Mo’ Watts—A Nostalgic Look at Hiwatt
HiWatt - where they came from, and the tones they''re known for.
What do Slade, Robert Fripp (King Crimson),
Tommy Bolin, Tommy Shaw (Styx, Damn
Yankees) Martin Barre (Jethro Tull), and Mike
Rutherford (Genesis) all have in common?
They used vintage Hiwatt amplifiers to achieve
their signature tones. Put on the Who’s
classic album Live at Leeds, and you’ll hear
these amplifiers in all their naked glory. In my
humble opinion, Hiwatts are probably the most
unforgiving guitar amplifiers to play through,
and one of the more difficult to “make friends
with,” because they are so damn accurate and
quick in the way they reproduce sound. That
said, the Hiwatt sound is much more refined
and chock-full of high-resolution details when
compared to any other British amplifier.
Part of the reason for their special sound lies in the fact that they are quite a bit cleaner than, say, a Marshall metal-panel 100-watt head, and they respond extremely quickly to the player’s touch. In fact, after seeing and hearing a few vintage Hiwatts over the years, I can safely say that a Hiwatt is more closely related to a Vox AC30 than any other British amp—a really big sounding AC30 at that. If you like AC30s, you should get along with a Hiwatt without any major issues (other than adjusting to its super-fast response).
Hiwatt’s 4x12 cabinets also play an important part in the their overall tone—something I first discovered with a Marshall Major, ironically enough. In the mid ’70s, I had the opportunity to take some private lessons with Bill Connors (Return to Forever’s first, and best, electric guitarist) when he lived in the San Francisco Bay Area. These lessons went for about a year before Bill decided to move back to New York, and he asked me whether I could help sell his RTF performing rig, which consisted of a Marshall Major 200-watt head coupled with two model 4122 Hiwatt 4x12 cabinets. Even though Connors had already sold the Maestro Full Range Booster that he used to overdrive this monster rig—the “secret sauce” to his single-note tone—that amp and speaker combination was devastating nonetheless. It was bold, loud, and chimey all on its own, with only a Les Paul plugged into the Major head.
A critical element in the sound of those Hiwatt cabinets were the original 50-watt Fane speakers. These have an inherently chimey quality that might remind many players of the old original Vox “Blue” speakers. One of the greatest benefits of the original Fanes is that they clean up very quickly when you lower your guitar’s volume control, thus allowing you to obtain both acoustic guitar-like clarity at lower levels and that famous kerrang when the volume is set at full bore. And believe me, once you can tame the roaring thunder of a goosed Hiwatt rig, you’ll be able to play anything else.
True proof of the Fanes’ brilliance came nine years ago at the so-called Tampa Tone Fest, an informal gathering of amp enthusiasts and friends. One day, while we were at lunch, resting our ears, our friend and Hiwatt collector, Patrick, hooked up my Komet 60 head into a 1975-era model 4123 Hiwatt cabinet to compare it to the various Marshall cabs in attendance. We were all stunned at the sound we heard coming out of those Fane 50s—it was propelled with a laser-like focus, unmatched by even our reference 1968 Marshall cabinet.
To this very day, I still crack up at the thought of being able to hear Patrick from my car the next morning, blasting the “big gun” 200-watt DR201 model through two Hiwatt 4x12 cabinets with my old Precision Bass—about 7 blocks away from the venue. That was indeed a scene, watching everyone run from the building when I drove into the parking lot. Talk about loud!
In the decades since my first encounters with Hiwatts, I’ve developed a real love of the “snarling” tone Hiwatt stacks produce. This is opposed to the “growl” that Marshall amps produce—it’s a very different sound really. The Marshall clean tone comes across as very weak and distorted when compared side-by-side with the Hiwatt’s obvious clean prowess.
There are a couple of things you need to know about the Hiwatt design that make things seem a little backwards if you’re used to other British amp heads. Firstly, the high-low sensitivity inputs are actually upside down (the high-sensitivity input is on the bottom, not the top like on a Marshall head, for instance). Secondly, do yourself a big favor and avoid plugging your guitar or bass straight into the Brilliant channel inputs— these things are razor-sharp, and have been known to scare off new players before they were able to discover the true Hiwatt tone. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Finally, vintage Hiwatts are generally much more reliable than other British amplifiers because they were built by military-trained assemblers. For example, the 200-watt model Hiwatt heads are extremely well-made and very reliable, whereas the Marshall Major 200-watt head was fraught with issues such as catching on fire, not taking well to pedals, etc. Hiwatt did produce a 400-watt head that ended up having various reliability issues, but they didn’t make too many before pulling them from the market. One of the late Ken Fischer’s last comments about these amplifiers—besides noting that you should “wear a diaper” if you were going to be prodding around the insides of a 400-watt amp—came in late 2006, when he told me over the phone that, “The only vintage amp that will be left standing (and still working) in the year 2025 would be a Hiwatt!” Knowing Ken, he’s probably right.
Dean is the chief designer of "Snake Oil Brand Strings" (sobstrings.net) and has had a profound influence on the trends in the strings of today.