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Nuno Bettencourt needs no real introduction — he’s one of the preeminent shredders of the Eighties and longtime member of the multi-platinum metal band, Extreme. And when he's not releasing new material and playing with his recently re-formed band, Nuno can also be found touring the world supporting the mega pop star, Rihanna. In celebration of his twenty years endorsing their guitars, Washburn has teamed up with Bettencourt to produce a very limited run of one hundred, very special electric guitars.
The N4XX, hand built by the fantastic luthiers at Washburn's Chicago, Illinois headquarters, is priced more than words can say (until later in this review, of course), no doubt because of the combination of rare and exotic tone woods, custom attributes like the Stephen’s Extended Cutaway neck (which features exquisite neck inlays), and of course the very limited production run.
Despite the price tag putting the N4XX squarely in collectors’ territory, this is one killer solidbody electric guitar that needs to be played. It’s a monster. In fact, it’s one of the finest playing and sounding electric guitars for rock and metal that we’ve ever played.The N4XX drips with fantastic tone and effortless playability. We say buy it, even if you have to sell one or two other beauties from your collection. Then, let the good times roll. Actually, scratch that. With this guitar around your neck, it’s more likely that you’ll be doing a decadence dance.
The N4XX is a gorgeous American-made guitar featuring a lightweight African Korina body topped with Hawaiian Koa. The striking looks are further accented by the Stephen’s Extended Cutaway neck, with its contrasting birds-eye maple wood on display immediately above the neck joint.
The Stephen’s Extended Cutaway is a patented design that provides unrestricted access to the upper frets on a guitar neck by removing most of the wood that might otherwise obstruct your hand. As you can see from the photo of the back of the guitar, the block of wood above the neck is actually a piece of the neck itself.
The 22-fret neck (25.5” scale) has a hand-rubbed oil, natural finish, and an ebony fingerboard with Nuno’s signature Mourning Widows inlays (as seen on a symbol tattooed on his arm) and jumbo frets.
The neck is intonated for the Buzz Feiten Tuning System (BFTS). Despite the minor inconvenience when tuning up BFTS-equipped guitars, we’re big fans of this compensated setup – it definitely improves tuning accuracy in the higher frets compared with traditionally intonated guitars. We were surprised at one oddity in this otherwise stunning guitar — a BFTS sticker on the back of the headstock. Other guitars have this logo etched/burned into the wood.
The neck pickup is a Seymour Duncan ’59 humbucker and the bridge pickup is a Bill Lawrence L500. A three-way switch is positioned in the less common lower horn location, and the guitar has a volume knob with a custom-tapered 500K pot. There is no tone control or coil tap.
The gold hardware includes a German-made original Floyd Rose tremolo and Gotoh tuners, and it is floated for both pitch down and up operation.
This is a truly limited edition model, and each of the one hundred available guitars is individually numbered and signed behind the headstock. Further, the guitar includes an attractive certificate of authenticity, also signed by Nuno Bettencourt, and most importantly, a bottle of Nuno’s favorite black nail polish. A custom hard case completes the package.
The aforementioned Stephen’s Extended Cutaway is an absolute step forward in the evolution of guitar design. We have never experienced such unfettered access to the upper regions of a guitar neck, or the ability to maintain proper hand position in that elusive upper third of the fretboard. The feel of the neck is nothing short of sublime, with the frets providing just enough height to allow for easy string bending while at the same time not so large that we felt we were jumping hurdles. We experienced zero fret buzz, string rattle or “choke out” on our evaluation model and chords played in tune across multiple fretboard positions, perhaps due in no small part to the superior intonation of the Buzz Feiten Tuning System.
The German-made original Floyd Rose tremolo was set up just right from the factory, sitting perfectly parallel with the guitar body. As anticipated, we experienced zero tuning issues during the subtlest of vibratos or extreme (pun intended) dive bombing. We also liked the overall feel of the tremolo system, which provided just enough tension to avoid feeling too stiff or flimsy.
The odd location of the toggle switch takes some getting used to, especially if you are a vintage Strat or Les Paul player. Reaching across the strings mid-solo to switch pickups felt a little unnatural to some of our staff, but this is a minor gripe and certainly something we could learn to live with! The single volume control is located similarly to other double cut-away guitars and although the pot provides a smooth and easy-to-spin taper, we wished it was located closer to the bridge pickup, to allow for “pinky swells.”
One other minor knock is the location of the truss rod, which sits in the heel of the neck rather than the headstock, necessitating removing the neck to make adjustments. In fact, our test model had a hair too much relief in the neck and would have benefitted from a tightening of the truss rod. Needless to say, we didn’t dare!
When it came time to get the funk out, we plugged our N4XX into almost every amp we had at our disposal, including Mesa/Boogie Dual Rectifiers, vintage non-master volume Marshalls, a Peavey 5150, and even a Germino Lead 55 Plexi clone – we left no stone unturned! To say the guitar performed admirably is to engage in understatement, but we definitely preferred the sound we achieved through the higher gain amps like the Mesa or Peavey as opposed to the classic Marshalls circuits.
The bridge pickup (a Bill Lawrence L500) is considered by many a great metal pickup, but we did not get that vibe at all. In fact, it drove our old Marshalls a lot less than even some lower-output PAF reproductions. What we did find, though, was a great percussiveness, allowing us to play all those great Nuno-esque funk-metal riffs with an air of authenticity, while maintaining great crunch and clarity.
The overall soundscape is a lot thinner than, say, a DiMarzio Tone Zone, but this is not a bad thing. The sound never gets harsh and trebly, and it remains focused and tight. This became most apparent when playing through an amp with inherent bottom end girth, such as our Mesa/Boogie Dual Rectifier or Peavey 5150 — it was in this context that we were most impressed with the guitar’s sound. When engaging in single note soloing, the guitar has a unique and pleasing voice, with harmonics and overtones leaping off the fretboard with just enough midrange to cut through a mix without getting too “honky.”
The Duncan ‘59 in the neck is a low output reproduction of a late 1950s PAF pickup as well as a classic in its own right. Through all of our test amps we were able to achieve that classic “woman tone” heard on so many Les Paul recordings. Like the L500, the ‘59 lent itself well to the same percussive funk workouts we experienced during our earlier flight of fancy, and it even took on a bit of a single coil tone under lower gain. Flicking the toggle switch to the middle position combines both the neck and the bridge pickups, which gave us a tone similar to the middle position of a Les Paul.
Our Germino Lead 55 has a great clean tone, and it was in this environment that we spent the most time testing the guitar’s clean capabilities. The L500 almost has a Tele-like twang to it, meaning you could probably bring this axe to your next country or rockabilly gig! As we mentioned earlier, the L500 is on the thin side of the sound spectrum, so we needed to tread lightly when it came to setting our Treble and Presence controls. The Duncan ‘59 is almost “Stratty” when played through an amp dialed in for a pristine clean sound, and this allowed us to recreate tones similar to Hendrix classics like “Little Wing” and “The Wind Cries Mary.”The guitar’s single volume control is all you get in terms of control pots, and for those in the know, the lack of a tone pot means more output from the pickups and less tonal coloration. Guitars are notorious for getting muddy when rolling off the volume pot, and the N4XX is no exception. Not only is the high-end roll off considerable, but the midrange seems to increase as well! For those players that subscribe to the “everything on ten” school of thought, this is not a big deal, but players that ride the volume may find the tone unusable.
The guitar includes a limited lifetime warranty.
Although the N4XX is priced beyond the average serious musician’s budget, Washburn makes a few other signature N4 models in the USA that can be purchased for a lot less cash. You can get many similar features to the N4XX — including the amazing neck and pickups — for under $3,000.
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