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This article was originally published in issue #29
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Introduced in 1990, the Washburn Nuno Bettencourt signature series has gone on to become one of the most recognisable, longest-running and most widely-played artist models in commercial guitar history. Such is its popularity that Nuno has created an almost innumerable quantity of variants, playing around with finishes, extra strings, faithful replicas of his iconic original N4 guitar and, such as in the case of this version, tonewoods.
The N4 ESA (that’s Ebony/Swamp Ash for anybody wondering) is an established classic of the N-series, featuring a swamp ash body in place of the original’s alder, and employing premium quality components and materials throughout. It’s also constructed in the Washburn USA custom shop, so I went into this review expecting to play one of the world’s truly great Rock guitars. I wasn’t disappointed!
My first impression of this guitar was of a raw, stripped-back instrument that’s been designed to rock. However, there are several modern design elements in the instrument that are cleverly hidden away and not immediately noticeable at first glance.
The first and largest of these is the Stephens Extended Cutaway, a design trademark of luthier Stephen Davies that’s been a licensed part of the N-Series since its inception and is apparent the moment the guitar is turned over. Featuring a bolt-on construction, this massive C-shaped scalloped heel gets the body of the guitar completely out of the player’s way and offers superior upper-neck access for all 22 frets.
I say completely out of the way because as long as you stick with rigid classical posture you can’t go wrong here; with your thumb on the back of the neck you do indeed have unhindered access to the highest frets. However, unless you also bend strings with your thumb on the center of the back of the neck like Nuno does (and let's be honest, does anybody else bend strings like that?), you’re still going to run into problems with thumb positioning due to the attachment of the cutaway on the upper horn. Not the perfect solution then, but still an improvement on the common square heel joint and definitely good for wide-stretch licks and other typically difficult fretboard gymnastics.
Meanwhile the rest of the maple neck featured a 25.5” scale, a thin D profile that felt super-comfortable for a modern Rock player like me, and an absolutely gorgeous ebony fretboard, with a beautiful grain pattern that really complemented the bare swamp ash body. Nuno’s signature reverse headstock was also present with a 14” pitch-angle and scarf joint, along with another modern design element; the Buzz Feiten tuning system cut into the locking nut. I’ve sung the praises of this intonation-improving system before in these pages, and I’m going to do it again; the Buzz Feiten system is a simple but extremely effective addition that is welcome on any guitar, and ideal for instruments that will be used for recording. Normally installed as a modification, it’s always a welcome standard feature of an instrument and does help the N4 to stand apart from its competition.
As mentioned previously, the body is constructed from swamp ash and features a matte lacquer that shows off the natural grain of the wood beautifully and feels great in the hands. The guitar’s loaded with the legendary Original Floyd Rose tremolo in chrome, an all-time classic design that remains my favourite locking trem to this day.
In another modern design twist, the guitars body is recessed underneath the trem to allow plenty of space for up-pull, while the guitar's solitary volume knob is positioned well out of the way of the picking hand so it won’t get knocked during whammy-abuse sessions or furious alternate picking runs. The three-way selector is also positioned well out of the way on the lower horn, but is still easily reachable for quick changes (even if it took me a while to adjust to it its positioning).
The N-series is one of only a handful of current production guitars I can think of that features pickups from two different manufacturers. The neck pickup is a Seymour Duncan ’59, one of the most popular Seymour Duncan pickups and one which most Rock players are familiar with, whilst the neck pickup is a Bill Lawrence L500. This Californian pickup has taken on an almost mythical status amongst Rock players thanks to its controversial trademark issues and associations with Nuno and Dimebag Darrell - arguably two of the finest Rock players throughout the 1990s. As soon as I plugged this guitar in, I could tell why: the L500 absolutely screams! It produces a bright, cutting tone that seems to accentuate harmonics making pinches and squeals an absolute breeze and delivering supreme articulation through even the most high gain sounds. The SD ’59 in the neck is a great match, providing the solid Rock tone that it’s known for with additional bite thanks to the brightness of the swamp ash.
Although it would be easy to focus on the fantastic Rock tones on offer from this guitar, it’s worth noting that it’s definitely a versatile beast. Nuno’s been out playing in Rihanna’s band recently, and he’s been turning up with his N4 for those gigs too. Although the addition of a tone control would increase the versatility of the guitar further, it sounds great clean and is perfect for knocking out funk rhythms and melodic chord playing. It also handles crunchy mid-gain tones with confidence and authority, with the Bill Lawrence L500 really forcing those Blues drive tones to scream!
Overall, the N4 ESA is a fantastic guitar for all contemporary Rock and modern guitar players. Nuno fans will obviously love it, but anybody looking for a solid, reliable Rock guitar will also appreciate its solid build quality and fantastic tones. The addition of the Stephens Extended Cutaway and the Buzz Feiten tuning system help to give it character and ensure it stands out from the competition, while its earthy good looks give it an adult appeal that will set it apart from the teenage Metal market and see in the hands of players on professional gigs the world over.
Nuno Bettencourt is without doubt one of the world's great Rock guitar players and this guitar is the perfect instrument for him; without a doubt one of the world's great Rock guitars.