|Playing my SG (left) at a show in early 2013|
To spoil this article up front: there is no clear winner in my eyes between the Explorer and SG. Both are great guitars, with the Explorer being suited better for hard rock and metal perhaps, while the SG I might prefer for anything from classic rock to hard rock. If I had to choose one, though, I'd keep the Explorer any day of the week.
For as long as I can remember, I always wanted a Gibson Explorer. When I was a teenager, I remember watching videos of Marty Friedman playing the Hangar 18 solos (Megadeth) on an 80's Explorer and being totally floored. The tone was so killer, the shape was so metal, and there was a certain sex appeal to the instrument that was lacking in the Flying V, Les Paul, SG, or any other non-Gibson shape for that matter. I fell in love early on, and eventually I finally had the opportunity to get one of my own.
|Gibson Explorer - Cherry Natural Finish with White Pickguard|
|Playing my Explorer at the Del|
Mar Fair in June of 2011
All that being said, I've also loved the Gibson SG ever since I first saw one, and with it's slightly different shape, tonality, and playability differences, I always wanted one of these for my personal collection. When a great deal presented itself to get one last year, I took the plunge and couldn't be happier. At just under 6 lb, my SG is incredibly easy on the back for long practices, although it's notable that not every SG is the same weight. Some are as little as 5.5 lb, whereas others have weighed in above the 8 lb mark. Minor differences in wood, hardware, and finish account for these fluctuations. In any case, I bought mine light on purpose so I could survive long band practices without back pain the next day. Comparatively, my Explorer weighs in close to 9 lb.
The SG has tonally cooler pickups than the Explorer, although they're still fairly hot and geared for rock. Maybe "really warm" is the best way to describe them, because they have a classic rock breakup that goes well with any tube amp. Plus, the neck pickup is a truly functional tool that I find myself using more and more often, whereas with other guitars (including the Explorer) I'm almost exclusively on my bridge coils. The SG's slightly cooler pickups also make it easier to convey dynamics in my playing, since picking softer really will clean up the SG more than the Explorer. Whenever I'm playing with light or moderate distortion, it's nice to have strong control of these tonal subtleties.
|Gibson SG Cherry Natural Finish with Black Pickguard|
Having gigged with the SG now, too, I can say that it's nice to have a guitar with a lighter body when I'm up there. It makes it easier to get into the music and once again, it's easier on the back. I still love the Explorer the most, though, for it's stylistic value and superior hard-rock tone. Then again, if I was ever gigging on a daily basis or in a tour situation, the benefits of a lighter guitar could be persuasive enough to lean on my SG most of the time. *UPDATE* 5/25/14, I should also point out that I recorded my entire album with my Gibson SG.
Ultimately, the Explorer and SG are both outstanding professional instruments and would suit most players' needs perfectly. They both have the necks that are angled slightly backwards (towards the player) as you reach the first frets, making it noticeably easier to play than a guitar with a straight neck. Both come in a variety of brilliant finishes, have low action, and decently fast necks. Therefore, even though I personally prefer my Explorer over the SG, I think it all comes down to who is playing the guitar.
If you're in the market right now and this is the decision you're trying to make, go down to your local guitar shop and play each one for a while. I'm talking at least a half hour each, and make sure to do it with the strap on, too. You'll find the fret board is much farther to the left of your body when playing the SG, whereas it's more centered with the Explorer based on how the strap sits. This makes it easier to access the high frets on the SG, although it's easier to access the low frets on the Explorer. Since the angle of your elbow and arm changes from one guitar to the other, you might discover that one configuration suits your style better.
At that point, if you still can't decide on which axe to buy... well, do what I did: get 'em both! Minor nuances aside, these are easy guitars to play with great tone and sexy looks.