I have always wanted a Hiwatt. I may not have known it for much of my life, but it's true nonetheless. Over the years I've bought custom amps, hot rodded Fenders, Boogies, Marshalls, Matchless, and a few others, but it was a Hiwatt that I needed - I just didn't know it yet. This is my story, and it is a quest for tone indeed. These truly unique amps have added so much to my
ability to express myself musically and I will always be grateful for having had the chance to learn more about them. One note though - I'll leave the detailed specs and production details to the vintage experts; I'm more interested in the sound of these amps as a player and a recording engineer. To me, they have no equal.
It's all my buddy Dan's fault. He'd actually played a Hiwatt years ago, and since he builds and repairs my guitars, he really knows what sort of sound I like. He knows why use I use only hardtail guitars, he knows why I use large strings (wound thirds only please) and the biggest frets available, and he understands why I use Tom Anderson and Lindy Fralin pickups.
It's the sound and the amazing tone that makes a great Hiwatt amp so special. Big, clear, true, and bold like a pipe organ or a 9-foot Steinway. No funky little over-effected-pedal-boarded-to death squeaky little gnat tones for me! No trashed-out death metal preset amps, no smirky modelers, no "good enough for rock n' roll" old-standbys. Hiwatts have soul...huge soul. It's a sound that I had always heard in my head - like heaven's bells - clear and sweet, yet powerful, articulate, and totally responsive to natural playing techniques and the true acoustic character of the guitar. If that description doesn't move you, perhaps you're not a Hiwatt player. If it does, well, I urge you to hear one soon. Oh, and bring your checkbook…
My story began when I demonstrated the clean sound on my new Marshall JCM2000/DSL100 head for Dan. He responded by saying, "Not bad, but you gotta hear a Hiwatt." "Wait a minute," says I, "how can that be? I just put NOS Telefunken tubes in the front end of this thing -- listen! It sounds great don't it?" Dan replied, "Don't get me wrong, that's the best clean sound from a Marshall I ever heard, but it ain't a Hiwatt." So I put the guitar down, got real serious and asked him if he thought I would hear a real difference given my musical tastes, with a Hiwatt. "Yes, there's no doubt," he replied. "Why? What is the deal with those amps? Aren't they just a big, loud, clean, tube amp - kind of like a Twin on steroids?" "Well, no, actually…nothing like that at all…"
Thus started my journey. As I write this, there is a 1969 Hiwatt DR103 100 Watt amp a few feet behind me. It cost 550.00, and it's the best guitar amp I have ever heard, period! Now, I'm not saying that this is the amp for everyone, and I'm not selling my other amps. But everyone should play a Hiwatt at least once. If all electric players would do that, there would be many more Hiwatts out there making music instead of sitting on dealers' floors or forgotten in closets. Of course, old ones wouldn't be $550.00 any more, would they? Let's just keep this between us for the moment, shall we?
After this bit of enlightenment from my pal Dan, off we went to the local music store on Hiwatt Patrol. Now I must say that my wife Chris is a great human being. No, she doesn't jump up and down with joy at the thought of me buying more gear, but she loves music, and she's pretty darn patient with her gearhead husband. Besides, she thought the sales guy was real cute...Anyway, we found a nice Hiwatt Custom 100 DR103 with the requisite "Hylight Electronics" plate on the back. Sounded good too, except for the fact that it distorted at surprisingly low levels - no where near the huge clean output that I'd heard about, but I figured it was due to weak output tubes, and my tech, Tim Pinnel, the amp-genius would have it cranking in no time. We agreed on the price, and off to the repair shop we went with my first Hiwatt.
Let me stop for a moment and tell all of you that you really should take the time to find a great amp tech if you are going to buy old tube amps. Who knows what indignities have been wrought upon old amps? Bad mods, trashy components, cold solders, mismatched tubes, spilled pints of beer, and just plain bad work could easily be found under the hood. Oh, and don't forget the frauds floating around either…In the immortal words of Hans und Franz, "Hear me now, believe me later!" Most players need an amp tech to safely buy vintage amps.
With that caveat in mind, the phone rang a few hours after I'd dropped off my first Hiwatt. It's Tim, and the amp is a fake. "What, it's not a Hiwatt?" "No, it's a Hiwatt all right, but it's a 50 watter with fake ID plates." "But I saw four output tubes!" "Yeah, well two of them are just mini space-heaters, or lava-lamps for ampheads - no audio connections at all, just filament power to make 'em light up." Swell. Now how would you like to receive that tidbit of information about 6 months after the purchase? Did I mention that you need a good amp tech when buying old amps?
There can be advantages to buying from a large, established dealer. Not that they are more ethical, but they certainly have more to lose. I sat down with the store manager that same night and I told him what I had found. "No way" says he. Then he found out whom I had taken it to, and that I had documentation, and he starts in with the "you bought it as-is" routine. But what exactly did I buy "as-is"? A Hiwatt 100 Watt amp, right? This amp is a fraud, and an "as-is" statement will not cover you for selling me a misrepresented product, will it?
Ahh, mates, they got real helpful and cooperative then. Isn't that nice? They asked me if I would take their other Hiwatt instead, but I had already passed on that poor old trooper. It was a raggedy mess with a grafted-on Home Depot-orange extension cord jammed through the hole in the chassis where the power socket should be. The insides were dirty, dull, and faded, the cabinet was pretty badly frayed, and the plastic logo plate and control panel plates were cracked. Oh, and it sounded just awful. But they were willing to give me some of my money back plus this amp, so I called Tim up and asked if this tired old soldier could be saved. He felt that as long as the original transformers were there it was probably something he could rescue. So I got some money back, and off we went with one very tired old Hiwatt. A few days later Tim called and it turned out that it was actually a pretty good amp. Except for a goofy "make it sound like a Marshall" mod some misguided nimrod had performed, it was in better shape than it looked. Tim cleaned everything, took out the mod, and set it up for Svetlana EL34's. To my surprise, the filter caps were fine, so we left the originals in. Tim also installed a US-standard IEC power cord socket so I can buy a power cord anywhere. When I got the amp home and plugged it into my 4X12 Matchless cabinet the tone and the sheer power of the amp floored me! The musical, expressive, aggressive tone this thing generated just amazed me, as it does to this day.
Tim had told me that he wasn't sure that the schematic he was working from was the right one, and he suggested that I look around for an original schematic for the amp. This is how I met Steve Gibbs of the Audio Brothers in jolly old England, home of all things Hiwatt. I found him through an Internet search on "Hiwatt" at the Audio Bros. web site. I e-mailed Steve and he was able to date my amp to 1969.
With a bit of yakking and the international exchange of an oddball antique car part or two, Steve was also able to provide me with a proper schematic for the amp. Tim and I ended up settling for a preamp circuit that was somewhere between the two different schematics. (I use a Matchless 4x12 cabinet; not proper Hiwatt speakers, so that may have influenced the sound a bit.)
A great amp tech can actually change things around while you sit and play your guitar - an amazing treat. And Dan was right - this amp compliments my style like no other, and
it sounds like nothing else on the planet. I challenged the Johnson Amplification people at the recent AES (Audio Engineering Society) convention to model it. Now, I like their little modeling box, The J Station, but it isn't even close to the tone of my Hiwatt. We may get together with them and give it a go, but I'm doubtful that creating a convincing model of this amp is possible.
If you have a chance to try a Hiwatt, do this - plug into the "Brill" (bright) channel. Use the lower jack (the high-gain one). The power and standby switches are bass-ackwards -- "On" is down. Now, take a very short cable and connect the upper "Brill" jack to the lower "Normal" jack. Now you have signal in both channels. Keep the amp's master and your guitar volume and tones dimed, and puhhlleeze leave out the pedal board for now! You will get sound from both the Normal and Brill knobs. Turn them both about halfway up and set the Bass, Treble, Middle and Presence at about the one o'clock position. The first thing you should try adjusting is the amazing Presence control. It kinda works like you'd expect until you hit about five o'clock, when it really starts to deliver that zing and chime that these amps are known for. Once you get the zing quotient dialed in, you can produce an amazing number of tonal shades by varying the level between the Brill and Normal channel. The Bass, Treble and Middle controls are really useful as well. Next, using both inputs, try bringing the overall level up until it produces a big, fat roar on power chords. By now, you may notice your hair, pants and shirt flapping about wildly, and anything on a shelf in the room will be gracefully walking itself towards the edge, so don't play near the china.
Don't it just wanna make you jump into "Summertime Blues"? Yeah, me too. Even at these levels, if you back off a bit solely with your pick attack rather than turning knobs, you'll find a genuinely stunning, clean, clear tone. With these amps, you can go from Bach's "Sheep May Safely Graze" right into "Won't Get Fooled Again" without touching a single knob anywhere. Try that with your Pod! Simply amazing, and to this day without equal, in my opinion.
I had a chance to chat with Steve Gibbs and Tim Pinnel about my amp and Hiwatts in general. Let's start with Steve Gibbs of the Audio Bros. The story of Hiwatt is a fascinating one indeed, and Steve obviously has his own perspective on this subject, as do all the others in contemporary Hiwatt land. I am not trying to cover all the bases in the Hiwatt saga, and there are three or four more articles that could be written should one wish to do that. The folks I spoke with are simply the ones that helped me with my amp.
TQR Steve, let me start by asking what specifically happened to the original Hylight Electronics, the company founded by Dave Reeves, manufacturer of Hiwatts.
Hylight died with Dave Reeves in 1981. He'd gotten into a lot of debt and was trying to grow the company by making deals with all sorts of people. Hiwatt had a bad deal with their US distributor, who had no real interest in rock 'n roll and the equipment thereof, and as such could not do a good job with the amps. He tried to get into this deal with Sterling Imports and that turned out to be not such a good deal for the amps either. Basically, he had made lots of questionable business commitments, and the company was in debt by the time Dave died and he left it to his employees. They immediately came up against this problem with the American importers that was a similar situation to the Thomas Organ story with Vox amps. The American company was actually making Hiwatts in Modesto, CA and selling them, although they were only supposed to import them and sell them. . Rick Harrison of Music Grounds and Eric Dixon then bought into the group and assisted with getting the American company to stop making "Hiwatts" in Modesto. But, I would say that very few Hiwatts made in England were shipped out during the early to mid 1980's. Some were built on printed circuit boards during this time, and those were the ones that took a slagging in Aspen Pittman's book - the ones with power valve sockets on printed circuit boards and what-have-you.
TQR How did Fernandes acquire with the rights to Hiwatt?
They were sold around 1985 to Fourlife, which was a Japanese company run by a chap who was sort of the godson of Mr. Sato, of Fernandes. Because of various issues, Fourlife got into trouble almost immediately, and Fernandes thus got the rights to Hiwatt from them. Because of all the machinations over the years, there are all sorts of arguments as to who really owns, or should own the rights to Hiwatt, but I don't know how it could be resolved at this point.
TQR What a story!
Good story isn't it? Rick Harrison of Music Grounds claims to hold the rights to Hiwatt now, and he claims to have registered the rights to make and sell Hiwatts in the U.K. and Europe. There was supposed to be a hearing in December of last year to sort out the UK trademarks, but I don't believe anything was resolved.
TQR How did you get into Hiwatt-land with your company The Audio Bros.?
We took this on in 1992, not knowing anything about all this crap with the rights. We just thought that Fernandes had the rights and we would carry on and do it, and it didn't really surface until 1994 that Fernandes didn't have the rights, or possibly their rights were shaky. A meeting to resolve things with Fernandes failed however. We continued to make them, but because the volume dropped off due to all this uncertainty, we actually lost money.
TQR So what years did the Audio Bros. make the Fernandes Hiwatt DR series
From 1992 until 1996.
TQR Can you give us a sense of the general arc of who made what in which years since Dave died?
Sure…anything with a black front and black grillcloth was made after 1979, and until about 1985 was most likely made up north (in England). Any amp with a printed circuit was made by Eric Dixon's company or in California. Dave Reeves was actually working on some printed circuit designs, and there are one or two rackmount 400 units that have transistor preamps. There were also a few PA units - probably only 6 made, which were 2x200 or 400 Watt mono
units. They weigh an enormous amount.
TQR As you know, I'm a big fan of these amps. You say "Hiwatt" to most people, however, and they think "big clean sound, kinda like a Twin," and that seems a little far off-base doesn't it?
They're nothing like a Twin, really. I mean, a Twin is clean in a way, but it has a glassy metallic quality to the treble that Hiwatt's don't have. Anything with 6L6's or 6V6's, to my ears…you can immediately hear the difference between a British amp and an American amp, because of that "fingernails on the glass" sound to the treble. And it just gets out of "clean" in the top end.
TQR I'm amazed with the Hiwatts because they can get so bright, yet the tone remains very pleasant - they don't rip your ears off with it. Are the new Hiwatt amps from Music Grounds in England going to be sold only overseas?
He will sell them as I sell replicas of Hiwatts - particularly the little ones which I designed, so I think I've got a reasonable right to do that. I don't think anyone can stop you from selling to individual customers across the world. It isn't the same as marketing and doesn't count as such. I think he will do the same.
TQR I actually found a late 70's Hiwatt DR103 that I did not like the sound of at all. Was anything changed during that era?
There are some wonderful amps from that era, and that was most likely just the individual amp you heard. Dave did change the circuit design around about 1978. There was an American guy who started working with him about that time who said that the players wanted more gain, so Dave went from leaving half of V1 unused as in the early amps, to using the other half of V2 so there is more gain available in those amps. Not lots more, but more.
TQR I think one of the things that some players don't like about Hiwatts is how bloody loud you have to play them to get some crunch out of them.
Absolutely. The gain architecture throughout the amp gives you a lot of headroom. There's a stage in a Hiwatt that isn't in any other amplifier - it sets the phase splitter to run 60 or 70 volts at the cathode, which no other amp does, and that allows an enormous amount of headroom for the clean signal to go clear through. There is no master volume at all. When it says, "master volume" it isn't. It's really just another volume control, and it doesn't work like the master volumes in a Marshall or any other amp - they all squash the signal across the phase splitter. But the Hiwatt doesn't, so there's none of that compression distortion at any point. It sounds great no matter where you set the knobs.
TQR You've spoken of the importance of Fane speakers to the tone. I'm using a 4x12 Matchless closed box, and it sounds wonderful with my amp. Mark (Sampson of Matchless) used the Celestion Vintage-30's that he performed some sort of mod on, but it sure works with my amp. What do you think the Fane's would do for my tone?
There's less mids and more eveness in the overall tone with more definition in the bottom and top end. Also, more resolution of tiny signals and more dynamic range. The Fane is just exactly like the Hiwatt in the way it reproduces music - it does the same things and it has the clarity. Hiwatts couldn't be a better amp to learn guitar through because they tell you what your fingers are doing. If you place an open chord and you can't clearly hear six strings, then you've put your fingers in the wrong place.
TQR For the last ten years I have done almost all my electric guitar practice with the guitar unplugged. It really forces you to learn to play the instrument; the strings, frets, wood, fingers and pick, rather than playing the amp or the pedal or the reverb. I've found that those skills I
have learned from practicing unplugged relate directly to playing through a Hiwatt. It simply gives you what you would expect, only much bigger.
That's just it. Undoubtedly - in many ways it's the best guitar amp ever made.
TQR I agree.
But the Fane makes it classically what it is. They do the same thing the Hiwatt does. The Fane is like an EV without the coldness. EV's have a great coldness that you cannot remove with the tone controls, while the Fane speakers have that clarity with the warmth we all love.
TQR What do you like for tubes in Hiwatt amps? Mine shows a strong preference for the original Mullards in the front end, but it seems to do well with Svetlana EL34's on the output.
I just use the Sovtek WA's. I like the Chinese output tubes. They need to be carefully selected and matched though. Svetlana is my second choice.
TQR If you could, give us a summary of what you believe to be the factors that make these amps sound so good.
The one thing is the headroom through it, and as I said, the special circuits. There's a cathode follower that sets the bias for the phase splitter. That allows not only the signal to work properly, but also the feedback to work properly and the presence control to work properly. In other words, you get headroom through all of those loops. And the transformers play an important part, of course. The space in the box is another important thing. The noise on a properly setup Hiwatt is lower than any other for a given gain position. You get more dynamic range and you can hear more of what is going on dynamically. The solid-core wiring also makes a real difference.
Yeah. We wired our replicas with different types and gauges of solid core wire and insulation. The stuff we settled on using, again, moves the Hiwatt more towards that sound that we are looking for in these amps - the clarity. I'm sure you're aware of the silly amount of hype surrounding hi-fi cables and all, but it certainly makes a difference in the Hiwatt based on what you wire it with.
TQR That's interesting, because in general, the solid core wire does not make great hi-fi speaker cable. Most of the high-end cable manufacturers are using woven multi-strand and multi-gauge cable.
There are larger currents inside a Hiwatt than you will ever see in a speaker cable. There are enormous currents in there, especially to the power supply caps. Wiring is one of the most important things. Also the thing that differentiates each amplifier from the next is where they set the rising gain. If you think about it, look at your guitar strings. You have fat ones going to thin ones, yet each is vibrating in a magnetic field that is roughly equal. So what you do is to raise the gain at some point to compensate for the falling signal from the smaller strings. Where each designer has chosen to raise that is the single factor that gives the most significant, characteristic difference amongst amplifiers. Put another way, it's frequency from which the amp starts to rise in the preamp. Each manufacturer does it in a different place.
Next I spoke with Tim Pinnel of Top Gear in La Mesa, California, who resurrected my old Hiwatt.
TQR Tim, do you see many Hiwatts coming through the shop here?
We don't see as many of those as we do Marshalls and Fenders because there aren't as many of them out there, they don't break very much, and people don't usually modify them much. We have a couple in here right now, though.
TQR Let's talk about my 1969 DR103 that you worked on, and the first one that was a fake.
Someone had simply put a 100 watt panel on a 50 watt amp, added two more output tube sockets and wired them up to light up the filaments. The two extra tubes didn't do anything other than light up.
TQR Nightlights for gearheads…
Right (laughs.) Obviously it was somebody's scam job there.
TQR Have you ever seen a fake Hiwatt before?
No, that was a first for me.
TQR When I finally got a real DR103 it was pretty tired, but you felt that you could restore it. What did you find when you opened it up?
Well, the older an amp is, the more opportunities for someone to get their hands in there and monkey around with it. Pots and component values were wrong in some places, and it was wired up to make a fairly uncharacteristic sound for a Hiwatt. A lot of the time what I do is undo bad mods. I like to return the amp to it's original state and go from there. When you see a mod, a lot of the time it doesn't make any sense. With your amp, we restored both the circuit design and some components.
TQR I was simply amazed at the transformation. It really came back to life.
Hiwatts should have a characteristic sound. You want to get that amp back to original as close as possible before you know what you have. Also, there can be a lot of drift in old components. Everything needs to be checked.
TQR I was surprised that the original power supply caps were still good since 1969.
I had an original '59 Bassman in here the other day, and the original power supply caps were fine. It's like a car battery - they need to be used and charged up regularly. It's sitting and doing nothing that can age caps the worst.
TQR When you guys finished my amp, did you open it up and get to hear what that thing sounds like?
TQR To me, it's just an amazing sound with wide dynamics that no other amp really has.
A good musician who can use dynamics well can really use that amp as an instrument like we play a guitar. We don't have a lot of them through here and it is great to remind ourselves of what those things can do.
TQR Are most Hiwatts consistently good?
They are quite consistent on the whole - some of the most consistently good amps there are.
TQR What do you think accounts for the wonderful sound of these amps?
It goes down to the sum of every darn part in the whole amp. The transformers themselves make an enormous difference. 100 watts of Hiwatt is way different than 100 watts of Fender, and the transformer plays an important role there, but everything is important - it all adds up. Also, the folks who designed them obviously had more of an ear for the fidelity, for the detail, than some of the other British amps of the day. A clean Hiwatt does not sound like a clean Marshall from the same era. The driver stage makes a difference too. It can be clean and bell-like without being harsh.
Here are a couple of things I have learned about my Hiwatt. Your mileage may vary.
- Do not change the preamp tubes unless you have to. I have tried new and NOS (new old-stock) 12AX7's, 12AT7's, and 5751's, including Telefunkens, all sorts of Amperex, Mullard, Mazda, GE, Sylvania, JJ, Sovtek, etc, and the only thing that sounds right in the front end of this amp are the Mullards like the originals that came in the amp. Nothing else, not the Telefunkens, nuthin' sounds as good as the Mullards. The one exception in my amp is the driver tube, where a French made Amperex beat even the Mullards, and a Sylvania 6201 beat even that. In general though, this amp is English, and she wants her flippin' Mullards, period. If you buy a used amp, it should have the original Mullards in it, since they seem to last a really long time. If someone has swapped them out (probably to sell separately...) ask for them back, or get a discount. NOS Mullard replacements are about $60.00 each (US) and you need four.
- NOS Mullard EL34 power tubes are a horse of a different color. They run between $250 and $850 dollars a pair and you need four, so listen to my paisan Vinnie and fuggedaboudit. Fortunately, my amp loves the Svetlana EL34's and they are only about $15 each. Get a matched set. I also have a matched set of 4 JJ EL34's that I want to try when I wear out the Svetlanas, but I think the Svetlanas will be hard to beat. As you heard, Steve Gibbs likes the Chinese EL34's from PM. Your mileage may vary, but be certain the amp is checked out and biased for any new tubes. This amp creates a lot of power from its components, and like a finely tuned racecar, you do not want any weak links in the drive train.
· Try the "hookup to both channels" trick as previously described. You'll like it.
· Remember, in addition to the really cool folks I have met in Hiwatt Land, there are also some sharks in the vintage amp world in general. Be careful. There is a certain fellow known for dealing in Hiwatts who told me straight to my face that he will change and forge the "Dave Reeves" signature inside the amp chassis to raise the value on an amp. Think he might pull the Mullards out and sell 'em separately? Think he might sell you a 50W disguised as a 100W and make you sue him to get your money back? Yep.
You do have a good amp tech, don't you pilgrim? It isn't extremely hard to find a great Hiwatt, but be smart about it, and don't get scammed.
There are many Hiwatt resources today. In addition to used ones being fairly available and relatively cheap, there are new ones being built as well by some of the folks in our resources sidebar. The gentlemen who was contracted to wire the Hiwatts in the 60's and 70's, Harry Joyce, also has some new amps out that have a lot of Hiwatt in them.
This is, of course, a limited resource. These represent only those contacts that I have some familiarity with. I'm sure there are many more out there. Run an Internet search for yourself on the name HIWATT and take a look.
Top Gear (repairs, restoration, mods and guitars)
Dan Altilio Tim Pinnel
7293 University Blvd
La Mesa, California 91941
The Hiwatt Story (the motherlode of Hiwatt info)
The Audio Bros. (Steve Gibbs' site) parts - many NOS, and information
Hiwatt Amplifier Tribute
New Hiwatts made in England
The Fernandes Hiwatt Site
The Harry Joyce amps site
Vintage Amps.com has a great shot of the back of a DR103 (wish mine
looked that good)