middle.)
* Maple neck stained to look the same color tone as the body – a bright gold/yellow that’s very distinctive hearkening to the original ’58 Explorer
* Scarf joint set neck
* Old-school gold keystone non-branded tuners (good tuning radius, but not very reliable when down-tuning, even with lubricant in the nut)
* Great old Epiphone humbucker pickups – with the “Epiphone” engraved base plate, these are getting hard to find.
* Well-balanced rosewood thick fingerboard – buffed to a nice shine… even though the fretboard is not painted, it almost looks shiny enough to have been lacquered
* Traditional B/W/B three-ply pickguard
* Old-style Epiphone Korean electronics and soldering techniques
* Black plastic square jack plate
* Two volume control potentiometers and one master tone potentiometer all are inch-sized Asian pots
* Traditional black speed knobs with numbers
* A mechanical Switchcraft-style three-way toggle pickup selector, N-NB-B – very nice! Sturdy and largely make-then-break
* Nicely inlaid MOP Epiphone logo on the face of the headstock
* Dot inlays on the fingerboard from fret 3 on up as traditionally done (hard to tell if these are pearloid or MOP)
* Black plastic pickup rings
* Old-school Epiphone gold large-knob strap buttons, one on the top of the bass-side upper bout, one on the traditional back-face of the lower bout
* 24.75” Scale length
* Plastic molded nut (sturdy and of run-of-the-mill quality)
* 22 Medium-jumbo frets (these are actually a little different than the current 2016 Epiphone Korina Explorer, in a pleasant way. But not huge…
* Gold-plated Zamak pot-metal stop bar
* Gold-plated Tune-o-Matic bridge with adjustable saddles
* From my best guess with my limited tools, it appears to be about a 12″ radius fingerboard
I love Gibson Explorers, Gibson Firebirds, and Gibson RD guitars. I like they way they feel, I like the full neck access, I like the way they look, and I like the way they sit on my leg when I’m seated and recording into the wee hours of the morning. Know that my review is written from that perspective.
I did end up replacing my original 1999 tulip/keystone gold tuners with more accurate and much finer Hipshot Locking Gold Inline tuners with the control plate on the back – this didn’t mod the original guitar at all, and the down-tune slippage of the original tuners is no longer an issue. I saved, of course, all the original parts :-).
The neck is a nice shape. It’s something between the bigger neck of a Firebird and the thicker neck of the original old-school Gibson Explorers. It’s not particularly flat anywhere, and the shape feels as though someone at the Korean Epiphone factory actually took the time to shape the neck blank for this particular neck. It’s easy, unobtrusive, and fits big hands and small. (Margaret is my neck tester for smaller-hand opinions, my hands are quite large in size, but slender in countenance.)
It sits easily when you play sitting down, and the entire neck is a breeze to play thanks to the basic design of Explorers in general. It feels pretty balanced in this case, partly because the body is lighter than the mahogany that’s used in my traditional Gibson Explorers. For the Explorer geeks out there, it’s about the same balance and feel as my Ash 2003 Gibson Explorer Pro.
When standing and on-strap, it’s fairly light as Z-shaped guitars go. Not as heavy as a Les Paul, not nearly as light as an SG or a Fender Tele. It’s comfortable enough for a set or for an entire gig. Nice!
The hard, close-grained rosewood fretboard has a neutral feel to it. The radius feels just about right, not quite as flat as a Fender Tele or Strat feels. It seems like a great piece of wood. It’s been on a neck hook for most of its 18 years of life (as of this writing), and the rosewood has held up fabulously. None of the frets are popped or sharpened, none of the feel of the neck is that cheap dry feel many older Asian-made guitars have. To its tribute, the rosewood was lovingly cured and prepared before it became a guitar fingerboard, and you can tell it. I gave it a light, quick coat of high-grade lemon oil and it actually didn’t look much different, but it felt a little more comfy on bends.
Sound is an absolute tour-de-force on this guitar. Take any two-humbucker stoptail guitar on the market under $500 with no mods and play it after playing this old Epiphone Explorer, and you’ll mostly go back to the Explorer every time, given the choice. Bear in mind that these pickups aren’t the “Super Crunch” super-duper-high-output kind. That’s the domain of some active pickups and even the newer Super Ceramic Gibson pickups. These pickups are about TONE. Gobs and loads and bucketfuls of medium-output tone. If you want more crunch, add an overdrive and/or a distortion pedal. If you want clean, articulate sound, go with these older Epiphone-embossed covered humbuckers.
On clean, no hot tubes, no pedals, the sound is simple and full-bodied. The bass-mid-treble balance is fairly equal, with just a tad off the top on the treble. Once you put it through a good vacuum-tube preamp with something like 12AX7s, turn them up just enough to put some more volume and width in the sound: now you get major juicy sound that’s a benefit to old-rock and jazz leads. Push the tubes a bit so that when you dig in to the strings it growls a little and you’ve got classic rock.
Push the tubes hard with this guitar and you get strong well-balanced leads and high-definition rhythm chords and rhythm arpeggios. Nicely done! Similarly, if you throw a bunch of pedals at it (say, chorus, reverb, overdrive, and a little fuzz) you get a swishy sizzler that is still articulated in the EQ range. This is more reminiscent of the mid-late 70s Tar Back pickups than the current super-duper Super Ceramic 500t/496R combo of recent Explorers. If you like versatility, the stock pickups are perfect. If you want super-sizzle and crunchfests, find a pair of Gibson USA 500t/496R uncovered pickups and you’ll have your face grinning in no time.
I am not truly sure, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the new 2017 Epiphone Korina Explorer doesn’t last too long. The last couple of times they were available, they were not around for really long periods of time.
I think the only thing that caused me trouble about the sound is that the neck and nut were cut slightly too short… I could never get the intonation to be Jim-satisfactory. The plain strings all have a variance of about 8 cents sharp, even with the saddles pushed all the way to the rear of the bridge. Unfortunately, since these are metric/Asian-spec tails and bridges, studs and posts, the clever Schaller fine-tuning tail piece and the awesome Hipshot Tone-a-Matic bridge don’t fit this guitar. The only way to fix the guitar to its optimum intonation is to cut a nut (I like bone or fossilized bone) specifically for the specs of this individual guitar. I’ll probably do that in the near future. For now, I think, I’ll just practice with it tuned slightly flat on the plain strings and do a little on-the-fly intonation on most notes.
Quality, Fit and Finish
With the exception of how Sandwich Epiphone bodies look when you first see them, the fit and finish is top notch. There is a hard gleam to the finish on all Korina and maple surfaces, the fretboard was laid in with a great deal of care, and the neck joint is fairly close to how its American-made cousins are put together.
Comparing this individual to the modern, Chinese-made 1958 Explorer Epiphone reissue, the quality of the Korean guitar is awesome. The new ones are also nicely done, so you would have to play individuals to decide which one suits you and is put together in a way that pleases you. I’m an old guy, so I love the old pickups more than the hotter new ones, and I like the feel of the Korean neck vs the Chinese neck.
I love this guitar in its new version, too. Although the new ones are made in China, it appears the fit and finish is pretty outstanding for the money! Snag one of these before they also go into the history books along with the 1999 Korina Epiphone Explorer.
Wishes and Wants
This has been out of production for quite some time, so I don’t want to really talk about what I would do different. That said, it would have been nice to not have a hollow plastic nut. The brand new series of 1958 Reissue Epiphone Korina Explorers (2016 year) is about as nice, but the pickups could be improved a bit… and I prefer the white pick guard (a personal thing, yes).