There aren’t many guitar companies whose history stretches back to the 1800s. Wasburn was founded in Chicago, Illinois in 1883 but its history stretches back even further than that, in the form of harp manufacturer Lyon & Healy, who began operating in 1864. Taking co-founder George W Lyon’s middle name, Washburn spun off to make fretted and plucked instruments - guitars, mandolins, banjos, zithers - and moved into electric guitars in the early ‘80s.
“As one of the authentic original American brands, Washburn will celebrate its 135th anniversary next year,” says Jonathan Lee, director, and design and development at the company. “We have a rich history of innovation from building the first dreadnought sized guitar; being the first to use artist endorsements in advertising and growing the brand to be one of the most widely distributed in the world.
“Honoring that spirit of innovation is extremely important to us - from using the Stephen’s Extended Cutaway to achieve a more stable neck-joint while allowing greater reach up the fretboard on our electrics and developing the ergonomically and beautifully designed Comfort Series guitars. We are looking to our past for inspiration to help us remain at the forefront of ensuring that everyone can obtain some of the greatest sounding and best built instruments in the world.”
Part of what has made Washburn so successful is that they’ve never lost sight of their roots, which is why their acoustic instruments are so well respected in the bluegrass world. When the Americana movement kicked into full gear, Washburn was right there with a huge range of instruments suited to the purpose. Check out the Warren Haynes WSD5249 acoustic, which is based on the original Washburn Solo Deluxe from 1937. Today you can purchase the EA20SNB Signature, a thin jumbo-style acoustic-electric with a Florentine cutaway for improved upper-fret access, a Fishman Isys+ preamp/pickup comb and a bookmatched Alaskan Sitka spruce top.
Nuno Bettencourt of the rock band Extreme has a long-running line of electric models, which currently includes seven variations based on his famed N4 guitar - including a heavily worn USA-made N4 Authentic and the more affordable N2. The N4 models (and the recent N7 seven-string) feature the aforemementioned Stephens Extended Cutaway, a unique neck joint that bonds the neck and body together on the bass-side cutaway instead of behind the fretboard. It gives you the comfort of a neck-through guitar but the attack and punch of a bolt-on.
Other current signature models include a pair of Explorer-esque guitars in honor of Stryper’s Michael Sweet and Texas metal fiend Marzi Montazeri. Both feature reverse headstocks, twin Seymour Duncan humbuckers and Floyd Rose tremolos, but Marzi favours custom-made passive pickups while Michael uses an active Blackout set with a special spin: he swaps the neck and bridge pickups for more output and sustain for leads, and more punch and attack for rhythms.
“Marzi is a unique artist who has a ton of skill and feels,” says Lee. “It helps that he has a lot of knowledge about how gear is built and works. He’s a student of tone and knows how to dial in the exact sound that he’s looking for in his head, as well as the feel and look of the gear he wants to play. We are very lucky in that all of our artists tend to understand the craft and what goes into making a great guitar.”
One of Washburn’s newest innovations is the Sonamaster line, which Lee is particularly excited about. The S1 Sonamasters have Single-Single-Single pickup configurations and are available in black and tobacco sunburst. The S2 Sonamasters feature an upgraded humbucker bridge pickup, singles in the middle and fingerboard position, and are available in three metallic finishes - blue, red and black - and there are two Sonamaster-3 instruments with figured maple veneers.
“Washburn throughout its history has been known as a workingman’s guitar,” he says. “In our long history, our instruments have been played by some of the greatest musicians of their genre, be it Bob Dylan, Greg Allman, Jimmy Page, and on and on. However, one key point is that the Washburn was one of the tools they used to achieve historical greatness; not something they chose once they arrived. The Sonamaster electric guitars are aimed at being the perfect balance of vibe, playability and affordability. Quintessentially Washburn, these full-scale double cutaway guitars draw their inspiration from the Nuno family of guitars, with its smaller body accented with a rounder edge, and reversed headstock.”
Washburn Guitars are available in Australia through Musical Merchandisers.