Friday, March 21, 2014

King Watt - The HiWatt grinder king

The WIIO clone - KING WATT
When the fuzz era began in the early sixties most players hooked up their fuzz pedals to the amps which were available at the time. The best names on the market were Fender, Marshall, Vox, Gibson and maybe a few small boutique companies. The combinations of the guitars, fuzz pedals and amps defined what we all know today as the sound of the 60's. By the end of the decade new sounds started emerging due to the demand of leading players trying to extract more juice, grind and power from their amps. Live shows of super bands like The Who and Led Zeppelin were all about modified amplifiers which made their shows thrilling and ear piercing as ever.

The 70's started off with a totally different sound with Marshall issuing their powerful JCM-800 amps and Orange amplifiers infiltrating the heavier rock scene. Fuzz pedals still remained very popular but now it was more about overdrive and smooth distortion and less about buzzy fuzzy noises. One name on the British scene stood out as the amp for high power rock with a very distinctive tone and grit which had incredible dynamics and picking sensitivity as opposed to the compressed Marshall stacks so popular with heavy metal.

The Sound City amp prior to the HiWatt brand
Hylight Electronics issuing the first HiWatt amps

HiWatt was started by Dave Reeves in 1966 building amps for Ivor Arbiter's store Sound City (yeah, the same Arbiter who sold Fuzz Face pedals). In 1968 Reeves started building his own designs with 50W (DR-504), 100W (DR-103) and 200W (DR-201) amps which gained huge popularity.

First users of the HiWatts - The Who
The HiWatt golden age began when Pete Townshend (and bassist Entwistle), responsible for promoting the Marshall 100W Superlead (created for him in 1965 in order to get a Fender sound with higher power), started using Sound City amps around 1967 because they were cleaner and sounded better. Reeves modified the Sound City amps under his own brand called Hylight and the Hiwatt line was born. By 1970 leading guitarists like Jimmy Page, David Gilmour, Martin Barre (Jethro Tull), Robert Fripp and Townshend himself redefined the British sound by moving to HiWatt amplifiers. Even Hendrix added a Hiwatt stack next to his sacred Marshall stack to get bigger sound. Many others were spotted using HiWatt amps like Steve Hackett of Genesis (1971), Manfred Mann's Mick Vickers, Peter Banks (Yes, Flash) and the list is probably much longer.

The Classic Custom HiWatt 100W head, similar to the DR-103

My Favorite HiWatter - Mr. Fripp
When it came to the sound everybody had their own noise box hooked up and a booster of some sort (Echoplex, Rangemaster, etc.). Pete hooked up his HiWatt with a Univox Superfuzz and got the most powerful tone in guitar history. Gilmour with a silicon Fuzz Face (after giving up on the germanium version) and later with a Big Muff ruled the scene with his melodic, smooth, compelling and irresistible force. Jimmy Page used a Tone Bender mkII and had the best riffs in town. Fripp allegedly used a Baldwain Burn Buzzaround re-invented prog metal and avantgarde prog. And then there's Hendrix....well with Hendrix there was no place left to walk on, and his sound was like a train and a jet colliding at full speed while an army of alien robots in the jungle are trying to destroy the galaxy. I think that's pretty close.

The legendary Crimson line-up. Even Wetton is using a HiWatt

The best Jethro Tull incarnation (1969) had Martin Barre and Glenn Cornick using HiWatts 

Gilmour and his HiWatt.
He had 6 in parallel
Page bowing away his Gibson on a pair of HiWatts
With an iconic piece of history like that you can't really rest your mind until you played one of these monsters. Well buying one is not an option and a software simulation is not really good for a live band situation. So I thought I would build an overdrive pedal which would get me near that sound. Turns out that Catalinbread had 2 pedals to get the job done. A modified Hiwatt version of the amp Page was using during the Royal Albert Hall concert in 1970 (RAH) and a classic HiWatt DR-103 version (WIIO). Aiming more for that classic DR-103 tone I started getting parts to build the WIIO circuit using a schematic I found on the forum and the great layouts by GuitarFX Layouts ( and Mike Livesly's.

Hendrix using a Sound City stack next to his Marshall one
Catalinbread is a great boutique pedal company and they have some great designs for fuzz, overdrives, boosters and what not. Probably their most revered designs are the amp emulation pedals and the Dirty Little Secret (DLS) Marshall-in-a-box pedal is probably their best. When it comes to fuzz pedals I really enjoy getting close to the original designs. With amp-like pedals I really dig the Runoffgroove designs. It was in the HiWatt that I first realized that I had no where to go but Catalinbread.

Being such a big circuit I knew I didn't want to make mistakes and I spent hours reading and listening to demos before I decided to build the WIIO clone. I knew that Townshend's sound was not very interesting for me and was just plain loud. On the other hand, Robert Fripp and Martin Barre are exactly the sort of sound which I like. Barre for its great tone and Fripp for its complexity and dynamics. For me that was enough and I went ahead and got everything I needed.
Whenever special resistor values are in shortage I get two in parallel or series and get the desired value spot on. same goes for capacitors although I try to avoid ceramics for anything above 1nF and use mylar or polypropylene types. For the 9.1V Zener I used 1N4739A which are excellent and for the BS170 I just bought them from Mammoth. Although I don't like the vero-board designs I trusted the layout and used a regular pref-board and soldered the parts like it was a vero-board.

The WIIO board on the bottom (right) and on the top side (left).
The soldering is actually point to point and no connection.
I love when I hook up the pedal's pots and switches and it works on the first attempt with no audio quirkiness. The first chop with the GAIN cranked and I knew  this was it. That rich complexity and sharp grit. Really is different than any other pedal I ever played. None of that smooth Vox and Marshall and none of the Fender sagginess. Sheer raw power. Not easy to comprehend. Now, after a few hours of playing and trying all sort of nasty combinations, I am starting to get the hang of it. Playing it clean isn't all that interesting. With the GAIN high and TREBLE above noon you really start enjoying it. This is a definite keeper for me and highly recommended for any prog fanatic. Sounds better IMO with humbuckers than with single coils but once you fire up a fuzz in front - it really doesn't matter what pickups you play.

Enclosure covered in masking tape,
and sketched on
When boxing the unit I used my successful method of covering the enclosure with a paper masking tape which really facilitates the drilling process giving clean and smooth holes. I also draw some designs on the tape to decide what hole configuration I should use.

After that I mount the circuit with the knobs, jacks and switches and then I start thinking about the how it should really look. For this pedal I really didn't want to use the original WIIO name because I just think it's not a very good name and because I built this pedal thinking about Robert Fripp, David Gilmour and Martin Barre rather than Pete Townshend. I thought of 10 names until I decided to stick with KING WATT. Pretty good, I guess.

The finished pedal after painting and testing

So that's it. Hope you build it and enjoy it,

Get the schematics and layouts on:

A nice video demo from Bobby Devito
and the Gearmanndude WIIO demo:

and my own clone with ES humbuggies and singies:

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