Review: Washburn Nuno Bettencourt Signature Series N4 1991

Introduction: 

I remember it well. I was watching "Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure". The band of some of history's most well known figures wander a shopping mall in San Dimas California. Beethoven was in a music shop admiring a dual level keyboard. Joan of Arc was enamored by the classic 80's aerobic instructor (and who can blame her) instructing a class, Genghis Khan just discovered the glory of an aluminum baseball bat, Billy the Kid, Socrates and Sigmund Freud just scared off some jail bait at the food court and Abraham Lincoln just got his picture taken. The young photographer also in old timey dress asked Lincoln for his hat and beard and when Lincoln tried to explain it was his own a scuffle broke out. Ok so I don't really remember all that stuff well. What I do remember is the neo-classical guitar piece that exploded from the speakers and played as these 5 threads played out on screen. I was totally blown away by the piece and would turn up the volume every time I watched the movie.  

 
Later on I found out that the song was called "Play with Me" by the band Extreme with Nuno Bettencourt playing the guitar parts. Pretty much from that moment on I became a huge fan of Nuno and shortly their after his guitar the N4. Now I know that the song "Play with Me" pre-dates the N4, but I've seen Extreme play live and they played "Play with Me" so I can say that the song has been played on the N4. Now I confess back then I was just getting into guitar and didn't know much about them, but aside from the fact that it was his guitar the N4 had another feature which blew me away, Stephen's Extended cutaway. I chased the dream of having an N4 of my own for many years. I made that dream come true and I will share some of that dream with you.
Features: 

The Washburn Nuno Bettencourt Signature Series N4 has a 25 1/2 scale length, 22 fret, "C" shaped profile, maple 5 bolt, bolt on neck with an ebony fret-board and pearl dot inlays. Why five bolts and not 4? Is it bolted on like the 5 on a 6 sided die? Nope, the 5 bolts are in a crescent pattern  to accommodate Stephen's Extended Cutaway. Instead of the traditional bolt on neck that often ends rather abruptly and has a rather disruptive body heel that comes up to allow the bolting, the Stephen's Extended Cutaway or SEC for short as a different neck termination. Instead of that heavy block heel the end of the neck fans out and the body does not have that common stump that can interrupt your  movement to the upper frets. Instead you have the most unrestricted access to those frets.  

 
The body is a slightly scaled down strat shape. Originally these guitars were offered only in alder and finished in a light oil finish. There were a very small number offered with a black nitrocellulose finish. The ads for this guitar in late 1990 stated it came with Seymour Duncan pickups in both the neck and bridge position. I have only ever seen a Seymour Duncan 59 in the neck coupled with either a Bill Lawrence L-500-L or a Bill Lawrence USA L-500 in the bridge. The pickup selection is via a 3 way toggle switch. Unlike most electric guitars the N4 offers only a volume pot. There is no tone control.  
 
The 91 N4s end with a Kahler Steeler Floyd Rose style vibrato bridge. The output jack of the N4 is worth noting as it is recessed into the body. It is generally termed a barrel jack though technically unless it's a midi jack pretty much all output jacks on guitars are barrel jacks. I guess Washburn just wanted the one on the N4 to stand out...as being recessed.  
 
The sound you get from a Seymour Duncan 59' is pretty standard. The pickup was modeled after Gibson's Seth Lover late PAF pickupe bridge is a different story. The blade pickup offers a unique biting edge and whether it's a Bill Lawrence or a Bill Lawrence USA brand it is something different. I know that it's a bit confusing, the Bill Lawrence vs. the Bill Lawrence USA, however that will be the topic of a whole other article.  
 
Playability: 

I have two 91 N4s. Both of them purchased used so I can't comment on the original set-up of these guitars. Both of mine are set-up very low. Since there is no paint or lacquer on the neck, mobility up and down the neck is very fast against the extremely fine grained and smooth maple. Add in the SEC and your ability to hit those upper notes as well as the Floyd Rose style Kahler Steeler bridge make this guitar a shredder's dream. But the surprising versatility of this two pickup guitar ensure that it is not a one genre guitar by any means. This guitar, when set-up right is almost effortless to play.  

 
With the pickup selector down on the bottom horn you can tap to your hearts content.  
 
The volume knob's position doesn't lend itself well to doing volume swells, at least not as easily as you can with the standard strat position, but I'm not very practiced in that particular art anyway.  
 
The Kahler Steeler bridge is not your average FR style bridge. It brings some additional innovations to it. I'll add so more about this bridge later.
Quality: 

The Washburn N4s of 1990 and 1991 were made by Stephen Davies and his crew. To look at this guitar, its plain look, bare wood and even absence of a tone knob you might not give it a second look, unless like me you find a great deal of beauty in the bare wood of a guitar. If you did give it that second look you might be surprised at the quality of what you find. The slight variations in routes from one N4 to the next from the before mentioned years tells of these guitars being hand made, not cut from a template. The fit of the neck into the neck pocket has been an issue for some, and considering we are talking about guitars over 20 years old and having the light oil finish you can imagine that humidity probably plays a big role there. But of the two 1991 N4s that I have the quality is undeniable. The neck is straight, the fret-board is strong, the electronics have never needed any attention.

Adaptability: 

The biggest challenges to setting up any Washburn N4 are the truss rod adjustment and the bridge. Once you know how to overcome the challenges of a Floyd Rose style bridge doing a set-up is much easier. The fine tuners on the Kahler have about the average range of most higher quality FR fine tuners. Intonating the Kahler Steeler is a pretty easy process. Adjusting the string high at the bridge is pretty standard however a trick I learned when I completely stripped down one of my N4s for refinishing was to put shims under the saddles to adjust individual string height. The truss rod adjustment nut is recessed into the neck and under the fret-board which extends over the neck. You'll want an extended allen wrench  with a 30 to 45 degree bend.  

 
I am big on changing pickups. I have changed pickups on at least 15 guitars including one of my 91 N4s. The control cavity is pretty spacious and when you consider it only houses one pot, wires from the pickups switch and wires to the output jack, you've got room to work. I don't remember any particular challenges when I changed out the Bill Lawrence USA for a Bill Lawrence. If you were to change the L-500 out for any other standard humbucker be aware that you will not be able to use the same pickup ring. The L-500 has a slightly different shape to it than a standard pickup and if the correct pickup ring is used it will not fit a standard humbucker.
Conclusion: 

Personally my 1991 Washburn N4s are among my favorite guitars that I own. The bare wood, the Stephen's Extended Cutaway, the L-500 bridge pickup and the Kahler Steeler bridge are all amazing features and combined that with the workmanship of this guitar and right there you have a great guitar. Then add in the fact that you tune this down to E# and you're ready to play almost any Extreme song, well I think this is 'nuff said.