(nevermind the foam behind the nut and between the bridge– snapped this right after recording)
Made in the Summer of 2016- DIY Explorer Style Guitar Kit
As pretty much every guitar player who spent time in high school in the 90’s did, I went through a hardcore Metallica phase (I’m still in it). So I made this axe to let my inner Hetfield out by cranking amps really loud and yelling Yeah! a lot in the basement (much to my childrens’ bewilderment….kids I tell ya). This isn’t the first explorer style guitar I’ve done and I’ve got to be honest, I’ve yet to come across a kit that didn’t have some issues straight out of the gate. I know what to look for now which I’ll explain here.
I really wanted more of a matte finish to this to give it more of a military-ish feel but just shy of the flat black style Epiphone has been doling out over the past couple decades. The end result is sort of a Christian Bale-era Batman guitar. I’m pretty okay with that.
In the Metallica spirit I loaded it up with the EMG Het Set and I LOVE these pickups. They have a lot more bite and mid range to them than a stock 81-85 set (I have those in another Explorer). I’ll do a video of how they sound soon. They also clean up a little better if you’re into backing off the volume. Other than that, they’re pretty much the EMG sound– much compression, very noiseless, percussive. The look of them is great on black/dark colored guitars (I imagine they’d look good regardless- James plays plenty of white guitars). This guitar isn’t my BEST playing but it’s definitely good.
The kit itself features a mahogany body with a maple neck and rosewood fretboard. You can save some money and get basswood but that’d be sinful not to have a mahogany explorer and we can’t have that. Unfortunately kits that are pre-routed like the Gibsons are in short supply but the ESP style ones are around. If you see one with the switch out on the horn, more power to you. I opted for that because I wanted an excuse to use the diamond plating pickguard. These come up on Reverb.com every so often. You can get a template to cut yourself one here. There’s been some debate on the Seymour Duncan forums on whether or not they impact the tone– I’ve swapped them out on this particular axe a couple times and at least for this configuration I’d say no. I’m of the mind that active pickups are less influenced by the body of the guitar than a passive one. I’m sure if you had a set of Invaders or something in here you may notice a difference. I’ve yet to concoct exactly what I’ll do but I’m definitely going to put a set of those in something here soon enough. Thinking there should be lighting. LEDs…yeah!
Some Guitar Kit Typical Problems
I mentioned this thing isn’t without its drawbacks. I’ve built a few explorer kits from a few makers and for reasons passing understanding, they NEVER have the neck angles right. This will cause the action to be high. Great for getting those Zakk Wylde squeals out of it but not so great for smooth playability. Plan on picking up some shims and MEASURING the height. These are set necks so you only get one shot at it. The other issue I’ve seen with explorer kits- and you really never know what you’re going to get but the nuts they come with aren’t always cut evenly. If you’re looking to really have a great tone you should upgrade to a bone nut (I opted for a proper nylon just for the black of it but still). So be on the lookout for that if you want to unleash your inner Sandman with one of these guitar kits.
Otherwise the headstock angle was dead on. The frets were pretty good and I was able to set the intonation right away. As is the case with any active pickups, you CAN squish the battery in the control cavity and it’ll barely fit (the Het Set comes with short and long stem pots so you’re going to want to use the short ones). I didn’t route a battery cavity but if I were to do it again I probably would. There’s some pretty sweet guitar battery compartments that’d look cool on a guitar like this.
Want to Build an Explorer Guitar Kit like this?
Explorer Body Kit – As mentioned the routing with the Gibson setup is hard to find. Same maker here so I expect the foibles above are going to be things you need to look out for.
EMG James Hetfield Pickup Set – Can’t say enough good about these! Look cool, sound amazing. Every now and then they’re on sale for around 200 bucks but this is about waht they go for. It’s a neck and a bridge pickup so all in all not a bad deal. I’ll be posting a video review of these soon.
Black Tuning Machines – I don’t necessarily buy the minimum viable thing for these but I didn’t go super high end. I’ve used these on a few projects and they do the trick. These hold tune pretty well and work with different gauges just fine (for the record- I usually string this with a set of Ernie Ball 12’s)
Nylon Nut– I may upgrade this someday. But if you get one of these kits you may need one of these. You’ll know when you test fit things.
Black Bridge Set – I’ve used these for other projects and they setup fine. There’s some heft to the tailpiece so it’ll work with heavier gauges pretty well.
Diamond Plate Pickguard – You may have to fish around to find one- these are fleeting in stock. Here’s a explorer pickguard template if you want to cut your own.
Black Strap Buttons – I recommend upgrading these– most kits have total shit for strap buttons. Obviously you can get locking ones and all that. I didn’t bother for this but these are pretty wide and work fine (note I play this sitting down almost all the time so it hasn’t been a big issue for me).
Gorilla Wood Glue – This is my go to! Love it. Use it on all the set necks, fixes and all.
Sanding Sealer– you’ll want this if you’re planning on sanding to a glass smooth finish. The stuff from StewMac is a few more bucks but I’ve used both and they pretty well work the same.
Grain Filler – sort of goes hand in hand with the above. This basically lets you get away with building less and less lacquer up as it fills in the grain for you. If you’re planning on building more than one instrument (or just plain looking to do wood projects where a glass smooth finish is needed), this is worth having around– this tub will last a long time, and all you have to do is add water to liven it back up.
Black lacquer – Blacker than black. If you get something else, make sure its at least nitrocellulose. I used a spray can for this and it worked just fine. For this guitar, you should be able to get away with using just one can (in my experience you’ve got about 5-7 coats per can of the StewMac stuff)
Clear Matte Lacquer – Whether you go gloss or matte like I did, you’re going to need at least a couple of these cans. You can opt for the Stew Mac stuff but between sanding/buff and polish you shouldn’t notice a difference.
That’s about it for the materials! With the EMG Pickups it’s not the cheapest build you’ll do– it’ll run you 6-700 bucks by the time its all said and done. But you can’t put a price on metal! \M/