hiwatt

Hiwatt History*


 

PREFACE - THE BEGINNING

Hylight Electronics was the brainchild of British audio engineer David Reeves. He attended technical school in the late 50s, and did apprenticeships at Marconi Electronics and Mullard.

While working his day job, young Reeves also started working evenings in a small room over Plato Music on Crown Passage in Morden from 1964-1968. He fixed things at first, repairing hifi sets and televisions as well. It was during this time that he first conceived the idea to start his own company and invented the Hiwatt name.

Early timeline:

  • 1963 -- Local band "The Hylights" amplifier blew up, DR said "I could build a better one than that" so he did. He conceived the idea to build more amps from this whilst living in 3a Cotswold road, Belmont, Surrey.
  • March 1964 --Moved to Morden, Surrey (The maisonette).
  • Early 1966 -- Made redundant (laid off) from Mullard, used £800 separation pay to give him breathing space to develop Hiwatt idea, whilst wiring the amps at 4 Crown Passage, Kingston, Surrey (Plato Musical Instuments Ltd.) and finishing them in the maisonette in Morden.
  • Late 1967 to early 1968 -- Built Sound City amps under contract and with £800 from this put deposit on 171 Malden Way, New Malden and moved in March, 1968. Built Hiwatt amps in the garage.
  • Between 26th Jan and 1st Feb 1972 moved Hiwatt from garage to a 16 Park Road, Kingston, Surrey.

The first series of units that were produced bearing the moniker first appeared from Reeves work bench in 1964 (based on one early example obtained by Plexi Palace). These first models used ultralinear taps for the screen grids. They were a split-chassis design 50 watt head with the control panel mounted on the top of the cabinet, and a black and gold nameplate that featured small-case, cursive writing spelling out the name "hi-watt". The original HIWATTs owed more of their design and look to the VOX and SELMER counterparts of the day than to the classic look of the British guitar amplifier that HIWATT later embodied. The DR506 (S/N 159) pictured on this site was built in this shop in 1966, based on receipts still in existence.

Reeves apparently created a few early Hiwatt amps using a script logo, but we don't know where exactly in the timeline these fit in.

There followed a number of more traditional front-panel head designs, the earliest of which had "HIWATT AMPLIFIER COMPANY" printed on the control panel where the more familiar "CUSTOM HIWATT 100" text would later go.

Note that Partridge transformers and Mullard valves were part of the Hiwatt recipe from the earliest days, in large part because Reeves was intimately familiar with them from working at Mullard.

CHAPTER ONE - HYLIGHT and SOUND CITY

Reeves eventually started the Hylight company (the name came from an early 60s band named "The Hylights" that a friend belonged to), and the name was registered in September of 1966. He was a stickler for quality from the first, as shown by a 1965 letter to a cabinet manufacturer complaining he was unhappy about the quality of the cabinets he was getting.

The first big order for amplifiers came from Ivor Arbiter's Sound City music store -- these became the original Sound City amps. These amps (the so-called "Mark I") were apparently just his current amplifier design, re-badged with the Sound City name. Note that many of these amps still have the "Hylight Electronics" stickers on the chassis inside. He received 800-odd pounds for this batch of amps, but decided to focus on producing amps using the HIWATT name after this.

In an interesting turn, Arbiter took Reeves to court afterwards saying they owned the design and Hylight was using it without permission. During the proceedings, Reeves pointed to the unused holes in the amp chassis and asked the Arbiter engineers what they were for -- they couldn't answer, since they were just producing copies of the existing chassis that Reeves had originally designed! The case was decided in Reeves favor shortly thereafter.

Several units later, Dave Reeves starting building amplifiers that more closely resembled the modern day HIWATT. The nameplates had been changed as well to feature a non-hyphenated, bold, all capital letter logo that stated .

At around the same time (1967-68), Dave was laid off from Mullard ("made redundant" in English terms), and got another 800-odd pounds separation. He used the two sums of money to help put a down payment on a house in New Malden. The new house had a small garage, and this became the new home of Hylight Electronics.

Hylight Electronics originally sold direct to the musicians so that they could put the additional fees charged by distributors and music stores back into the growth of HIWATT. Probably the earliest famous user was Glenn Cornick, then of Jethro Tull, who often played up the road at the Toby Jug. It was at his urging that the first 200-watt (and later 400-watt) amps were produced. Hiwatt heads can be seen on the January 8 1969 Toby Jug (and subsequent) pictures on the cornick.org website. The May 8 Royal Albert Hall picture in particular looks like a Hiwatt advert!

Certainly one of the most famous guitarists to endorse the brand in the early days was Pete Townshend of the Who. Dave Reeves had made the Townshend connection earlier via the original SOUND CITY heads that Pete used. By February 1970 when the famous "Live at Leeds" concert occurred, The Who stage was full of Hiwatts.

Word grew fast not only among the popular bands of the day, but among their "roadies", praising the big sound of HIWATT and its cast-iron reliability.

Another interesting anecdote comes from this period. Apparently one of the neighbors had complained to the town council about all the noise coming out of the Reeves family garage. The council sent a letter stating they would be there at such-and-such a date and time to inspect the premises. Of course, when the deadline and inspector arrived, the garage was empty, it's contents packed into a van parked on the next road over!

To subsidize its income at the time, HyLight Electronics also started manufacturing amplifiers under the SOLA SOUND name for Macari Ltd., one of the largest musical instrument distributors in the U.K. This arrangement only lasted for a short while as the popularity of the HIWATT amps were becoming more overwhelming on a daily basis.

CHAPTER TWO - BUILDING THE PERFECT BEAST

As the demand for HIWATT Amplification grew towards the end of the 1960's, so did Dave Reeves passion for producing an even more "road-worthy" unit for professional musicians. Much of the credit for getting HIWATT gear into the hands of such legendary bands as THE WHO, PINK FLOYD, JETHRO TULL,THE MOODY BLUES, MANFRED MANN and others, must go to HIWATT'S original Sales Manager, Peter Webber.

Peter Webber was a former band road manager whose savvy, experience, and connections with many high-profile British musicians made him the perfect choice to promote Dave Reeves premier line of amplifiers. Peter logged endless hours driving the lengths of the U.K., giving bands "hands-on" demos of the HIWATTS, and selling them on HIWATT's superior tonal capabilities and unmatched reliability. The bands initially trusted Peter for his reputation and knowledge, and the deals were closed once they plugged in. In particular, he would regularly take a set of Hiwatts up to a place in London called the Roundhouse, where they became the house amplifiers.

With Peter Webber selling HIWATTS as quickly as the Hylight Electronics garage workshop could turn them out, Dave Reeves knew he needed help. The most critical and time-consuming stage in building the amps was in the wiring of the chassis. (Note that the trademark "right angles and neat bundles" internal wiring was being used in Hiwatts as early as 1969, before anyone external was brought into the picture.) In 1971 Reeves picked up the phone book to find a wirer that would be able to re-create and fine tune his "super neat" approach to wiring amplifiers, and came across the name Harry Joyce.

When Dave Reeves initially visited Harry's workshop in Walton-on-Thames in early 1971, and approached him with the proposition of wiring the chassis for HIWATT amps, Harry was skeptical.

Harry Joyce Electronics was at that time under contract to Gravesby Instruments Ltd. to produce wiring projects for the British Navy which required Harry's "no compromise" workmanship and quality control. Harry had hand-picked his elite crew of wiring technicians who were "fresh" out of technical school and taught them his meticulous format for "military-spec" wiring.

After some prodding by Dave Reeves, Harry agreed to take on the chassis-wiring chores for Hylight Electronics on one condition: He insisted that they not be asked to produce more than forty units per month, to maintain a high standard of quality control. Dave reluctantly agreed, and the legendary marriage between Hylight Electronics and Harry Joyce Electronics began in earnest. Harry's company wired many Hiwatts from this time until early 1984, when Biacrown could no longer pay its bills.

Once the services of Harry Joyce and Co. had been acquired, the next step for Hylight Electronics was to find a "proper" facility for the research, design, assembly and marketing of HIWATT Amplification. Just up the road from New Malden was the town of Kingston-upon-Thames. Dave Reeves found a site for HIWATT'S new home, a converted bakery complex in a very old building that was located in a small industrial section of town known as ParkWorks. In January of 1972, Dave Reeves, Doug Fentiman, and newly-appointed factory foreman Ian Oates began settling in to their new address at 16 Park Road. The HIWATT legend was shifting in to high gear.

CHAPTER THREE - BUILDING THE DREAM TEAM

The next step in getting the production of HIWATT amps out of the garage and into the new facilities at ParkWorks was to find a superior cabinet-making team that could develop a "tank-like" skin to protect the premier electronics that Dave Reeves had developed.

Mike Allen and Danny Edwardson were brought on board to improve upon the current crop of speaker cabinets that were currently being produced in the U.K. The first step was to use a more robust and acoustically sound material for the cabinets construction. This came in the form of 14-ply Baltic Birch,which was a much heavier and dense wood product than most of the other amplifier manufacturers of the day were using. Next, the cabinets were internally braced at no less than 9 points,and the construction was finished using tongue- and-groove joints. The cabinets were finished off with the most resilient and "classic-style" vinyl covering Reeves could find (made by Brymor Ltd.) and the "tough as nails" black, white & grey fret cloth (speaker cloth) covering that was distinctively HIWATT.

To put the cabinets into a small production stage, Reeves enlisted the services of Henry Glass and Co., known as BEESKIT, one of the U.K.'s premier cabinet builders. Henry's meticulous production techniques were a perfect complement to HIWATT'S already legendary road-worthiness, and Reeves fanatical approach to building nothing less than the ultimate guitar amplifier.

Realizing that using the best components was an imperative part of HIWATT'S quality, Reeves struck up deals with Partridge Transformers to create mains and power output transformers to his specifications, and Fane Loudspeakers to produce a special series of cast-frame loudspeakers that became synonymous with the "HIWATT SOUND".

Another integral member that was added to the team at Hylight Electronics was Phil Dudderidge, whose specialty was the design and manufacture of public address systems. Phil's knowledge and extensive expertise in working with most of the major acts in Europe at the time, made him the perfect choice to expand the HIWATT name into the realm of sound reinforcement. Soon HIWATT would become almost as well known for their P.A. gear as they were for their guitar amplifiers. Phil went on to form Soundcraft with Graham Blythe, and today is chairman of Focusrite.

With all cylinders firing at Hylight Electronics, the HIWATT badge became more prevalent on stages throughout the world, and the roster of name acts that were using and endorsing HIWATT products was growing at an increasing rate.

The design of the amplifiers changed bit by bit through the 70s, reflecting changing tastes within the industry. Some odd designs briefly surfaced during this period, including the "SAP" model with footswitch and the mysterious DR118. Also, in a concession to modern times, the use of printed circuit boards was started at the end of the 70s, although the same strict construction and wiring standards were still employed.

Also during this time, some custom amplifiers were produced by Hiwatt for their most famous clients, including Pete Townshend's CP103 (a recreation of the early Sound City-era Hiwatt design) and David Gilmour's linked-input models.

During this period of sucess, Dave Reeves sponsored some race cars which bore the HIWATT name including a formula-1 car and a Mini. Reeves was quite the auto fan and owned some unusual cars including a Jensen Interceptor.

CHAPTER FOUR - THE END OF THE ROAD

In early 1981, Dave Reeves suffered a fatal fall down a flight of steps. Because he was divorced at the time and had not remarried, control of the company fell into the hands of solicitors (lawyers). Although his stated intention had been for his three children to inherit the business, this did not happen. Mary Clifford, the admin for the company at the time, along with other existing employees formed Biacrown Ltd., and continued making Hiwatt amplifiers.

There were some minor innovations to the circuitry produced during this time, including the "OL" (overload) model which had an extra gain stage added. Some were labeled "OL," while many were not. Some had an additional gain control added to the front panel labeled "overdrive."

For reasons not well documented, the new company struggled to pay its bills, and had to source components from other manufacturers as existing ones refused to ship product due to outstanding debts (the transformers, sourced from Drake and Sowter were the most notable change). Harry Joyce also stopped wiring units due to lack of payment. Finally, in early 1984 the company was forced to close its doors. Mary managed to sell the Hiwatt name to another entity (Rick Harrison of Music Ground, the same one making Hiwatt product today), and the original Hiwatt story came to a close.

* Some of this information is from the defunct Hiwatt Story site. Many dates and details were obtained via conversations with Daphne and Glynn Reeves (many thanks!)
meh 2/2007

BOOTNOTES

Daphne and Glynn Reeves (Dave's widow and son) live today in the same house in New Malden. The old garage still has labels on the shelves posted from the Hiwatt manufacturing days.

The Park Road building still stands, and is in use today.

Four attempts have been made (allegedly) to publish a book about Hiwatt, but to date all have come to naught.

WHERE ARE THEY NOW

Pete Webber (aka Wimpey) now owns a brilliant little pub, The Pigs Nose Inn, in East Prawle, S.Devon, with his wife Lesley.

Martin Clinch (aka Scab) is reportedly living in Slovakia or Croatia, and scratching a living in the amp business, more on the PA side of things.


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