Washburn Guitars: Burning For You
He did just that in 1980 with the Festival Series electrified acoustic guitars. Amplifying acoustics had been a major problem throughout the Sixties and Seventies. Big, boomy, acoustic guitar bodies made for horrendous amounts of unwanted feedback, especially when an acoustic guitarist was performing in an ensemble with a drum kit, bass guitar and other amplified instruments. Pickup and amplification systems for acoustic guitars were still in their infancy, but Schlacher found a solution.
“Barcus Berry was the only guy who had a piezo kind of [acoustic guitar pickup] system, but it was very crude and not very usable. So I was forced to brace those instruments to the point where they didn’t really vibrate very much. They were fairly stiff, so they didn’t sound great as an acoustic instrument, but they sounded very good electronically, and they didn’t feed back. So you could stand in front of a Marshall stack and actually use a guitar that looked like an acoustic onstage. That wasn’t possible before.”
Festival Series electro-acoustics were embraced by a lot of legendary musicians including Bob Dylan, Gregg Allman and Jimmy Page. The Festival instruments helped forge a readily recognizable visual identity for the company, too, with their pointy Florentine cutaways and oval sound holes. And when Page appeared on a 1986 cover of Guitar World holding his B-bender Tele and a Washburn dreadnought, it served as an informal confirmation that, for the first time since the early 20th century, Washburn was once again up there with the big boys.
Electro-acoustic instruments would remain an important part of the Washburn line. The company also released the successful Mirage Series, with two-inch-thick solid bodies that nonetheless have the look and amplified sound of an acoustic. A related instrument category that Washburn pioneered was hollowbody acoustic bass guitars, many tricked out with the company’s ultra-flashy “sound chambers”—a series of slashing diagonal slats in place of a conventional sound hole.
Washburn grew steadily throughout the Eighties, and in 1987 Schlacher bought out his original Fretted Industries partner, Rick Johnstone, and changed the name of the company to Washburn International. “As we went along we added different brands, including Sound Tech, which was a P.A. company,” Schlacher explains. “The name Fretted Industries had become limiting. The word ‘fretted’ didn’t mix very well with the electronic side of things.”
In time, Washburn began to manufacture in Korea as well as Japan, and in 1991, the company opened a U.S. manufacturing facility. Schlacher says, “We wanted to create a more high-end image as well as be able to service the artist community that we had at that time. And it has worked reasonably well. As we went along, the American manufacturing operation never became too big, but we produced reasonably good guitars that are still around. And if you look at what we do now, we are quite proud that we have reached a level of sophistication that is quite amazing.”
In 1993, Washburn hired celebrity metal luthier Grover Jackson to run the U.S. factory and design guitars for Washburn. Jackson’s earlier designs for Charvel and later his own company, Jackson Guitars, had created the template for pointy, Floyd Rose–equipped Eighties shred guitars. He brought some of the same flair to the Washburn Mercury Series guitar and Bantam Series basses, although he stayed with Washburn for only a few years.
Actually, Washburn had begun to court the metal market long before Jackson’s tenure with the company. Early metal endorsees and signature artists included Rudy Sarzo and Ace Frehley. But the metal player who has practically become Washburn’s Les Paul is Extreme guitarist Nuno Bettencourt. The Portuguese-born player signed up with Washburn shortly after the release of Extreme’s debut album, in 1989, and he’s been with the company ever since, releasing a string of coveted signature models. With their reverse headstocks and natural or stained bodies, the N Series guitars have become instantly recognizable.
The Nuno guitars play very smoothly, thanks to the Stephen’s Extended Cutaway neck joint, which allows for a low-profile heel that, in turn, allows easy access to the upper frets. “The neck is held in place by approximately six screws that fan out in a radius,” Schlacher explains. “So the neck cannot move sideways. Stephen Davis is a Seattle guitar designer who had this concept for a different kind of neck connection that is actually stronger. We experimented with the thing, and then Nuno came along. He happened to see that, and he liked it. Nuno is one of the reasons why we’ve kept doing it all these years.”
Washburn has never been hesitant to partner up with outside guitar designers and bring their innovations onboard. Another feature that now comes standard on most Washburns is the Buzz Feiten Tuning System. Feiten, a session guitar ace who has played with Bob Dylan, Stevie Wonder and Randy Newman, among others, created a system that vastly improves intonation by means of a shelved nut that varies the distance of each individual string from the first fret in accordance with the string’s thickness.
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