Guitar Center’s second-hand section is a magical place. Ordinarily, you can secure a bargain on everyday electric guitars and acoustic guitars, but there's also the possibility you might stumble upon a piece of history in the process.
That's exactly what Todd Cage – a guitarist from Charlotte, North Carolina – did when he unearthed one of the most sought-after electric guitars of the past four decades: the first of only 20 Washburn N4 Nuno Bettencourt signatures to be built by Stephen Davies in 1990.
And not only did he discover Bettencourt’s first-ever production N4 six-string in the depths of Guitar Center’s used catalog, he also helped introduce the axe to its namesake: Nuno Bettencourt himself.
Cage, who plays in a number of cover bands, clearly knows a thing or two about guitars. In 2008, he performed alongside Tommy Thayer as the winner of the Sing With Kiss Contest, and would later go on to audition for Velvet Revolver.
In his latest adventure, he happened upon the Washburn N4 in question while browsing the Guitar Center website, and bought the instrument blind for $450. It was, however, only after he received the instrument that he began to realize the significance of his purchase.
Upon posting pictures of it to a Facebook forum, eagle-eyed Nuno fans promptly pointed out the 901 serial number. In 1990, only 20 production N4 models – created by Davies to Bettencourt’s exact specifications – were built, and those three numbers pointed directly to the instrument’s provenance.
“The people at Guitar Center connected me with the original owner, who still had the letter of authenticity,” Cage tells Guitar World. “The letter was from Washburn. It stated that this guitar was from the first run of 20 N4s made in 1990, starting with serial 901 through to 920.”
As it turned out, the original owner had bought the guitar new, and played it extensively for 15 years before putting it into hibernation from 2005 to 2021. It’s no surprise, then, that it was in pretty bad shape when Cage got his hands on it.
Cage tasked tech Jake Jones with the restoration of the N4, who successfully “brought it back to life” by de-rusting frets and switching out the EMG pickups for the original Bill Lawrence L-500 and Seymour Duncan Jeff Beck humbuckers.
“He had to totally go through the entire guitar,” Cage explains. “Like Nuno’s main N4s, it was very worn. They have no paint to protect the finish, so the wood had worn away with time.”
Apart from the pickup tweak, the guitar came to Cage spec’d up exactly as it would have been when it left the factory back in 1990. It featured a Bettencourt-designed alder body and headstock, as well as a maple neck, Kahler tremolo system and an ebony fingerboard.
“It is an amazing guitar,” Cage muses, whose go-to guitars include an ‘88 Gibson Les Paul and Charvel Frankenstein from the early ‘90s. “It has the most mojo of any guitar I have ever seen or played. It plays great and sounds amazing.”
Soon after the discovery and restoration, Cage attracted the interest of Bettencourt's manager, who got in touch with him over the possibility of purchasing the special six-string.
The pair quickly became friends, and managed to broker a deal that saw Bettencourt get his hands on the debut Stephen Davies-built Washburn N4 signature. Cage wasn’t left empty handed, though – in return, he received an undisclosed sum of money and a Washburn Nuno Bettencourt Signature 4N that was custom-built for Nuno to his specs.
And though he didn’t get to meet Bettencourt in person for the exchange, Cage revealed that the pair have plans for a meet and greet at a future show.
Bettencourt himself recently referenced the guitar while in conversation with Herman Li, and lauded it for its sentimental value. “Just a couple of days ago I bought the first N4 ever sold,” he told Li. “Outside of mine that were custom-made for me, I now have the first one.”
Think the story ends there? Think again. Clearly buoyed by his discovery, Cage returned to Guitar Center’s Used Section, and it wasn’t long before he miraculously stumbled upon yet another piece of Bettencourt history.
“I bought a Washburn Nuno Bettencourt signature Nele prototype that used to belong to Nuno,” Cage says. “I sent pictures to his manager who reached out to Nuno. They quickly confirmed that it was one of two Nele prototypes that Washburn made in 2019.”
Fortunately for Cage, Bettencourt himself currently owns the other, meaning he can quite happily hold on to this piece of music history, knowing full well that he is in possession of an instrument that is matched only by one owned by his hero.
“Nuno and his management thought it was very cool that I found the guitar and they are happy that I have it,” Cage concludes. “I feel like the luckiest Nuno fan in the world.”