WATKINS VINTAGE INVENTORY
|WATKINS JOKER" Superb RED model" features include a built in Valve copycat and Micstand, EXCELLENT ORIGINAL CONDITION £ HOLD PHOTO Others in stock CALL !|
|RARE .............2X10............ WATKINS JOKER..............£ CALL............................... PHOTO|
|STYLE ONE "WATKINS DOMINATOR Nice Original example" £CALL PHOTO|
|WATKIN WARRIOR 1X12 16w COMBO ....PHOTO|
|WATKINS CUSTOM 15w valve combo with 1x10 Elac speaker"Exellent original condition"£call PHOTO|
|WATKINS DOMINATOR 2X10 V Fronted cab with Blue and White tolex All original EX+ £CALL PHOTO|
|WATKINS JOKER, all original as listed above but recoverd in red and grey tolex ,GREAT TONE VG+ £sold PHOTO Others in stock CALL !|
WATKINS SCOUT 1X10 valve combo , Elac speaker ,black & white tolex, tremelo VG+ £Call PHOTO
|WATKINS WESTMINSTER 1x10 or 1x12 VALVE COMBOS, Black and White, Blue and white Or Red & cream or Pink and cream tolex, VGC £call PHOTO|
|WATKINS WESTMINSTER "Rare 2x10 model" Blue & Cream V front,clean condition £ call PHOTO|
WATKINS COPY CAT, Valve Tape Echo , Blue and white tolex ,good working order . £350 PHOTO
|WATKINS MONITOR 2X12 VALVE COMBO,the rarest of all The Watkins Amps, SHADOWS AMP! £CALL PHOTO|
|WEM DOMINATORS 1X12 VALVE COMBO, No toys just a great Tone, VGC £495 PHOTO|
|WEM COPY CAT , CLASSIC TRANNY TAPE LOOP ECHO, All Original VGC £199 PHOTO|
|WEM CLUBMAN 1X12 Valve combo , ideal little amp for the studio ,Exellent condition £399 PHOTO|
|WEM POWER MUSETTE MKII , 1x12 combo with Treble boost & EL84tubes EX+ £595 PHOTO|
WEM SPEAKER CAB 2X 12" Rola 30w G12H Celestions , very good condition £call PHOTO
|WEM CONTROL HR 30W valve head ,this is where Vox and Selmer meet wem £call PHOTO|
|WEM ER 15 valve head and matching 2x10 Elac Cab"ideal for the studio"late 60,s Great tone £sold PHOTO|
THE WEM STORY Part
a time during the late 60’s and early 70’s it was unusual to see a
live show by a major act or group that didn’t use a WEM P.A.system. Even
now, the more powerful systems in present use only differ from Charlie
Watkins’ original concept in degree – the basic idea is the same. He can justly claim to be the originator of the modern rock
P.A.system, and for most people this would be enough in itself to ensure a
place in any music industry Hall of Fame.
However this is far from being his only major contribution to it.
Watkins’ career in the music industry began long before his
speaker-towers became a standard part of rock shows and festivals of a
decade. In fact he was the
first successful British manufacturer of electric guitar equipment, with a
virtually uninterrupted line of amps, speakers, combos and accessories
that dates from his entry into the market in 1954.
With the exception of his big P.A.systems, his products were apt to
be overshadowed by other major names of the 60’s like Vox and Marshall.
But Charlie Watkins was an innovator, from whose ideas other makers
derived their own successful products, and his story will fascinate anyone
interested in the origins of the British music equipment industry.
He is still very much involved with music, although his commercial
activities are not on the same scale as in WEM’s prime time in the
1970’s. He devotes a lot of
his time to his accordion playing and associated interests, and in this as
well as his business he is ably assisted by June, his wife of 15 years.
Charlie and June were kind enough to recently receive Dave
their home in a pleasant part of South East London, and to provide us with
all that we could wish for in recreating the story of Watkins Electric
would rather be considered an inventor than an engineer, and it’s true
that his engineering skill, although deserving of respect in its own
right, is most clearly demonstrated in products unique to his own
catalogue. But his beginnings
in the music industry, such as it was in immediate post-war Britain, were
tentative to say the least. Like
some other famous figures in the business, they owed much to his
experiences during World War 2. “When
I was in the Merchant Navy during the war, we were away on some pretty
long trips. One of the
stewards had an accordion, and he used to sit in the messroom playing it.
I thought ‘that’s lovely – I’ll have to get one of them’.
So after a bit I got an accordion of my own, and one of my
shipmates had a guitar. We
had a great time playing together. I
used to watch the patterns of his fretboard fingering – that fascinated
me. I realised that if you
could finger one chord that would give you several others just by moving
it up or down the neck. But I could also see how difficult it was to play barre
chords. I thought that if you
could fit onto a guitar, a bit like a capo, it would make things easier.
I even managed to make a couple of rough examples, as best I could
with what was available on board, and called it a String Plate.
It didn’t turn out to be important in itself, but it’s an
example of how my mind was working towards something new, even in those
the end of the war, Charlie moved back to his native Balham, in S.E
London, and put his former pastime to good use.
For some months he earned his living as an accordionist, usually
teaming up with a guitarist, as in his seafaring days.
But he also needed a sideline, and in 1949 began running a record
shop in Tooting Market with his brother Reg, who would later play an
important part in the story. His
knowledge of the live music scene, as well as his own keen interest, also
led him into buying and selling musical instruments, mainly accordions and
guitars, and the time came when he preferred to hand over the record
business to Reg and concentrate on the instruments.
To this end he took over premises at 26 Balham High Road.
“I carried on selling accordions, as well as records, quite
unsuccessfully – I don’t know why, probably because of competition
from people like Tom Jennings and Arthur Beller.
But I still had this String Plate idea in my mind, and had started
making a few, when one of Ben Davis’ (.E.O
of Selmer – ed) reps came in one day and showed me one they’d
started selling, only better than mine.
I only mention it to show that, although the accordion is my
favourite, I have always been fascinated by the mechanics of the guitar
– how different makers solved the problems of the structure.
Gibson, Martin and Macaferri all had different ways of building
their guitars, and you could hear the difference.”
“I was also bothered by the fact that whenever I went out and did a gig, you couldn’t hear the guitar properly once there was a bit of an audience. The guitarists tried putting heavier strings on and playing with heavy plectrums to get what they called ‘cut-through’, and this worked for treble, but the sound was very unsatisfactory. Some guitars, such as Gibson, were beginning to appear with pickups fitted, and you could get contact mikes to fit under the strings, but there were no proper amplifiers available – perhaps a few small units for Hawaiian guitars, but nothing good enough to use with normal guitars. Also, guitars weren’t very widely known – people would see one in my shop and ask, how much is that banjo? But I thought it was such a lovely instrument that I wanted to sell them, and find some way of amplifying them. I went to a radio and electronics shop called Premier in Tottenham Court Road, which used to sell amp to use with contact mikes.
Using their unit as a base, I made one that I thought sounded not
too bad, an AC/DC unit. I had
sold about 20 of them by 1952, when one day I saw a piece in the Daily
Mirror about a pop-group guitarist getting killed.
Being a fatalist, I thought, its bound to be one of my amps –
those AC/DC units were quite dangerous.
I sent a telegram to the guy who was making them for me and got him
to stop immediately. Somehow
I managed to recall all those I had sold and replaced them with safe
AC-only units. That has
always been my biggest fear – someone getting electrocuted. Amps were used under the worst conditions – dark,
pandemonium, wild people bent on having a rave-up!
I gave up making amplifiers at that point and just carried on with
in 1955 Skiffle, a hybrid of American folk and country music with a strong
helping of rhythm played on makeshift instruments such as washboards and
tea-chest basses, mushroomed into a national craze, fuelled by top ten
hits from such artists as Lonnie Donegan and Johnny Duncan’s Bluegrass
Boys. “I realised that things had changed, and here was a chance
to get back into selling guitars. I
got on a plane to Germany and went straight to see Hopf, a major
distributor of guitars (best known
as agents for Hofner –Ed.), about the only place you could get a
quantity supply from. Anyway, I ordered a hundred folk guitars, more or less his
whole stock – he almost fell over!
When they arrived at the shop I had trouble string them, there were
guitars everywhere, hanging from the ceiling, all up the stairs, you
couldn’t move for guitars. But
I was just in time – the following week, Ivor Arbiter went over and did
the same from another supplier. All
the Skiffle players began to come in the shop, among them Joe Brown (Joe
Brown & The Bruvvers had two Top Ten hits in 1961/62 – Ed.), and
just sit there and play. It
was nice music, a bit basic – but now I felt I had to make another
amplifier, because the Skiffle guys had the same problem with getting
their guitars heard. So I
approached Arthur O’Brien at Premier, who had made the power units for
my first amps. He was interested in what I was doing, as he played the
guitar himself, so I asked him to make what became the first Watkins amp,
the Westminster. The first
few came out in simple grey-covered cases with sharp corners, like the
AC/DC units. One sample I
sent out went to Jimmy Reno’s in Manchester.
Jimmy called me back, saying he liked the way it sounded, but that
the styling looked pre-war (which it did) and he had a few suggestions to
make. He told me how I could
make the amp more attractive by curving the edges with Bridges
hand-router, then using saw-cuts to divide the side panels into
contrasting colour areas separated by inlaid gold string.
I realised I was talking to a genius – there wasn’t anything
like that around at the time. I
went out and got the router and made up a few cases to his idea – I did
all my own cabinet work in those days.
Everyone was knocked out and the amps started to sell a lot
this kind of success, Charlie’s ideas began to pay off, and he found
himself having to take on permanent staff to keep up with demand. Sid Metherell joined him as works manager and would stay for
30 years, turning his hand to virtually anything that needed doing.
Charlie’s brother Reg came in as cabinet-maker.
Phil Leigh became the first Watkins sales agent, opening up many
new areas. Sadly, Arthur O’Brien, who has been of the greatest value
during the development of the first Watkins amps, felt he couldn’t
devote the necessary time to Charlie’s flourishing company, and
suggested looking for a full-time engineer.
The main Charlie found was to have a great effect on the young
Purkis, a gifted and experienced electronic and electro-mechanical
engineer, joined Watkins Electric Music in 1995.
“Bill agreed to join the company on condition that he would get
some support for a project of his own, a special record player unit with
continuously variable playback speed, designed for the requirements of
ballroom dancing. I didn’t
mind, in fact I was quite interested, and we actually made about five
units. But the contact we had with the people in that business
wasn’t a nice experience – they had no time for the technical side of
things, and Bill lost heart. From
then on he put a lot of effort into supporting my ideas.
I’d say he was the most interesting engineer I have ever worked
with.” The first item on
his job list was to develop a new effect for the line of amps – Tremolo,
a recent innovation, the first sound effect ever specifically designed for
the electric guitar. Being a
feature that tends to be considered “vintage”, it is now a bit
neglected. Nonetheless, a
good tremolo effect is not straightforward to engineer.
A fair example is found in the Vox AC30, which has an excellent
effect, but needs three valves to execute it.
Bill Purkis designed his circuit around a single ECC83 valve, and
it is at least as good – better in some respects.
By 1956, the amplifier range was getting well established, with three models,
Clubman, Westminster, and Dominator, covering the needs of an increasing number of electric guitarists. Charlie’s creative mind was already much in evidence with the novel styling of his amps, the wedge-shaped Dominator being perhaps the finest example
This looks like a Dominator But.... its a Rare 2x10 Westminster which Charlie made for around 6 months or so.
Then came inspiration – he likens it to “a bell that rang in my
head”. It was triggered by
the account of two customers returning from Italy with a description of
the system used on stage by the singer Marino Marini to get the trademark
echo effect on his world-wide hit, “Volare”, then high in the charts
of most of Europe. It
appeared to consist of a pair of Revox tape-recorders, with a long loop of
tape running continuously between them.
It took a little imagination to realise that one machine was
recording the vocal mike onto the loop, the other replaying it a split
second later via the P.A.
Charlie went into overdrive, and after discussing with Bill Purkis the various technical possibilities, concluded that a condensed version of the two-machine system, housed in a single casing, would be feasible. The cooking temperature climbed as Bill’s talent for creating compact yet effective electro-mechanical structures condensed the relevant functions of two 15-kilo studio tape machines into a 12” x 8” one-hand portable unit. It got hotter yet when three replay-heads were fitted, using a selector switch to get various combinations. The smoke-alarm went off when a feedback circuit was added, allowing the replay signal to be re-recorded and replayed again, creating a variable echo repeat facility. Charlie knew he had his first real winner. “I had a sample unit shop, to see what the demand might be like, and meanwhile we got busy and built 100 units. I called them Copicats.
Mk1 & Mk2 Dominators, Copycat tapeloop echo...
day I had planned to put them on sale was a Saturday, and normally there
would be a queue up the street waiting for the grocers’ shop on the
corner to open – they sold their stuff cheap to clear it before the
weekend. I went to open up,
and the door burst open with the press of customers – this time the
queue was for me! I remember
selling the very first one to Johnny Kidd, who wore a patch over one eye.
(He made good use of it –
Johnny Kidd & The Pirates had a Top Ten single in 1959 with
“Shakin’ All Over”, where Mick Green’s guitar has Copicat all over
it – ed.) Those first
hundred units sold that same day”
I added some circuitry and made the Mark 2, which was probably the best
one ever. I used a Garrard
gramophone motor, which cost 12 bob (about
60p, or £6 in today’s money – ed) and Marriott tape-heads at 7/6d
each (40p, or £4 today) –
pricey for those days! The
mystique of the Copicat really comes from a bit of bad engineering that
went into it – I am not going to say what t was.
But every firm that has tried to produce their own version would do
it faithfully until they came to that art, and couldn’t bring themselves
to do it as badly. I am a
terrible engineer, and they must all have wondered what I was doing and
tried to improve it: but in doing so they lost that special quality”
Copicat, Tom Jennings’ AC30, and the Fender Strat were really the three
main elements of the 60’s sound. The
Meazzi, Binson, and Vox echos that came later were all based on my
original idea of a handy portable echo.
I sold so many of them that they paid for my first factory in
Offley Road, which I bought in 1961.
That put an end to all the outwork, and I ended up employing about
40 people there. Also, around
this time, my brother Reg, who had been doing the boxes and woodwork for
the amps, fancied a go at making guitars.
I wanted to be the first maker in this country to have a solid-body
guitar, so Reg started making them at a workshop in Chertsey, along with
some of the cabinets when it got busy.
We didn’t quite make it to having that first solid – Dallas (John
Dallas’ company, later Dallas-Arbiter – ed) beat us to it by about
a week with their Tuxedo solid, designed by Dick Sadleir, who had written
the first tutor I had used to learn the accordion!
We ended up making three models, the Rapier 22, 33, and 44, with 2,
3, or 4 pickups. We also had
a guitar-organ, which I patented – Vox had a disagreement with Arthur
Edwards, who had invented the segmented-fret system they used on theirs,
and I got mine patented first. (Vox
introduced their guitar-organ in
1965 – ed). But it was
a commercial disaster, none of them really sold – spectacular
technically, but after a while the problems began to show.”
was selling lots of guitars – Bell’s of Surbiton had 10 a month on
order, and other dealers were doing much the same.
But he wasn’t making much money – he couldn’t even afford to
run a car. I said he should
make a deluxe version of the Rapier 44, and charge way too much for it –
which he did, it was called the Circuit 4, and it outsold the less
expensive ones, it was a lovely instrument.
He got himself a car, and another factory, but he was so careful
and conscientious, and would never charge enough.”
the close of the 50’s, Watkins Electric Music was a force to be reckoned
with in the music industry. It
was a one-stop supplier of amps, echo chambers, and guitars, with new
lines appearing as fast as Charlie and Bill Purkis could come up with
them. Amps such as the HR30 and bigger cabinets like 2 x 12”
Starfinder, designed to provide for the bass guitar as well as increased
power for 6-string guitars, offered a challenge to the established Selmer
company as well as to the comet-like rise of Jennings Musical Industries.
In 1961, Charlie Watkins could count his firm among the Big 3 of
the U.K. music trade. But
there were troubled waters ahead, as powerful forces for change began to
make themselves felt both in the music and in the technology used to
create it. Al Charlie
Watkins’ considerable ability and resources would be needed to survive
End of Part One Editorial copy by David Petersen Jan/Feb 2000
©2001 P Goodhand-Tait