Classic Gear: The 1969 Hiwatt Custom 100 Model DR103

Just as Marshall’s 100-watt Super Lead stack was emerging as the presumptive emperor of rocktown in 1967, bringing unprecedented volume and behemoth crunch to the masses, one humble engineer in southwest London decided he could do better.
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Just as Marshall’s 100-watt Super Lead stack was emerging as the presumptive emperor of rocktown in 1967, bringing unprecedented volume and behemoth crunch to the masses, one humble engineer in southwest London decided he could do better. Dave Reeves figured that by designing a new amp from the ground up to maximize punch, thump, and big-stage cutting power, he could help major artists deliver the ominous performances that the emerging heavy-rock styles were demanding, and which some players still weren’t getting from existing hardware. Operating as Hylight Electronics, and working out of his garage in New Malden, Surrey, Reeves manufactured his first commercial run of amps as a supplier for Sound City, the London guitar shop and eponymously named amp line of British retail giant Dallas-Arbiter. Dissatisfied with compromising his designs for a mass-market price point, however, the idealistic young builder soon struck out on his own, branding his creations with a moniker that stated their intentions right up front: Hiwatt.

At first glance, many an uninitiated player has assumed a Hiwatt head to be simply a good Marshall copy, given that the general look is similar, they use the same EL34 output tubes, and their control panels list the same functions. It’s an assessment that couldn’t be further from the truth. Hiwatt amps like the 1969 Custom 100 (Model DR103) shown here were made to Reeves’s entirely original design, and differed at almost every turn from anything that had come before. Using the finest components he could acquire (including custom-spec’d Partridge transformers) and meticulous assembly and hand-wiring procedures, Reeves dialed in every stage of his DR103 and 50-watt DR504 to pass a rich, flattering preamp signal to a bold, firm output stage for maximum sonic impact, with no flub or fizz even at higher volume settings. His tone stage read Treble, Bass, and Middle just like Marshall’s, but behind the panel lurked an active 12AX7-driven network in which each of the three knobs had a major impact on the frequency band it governed. At the back end, Reeves’s rugged power supply delivered much higher voltages to the EL34s than Marshall and others were using at the time, squeezing out extra fidelity and moving some serious air in the process. And what’s that at the far right of the panel? A Master Volume, employed several years before most others would adopt the feature. There were even differences in the speaker cab. Rather than the mid-heavy, distortion-prone Celestion Greenbacks in the Marshall cabs, Hiwatt 4x12s carried robust, efficient Fane speakers.

Was Reeves’s effort successful? Consider that his designs won over Pete Townshend just a year and a half after the Who guitarist had cajoled Jim Marshall into building him the first 100-watt Marshall stacks (Townshend initially played Reeves-built Sound City heads before moving to Hiwatts proper), and you’d have to give that an unqualified “yes.” Soon members of Pink Floyd, the Faces, Jethro Tull and many others were strutting their stuff in front of Hiwatt stacks, and Jimmy Page even used Hiwatts with Led Zeppelin from 1969 to 1971.

Is a Hiwatt right for you? If you’ve ever plugged into other 50- or 100-watt rock stacks and found the tone a little too overdriven at requisite volumes, or a little granular in the low end, or a little too compressed, then maybe so. Vintage Hiwatts have become collectible, but often sell for a little less than their Marshall counterparts of the same year and wattage. Or, for a new alternative, check out American-made Reeves amplifiers (no relation to Dave Reeves), which are hand-wired in Cincinnati to exacting specifications, and to much acclaim from devoted vintage-Hiwatt fans.

ESSENTIAL INGREDIENTS

> Four EL34 output tubes generating around 100 watts RMS
> Fixed-biased output stage
> Four ECC83 (12AX7) preamp tubes
> Active EQ stage
> Solid-state rectification
> No-holds-barred construction and component quality

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