Few guitarists are associated with a single guitar maker like Nuno Bettencourt is with Washburn Guitars. Since the introduction of the N4 in 1990, Bettencourt’s association has helped Washburn establish itself as something more than a line of blues and classic rock guitars. His models are some of the best-selling guitars in their line, and older, rare pieces can command a hefty sum on the used market.
The work between Bettencourt and Washburn is ongoing though, and the latest fruit of the collaboration is the N7 from the company’s USA Custom Shop. The new guitar updates the classic N4 model with a couple significant changes, most notably with the addition of a seventh string—a low B—to widen the sonic spectrum for heavier work.
Wind Me Up
The N7 screams late ’80s/early ’90s stripped-down, hot-rodded shred machine, with a bare wood finish, floating tremolo and careful attention paid to serving up as much unrestricted access to the upper frets as possible.
The body itself is comprised of aged alder, and feels really great underneath the fingertips. The two-piece alder body is sanded and sculpted to perfection—it’s light and beautifully balanced. The body also has a DIY look that’s a nod to the guitar that Bettencourt himself built out of spare parts over 20 years ago and which inspired the original N4. One of the more unique aspects of the N7 is its strange neck joint, which is actually an old design developed by luthier Stephen Davies in the early ’80s. Instead of a joint with a straight, square edge, the area is cut with a half-circle shape, and the neck is attached via five bolts that run along the upper edge. It looks quite futuristic, and provides a rock-solid connection between the alder body and the 25.5" scale maple neck and doesn’t obstruct access the higher frets.
A gorgeous ebony fingerboard with 22 frets tops the bare-finished maple neck and there’s a Buzz Feiten Tuning System treatment to ensure that tuning and intonation are as accurate as possible. The strings are anchored by a set of Grover 18:1 tuners and an official Floyd Rose locking vibrato system in a seven-string configuration.
Nestled underneath the strings you’ll find two Seymour Duncan humbuckers—a Duncan '59 in the neck and a Distortion in the bridge, which has a noticeably different tonality than the Bill Lawrence L500 in the bridge position of the N4. A single volume control and a three-way switch control the overall output of the pickups, but I wasn't too impressed with how the volume control felt as I moved it up and down. There just wasn't much in the way of resistance.
While the Stephens cutaway took some getting used to, it felt like a well-worn pair of Chuck Taylors after a while.
Get The Funk Out
If your proclivities lean toward shred, the N7 is really hard to beat. The supreme comfort and great neck feeling that made the N4 such a knockout shred machine are all present in the N7, but this guitar has a slightly warmer, more organic tone.
The N7 is one of the most comfortable electric guitars that I’ve played in recent memory. The feel of the neck alone—with its smooth, unfinished feel and pinpoint accurate fretwork—made it difficult for me to put it down. After saddling up with a 2011 Mesa/Boogie Dual Rectifier Multiwatt into an Emperor 4x12 cabinet, I dug deep into the heavy rock—belting out quick, palm muted triplets, peppered with slinky legato runs. The N7 is designed for this type of work.
It feels fast, but tone is also tight and focused. Even with an emphasis on the low B string, it retains top end bite. Seven string guitars often suffer from loss of high end, which is why a lot of builders choose bridge pickups with a high amount of treble response. In this case, the very present-sounding highs of the renowned Duncan Distortion fit amazingly well with the N7’s low, guttural range. And the pickups’ tightness in the bass response meant that the lows didn’t get at all flabby, even at very high gain settings.
Moving up to the higher fret ranges was the real treat, though. While the Stephens cutaway took some getting used to, it felt like a well-worn pair of Chuck Taylors after a while. I’ve been so used to having to reposition my thumb slightly when I approach the upper registers of the neck, but the Stephens neck joint makes it so the neck feels as familiar as the zones lower than the 12th fret. As I reached for some classic Satriani and Vai licks, I just kept feeling like there had to be some kind of catch for this level of playing comfort. If you’re a shred fiend, this guitar can be a real asset and has the potential to improve your accuracy, vibrato, speed, and touch.
Bettencourt is known for being one of the best shredders that rock has ever seen, but what’s really made him a hero among many guitarists is his incredibly distinctive, funky style. He’s as comfortable with cleaner and low gain tones as he is with ones soaked in molten distortion, kicking out funky rhythm work with a very interesting, almost percussive style. When I delved into some Curtis Mayfield-inspired backing grooves, the N7 pulled it off with a brilliant full range that had all of the bite and power that Bettencourt’s tone is known for.
Kicking in the bridge pickup, I was treated to a full and funky clean tone. Both of the pickups engaged together yielded a large, all-encompassing clean that was bold and brash but warm as I picked through some Randy Rhoads-influenced classical arpeggios. I really would have liked to have had a tone control of some sort, as one of the best applications of a seven string guitar is for jazz rhythm—it can sound really great by applying moving basslines on the low B string. Alas, while the ’59 is a great pickup, the only way to tame its treble was to drop the control on the amp and it would have been so much more effective to do it from the guitar itself.
In the ever-expanding universe of shred-friendly guitars, the N7 is a bright star. Washburn’s USA Custom Shop really outdid themselves with this one, although they already pretty much had the formula down pat with the N4. The natural texture doesn’t feel cheap and unfinished. Instead it enhances the sense that you’re playing and exceptionally well-made guitar. This level of craftsmanship comes at a premium price. But if you’ve got the scratch and want a shredder’s delight that can cover the lowest of tones, it should be near the top of your list.