Hiwatt History: The Story Behind the Legendary Amp Brand

July 15th, 2015

This is an article from the all-new JULY/AUGUST 2015 issue of Guitar Aficionado magazine. For this story, plus features on actor David Duchovny and his new album, Les Paul and the 100th anniversary of his birth, Warrant guitarist Erik Turner’s newfound passion for wine, chef Troy Knapp of Austin’s The Driskill, traveling Maui on a pair of Harley-Davidson motorcycles, and more, pick up the new issue of Guitar Aficionado at your newsstand, or online by clicking anywhere in this text.

Hiwatt-Amp-The-Who-Final-GALONG LIVE ROCK: The Hiwatt Story
By Mitch Colby | Illustration by Yau Hoong Tang

Like many of today’s boutique amplifier builders, Hiwatt was started by a lone enthusiast who was repairing and building amps in his garage. In 1966, Dave Reeves thought he could build a better mousetrap, and he did! His amps were built like tanks and sounded like them, too (in a good way).

At first, Reeves built a few amps for a local band. Then he started building amps under contract for Sound City, which was owned by Arbiter, a major U.K. music distributor and music store retailer. In short order, Hiwatt gained ground and grew enough to move to bigger facilities.

Once Vox started to lose its footing as a major player, Hiwatt became the only significant competitor to Marshall in the U.K. during the early Seventies. In just a few years, Hiwatt amps were used by major acts, including the Who, Pink Floyd, Jethro Tull, Led Zeppelin, the Moody Blues, and Rush.

There was a very good reason for Hiwatt’s growing popularity. The amps sounded great and were built to exacting standards of workmanship and quality. A look inside the chassis reveals military-grade attention to detail, with perfect right angles on wiring and components. The circuits included ample filtering and high-quality transformers from Partridge. Eventually, Reeves needed more help and employed a British government-certified wiring contractor named Harry Joyce, who started building Hiwatt amps to Dave’s high-quality standards sometime in mid 1970.

The sound of Hiwatt amps is bold, with plenty of headroom and bottom end. They are especially great platforms for a pedal-based rig. Although Hiwatts were among the first commercially available amps that featured master volume controls, the preamps are not high gain, so the amps don’t produce much distortion at low volume. They need to be cranked up before they produce overdrive, but because they provide an impressive amount of clean headroom it’s advisable to protect your ears. (Just ask Pete Townshend.)

Hiwatt made 50-, 100-, 200-, and 400-watt amps but the 50- and 100-watt DR504 and DR103, respectively, were the most popular and are the vintage models most desired by collectors and players alike. They feature two channels, four inputs, and controls for normal volume, brilliant volume, treble, middle, bass, presence, and master volume. The speaker cabinets are strong and heavy, using 14-ply baltic birch to house cast-frame Fane speakers.

Business was quite good for Hiwatt through about 1981, when Dave Reeves suddenly passed away. The company continued and even added some new models but soon failed. The Hiwatt name was eventually sold off, and for a period two different companies owned the trademark in different countries. Now owned by one U.K. entity, Hiwatt has reissued many of the original models and offers some new ones as well.

I recently worked on about a dozen Hiwatts from the golden age of 1966 to 1972. Among them were a couple of very interesting and rare models with “The Who” and “David Gilmour” etched on the front panels. The Who amp is based on the early models Dave Reeves first sold under the Hiwatt name and then made for Sound City. It has four inputs, each with its own volume control and shared treble, middle, and bass controls. The Gilmour amp, which had been modified by Pete Cornish, has four inputs, but instead of the usual pairs of normal and brilliant inputs, two are normal, one is disabled, and the other one linked the two channels.

Vintage Hiwatts have a very simple bias circuit that is not user adjustable. If you plan to play one regularly, I highly recommend that you get the bias circuit modded to include a trim pot and the potential for higher negative voltage.

Even though I have been deeply involved with amplifiers for more than 40 years, I never had the opportunity to play a Hiwatt for more than a few minutes until recently. These are serious amplifiers! The output is very full sounding, bazooka-like, and in your face, with lots of headroom, punch, and harmonics. I thought they sounded their best when played through a matching Hiwatt Fane-loaded 4×12 compared to a vintage Marshall with Greenbacks.

If you’re a serious amp collector, I highly recommend adding a Hiwatt amp or two to your collection, as there is really nothing else like them. If you’re a dedicated Who or Pink Floyd fan, a Hiwatt amp is essential for duplicating Pete Townshend and David Gilmour’s signature tones.

Mitch Colby helped develop many Marshall and Vox amp designs and is the founder of Colby Amplification.

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This is an article from the all-new JULY/AUGUST 2015 issue of Guitar Aficionado magazine. For this story, plus features on actor David Duchovny and his new album, Les Paul and the 100th anniversary of his birth, Warrant guitarist Erik Turner’s newfound passion for wine, chef Troy Knapp of Austin’s The Driskill, traveling Maui on a pair of Harley-Davidson motorcycles, and more, pick up the new issue of Guitar Aficionado at your newsstand, or online by clicking anywhere in this text.

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