If you are in the market for a Gibson, but want to stand out from the Les Pauls, then why not consider an Explorer? The body shape tends to produce a 'love it or loathe it' reaction from many guitarists, but that can work to your advantage if you like them, take your time and know the different model variants. Pointy guitars, like the Explorer, tend to come and go in fashion terms, and prices (and sales) have suffered in the past because of these trends. The shape is most attractive to guitarists who play metal and hard rock, but don't overlook the fact that The Edge from U2 uses an Explorer extensively. So this guitar can do a LOT more than just metal.
A quick run through different Explorers...
The original (now legendary) Korina Explorers from the 1958-59 period, together with the Flying V and Moderne, were too radical for their day, guitarists being a conservative crowd in terms of considering changes and new designs. These guitars are now some of the most valuable in the world in the vintage market. And occasionally they crop up on eBay... (I've seen one). Values well into 6 figures in $$.
The Explorer was re-issued in the mid 70s. The body and neck is now mahogany; the neck retains the 50's 'baseball bat' profile, at least in the earlier examples. These are highly rated as players, and are valued accordingly.
The 80s saw a Korina bodied Explorer re-issue from Gibson (another very desirable guitar). Korina bodywood fetches a premium price, and tends to produce a 'brighter' tone than mahogany. These are not common guitars, and again this increases their price. Things get more complex as the 80s unfold. The Explorer 2 was issued in two versions; a maple and walnut laminated guitar (with either body wood on top depending upon the example in front of you), and a bound-bodied, maple-topped Explorer CMT (Curly Maple Top). This last variant is a real sleeper at the moment; prices are relatively low even though this was a high end Gibson at the time. These were built at the old Kalamazoo plant, along with the other specialist Gibsons of the day. The original pickups are high output 'Dirty Fingers'; these have distinctive all-gold pole pieces on Explorer 2s. They are high output, so not to all tastes, and have fairly often been replaced. Some CMTs have 3 piece maple necks, and a maple body under the cap, where others have mahogany necks and bodies. Checking listings will usually sort these out. Despite these strengths, sellers currently (May 2006) seem to struggle to attract bids of over $900 or so. That's a very good price for a UK based bidder, compared to the limited number of Explorers in music stores here, and these may therefore be worth considering buying from the USA, and shipping to the UK. Also remember that explorers are BIG guitars; this can influence shipping costs dramatically. They are so large when packed that some carriers decline to accept them for transport.
Other 80s Explorers were short-lived; they deviated from the tried and tested 2 Humbucker configuration, and instead carried 3 P90s or a Humbucker/single coil combination. These models (the Explorer III, and Explorer 425) are now the least sought after of the breed. Some have trems (reflecting the 'dive bomb' 80s). Remember that they are now good value as players. Gibson also introduced a 'Designer Series' with various bold (not to all tastes, including mine!) finishes, including at least 2 version of white with gold geometric patterns, and Union Jack and Stars and Stripes version. Hmmm.....
High-end 80s Explorers include the 2 Heritage Editions. One is from the Custom Shop (with stamped serial numbers); the other is a Limited Edition (100 only) with an inked number. This version is worth almost twice the price of the CS, and that is still expensive!
In the 90s Gibson revised the shape, trimming the body, and introducing a segmented cutaway to the bofy area around the controls. These Explorer Pros are now discontinued, but have attractive flamed tops in some cases. There are a number of Custom Shop versions around, mahogany and korina. These are beautiful! Some even have the Futura 'Split headstock' (a la Dean)
The Explorer is currently listed by Gibson as the X-plorer.
Things to look for if you are considering an Explorer:
Dings - that body shape is just so prone to damage. The shape and size are an accident waiting to happen! The upper horn (under the player's elbow) is especially prone to knocks. Mind, the rest of the body is too, and if some 80s metaller has been on-stage with this instrument, the condition can really suffer! Make sure that you can clearly see all extremities of the guitar in pictures. And fit straplocks if they are not already included.
Pickups - as mentioned above, these may or may not be originals. The 80s 'Dimarzio Transplant' period claimed many victims here. Look carefully and check with the seller. I've seen a number of E2s advertised as stock, but the original pickups have gone.
Trems - and while we are talking about the 80's, there was also a rash of routing these guitars to take a Floyd Rose. Gibson made a few with Floyds; these have a well-fitting scratchplate around the trem. If the scratchplate edges are bodged, then the Floyd is a retro-fit. Remember that a poorly fitted Floyd can dramatically influence playability (and in a few cases, structural integrity!).
Hardware - the gold 80s hardware always tarnishes; if it's just rubbed and worn, this is generally viewed as attractive. Some players seem to suffer from 'corrosive sweat syndrome'; I have seen really awful examples of badly corroded wear as a consequence. Remember that replacement hardware in gold is not cheap; a new TP6 tailpiece is nearly £60 at the time of writing.
Cases - Always buy a guitar with a case, but ESPECIALLY an Explorer! Remember the susceptability to body damage mentioned above? These guitars don't generally sit steadily on stands (don't try it!), so they need somewhere to live safely. And a replacement case is difficult to find (standard rectangular cases are too small, even bass cases are not wide enough), and expensive too. Even a gig bag is £30+. So buy one with a case.
Serial Number - I can only repeat the sentiments in the Les Paul guide about checking this before you buy. Last year I came very close to buying a black Custom Shop Explorer with a split headstock. I checked the serial number with Gibson, and had a reply within 24 hours. The number was from a split headstock Explorer, but not black; the Gibson records showed it was finished in white... It could have been legitimate; there may have been a good reason for a complete refinish, or a mistake with Gibson, but the listing made no mention of the refinish. I walked away.
Well that's about it. Not as popular as Les Pauls, and with a rather 'Metal' image (the latest version in the Gibson catalogue has a mirror front), Explorers are nevertheless very versatile players, and often very well made indeed. Many of the more unusual models (such as the CMT), or limited editions (Korinas) seem not to have been imported into the UK in any numbers, so eBay may be the only way to find one, and it may have to come from the USA. The Explorer shape has been widely copied by others (not always to the enthusiasm of Gibson - understandably). If you are considering buying a Gibson, then it's also worth looking at Explorer-type guitars from Hamer, Ibanez, Jackson, Dean, ESP and Epiphone (the early Epi Korinas are well thought of, although many guitarists prefer to change the stock pickups for less 'dark' alternatives). Of course, alternate pickups are also to be found here on eBay...
Explorer enthusiasts are growing; they have a number of high-profile endorsers, and the up/down 'pointy guitar' market seems to be starting to grow. I think they will always be a minority interest, but that means that they can be a great way to acquire a high-end Gibson for a realistic outlay if you choose well and bid shrewdly. I bought an E2/CMT on eBay last year, after about 3 years of browsing. It's beautiful, and a great player. With an ebony fingerboard, all-gold hardware, bound body with flamed top, and a 3 piece laminated neck for strength, this is Custom Shop quality for less than a Les Paul Standard.
Take your time, and follow your instincts, and play something different!