Hiwatt’s all-tube amplifiers have been powering rock since pretty much the dawn of the genre, famously propelling the world-changing sounds of artists such as The Who’s Pete Townshend and Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour – all while looking super-cool in the process. As Mr. Townshend knows, there’s something magical about a Hiwatt power section pushed to breaking point – an alchemical combination of punch, growl and ring that you just can’t get from any other amp. And as Mr. Gilmour knows, Hiwatt’s cleaner tones are a great platform for effects, from simple ambience around a clean sound to full-on modulation and fuzz: they’re extremely stompbox-friendly amplifiers. There are plenty of great tones a Hiwatt can help you achieve, and the Hiwatt catalog boasts plenty of different amps at different price points to get you there. The Custom 20 is up there in the high-price, boutique end of the spectrum. Of course, size is no indication of value, so don’t be thrown by its diminutive stature: this is a serious amp for serious players.
The Hiwatt SA-2012 Custom 20 is a Class A, 20-watt tube combo with a single 12-inch Fane loudspeaker. It appears to be very simple in design, at least on the surface. The controls are seemingly moron-simple: just posts for Gain, Bass, Treble, Middle and Master. There’s a pair of inputs (Hi and Low), a Mains switch and a Standby switch. No push-pull this or selectable that anywhere to be found. There isn’t even a reverb, and if you think you can make up for that by plugging a reverb unit into the effects loop you’re out of luck: there’s is no loop, no DI, no slave out, nothin’. Hiwatt has focused all of their energy into maintaining the integrity of your sonic signal, from guitar all the way through to speaker, so there are no superfluous interruptions in the chain that could introduce noise or squish the headroom.
The construction is damn near bulletproof, from the durable covering to the chunky, reassuring feel of the controls. It’s not a back-buster but it’s a little heavier than it looks, and that helps to give it a more authoritative feel than you might otherwise afford an amp this small.
I tested the Custom 20 with my Gibson Les Paul Traditional with Seymour Duncan Seth Lover humbuckers and my Fender American Vintage ’62 Reissue Stratocaster. The EQ section works in a way that might throw off some players who are used to interactive, cascaded tone stacks. Think of the Custom 20’s Bass, Treble and Middle pots as three separate volume controls each designed to govern the volume of the signal at a specific frequency, rather than boosting or cutting from a mid point. Turn each of them to zero and no sound gets through. Nudge them up and your tone starts to come to life. And, of course, since this is a Hiwatt, crank up that volume control and the power section really comes into its own as a further element to the tone. With the Treble all the way down and the Bass and Middle all the way up you’ll get some great Chicago blues tones. Reign in the Mids a little and bump up the Treble and you’re in jangly indie heaven. Hit just the right balance and adjust the Gain control until you find the sweet spot and you’ll hear those Gilmour-like cleans, loud and clear. And when I say ‘loud’ I mean it. Even on about 1, this amp is loud. Progressive increases in volume bring out a warm, rich overdrive with plenty of attack, but you can dial in a perfectly usable, audible volume level long before you hit the point at which the dirt takes over.
There’s a certain intangible something-ness when you plug into an amp like this. It’s difficult to pin down but it’s the reason they command – and receive such high price tags. I’m sure you could delve pretty deeply into a philosophical discussion about spirit of the craftsman entering the object they create and all that fun stuff, but what it comes down to is this: you can hear the fact that no corner has been cut. You can hear it in the silence between the notes – because this circuit is dead quiet, free of the raised noise floor of a busier design. And there’s a depth, fullness and body to the sound which speaks of quality, of notes being punched out of the speaker with their full potential intact.