Vintage Guitar - March 2017 - Open - 41
In 1949, he opened a record shop with
his brother, Reg, in London's Tooting
Market. In '51, they moved to a slightly
larger premises in Balham, where they also
sold accordions and other instruments.
Watkins cast a keen eye on the guitar's
potential insurgence while sympathizing with his fellow musicians' inability
to be heard amid the noise of horns and
accordions. As he told Sound On Sound's
Gary Cooper in an interview that wasn't
published until after his death in 2015,
"I thought, 'I've put up with that long
enough, I can do something about that;
I'll make an amplifier.'"
The first Watkins amps were built by
local electronics jobbers. Like many others of the day, they were able to run on
domestic AC or DC current; if used incorrectly, however, they could be extremely
dangerous, even deadly.
"I'd 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," Watkins told David Petersen in an
interview for The Guitar Magazine in May
of 2000. "Being a fatalist, I thought, 'It's
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'd sold and replaced them with safe AConly units."
The scare put Watkins off the amplifier
game for a time, but the need remained
for a reliable (and louder) electric guitar,
as one skiff le musician after another kept
coming to the Balham shop.
Watkins returned to the venture in the
mid '50s by commissioning an AC-powered
combo sold as the Westminster, which
generated about 10 watts through a single
10" Elac speaker. For '56, the Westminster
was briefly given a larger V-front cabinet,
but by '57 that format was exclusive to the
new Dominator (the Westminster having
returned to a more-standard rectangular
cab). The new Dominator had two 10"
Elac speakers angled outward for enhanced
dispersion, two channels - one for microphone, one for guitar (with tremolo), and
a pair of EL84 output tubes to generate 17
watts - as much as a guitarist was likely to
need at the time.
Watkins' amps were generally more
rough-hewn than those from competitors
like Vox, Selmer, and (soon) Marshall, but
a look inside this Dominator reveals it's
rather nicely put together. Components
include a handful of the "mustard caps"
enthusiasts drool over in vintage Vox
and Marshall amps, while other parts are
generally of good quality. Charlie Watkins'
desire to save a penny is well-documented,
though, and a budget-friendly production
ethos is evident; the main circuit board is
an early printed type (PCB), and the first
two preamp tubes are loaded onto their
own printed board. Make no mistake,
though, this is still very much a handwired amp; its components are in line
with those employed by makers using
turret and tag boards.
(TOP) Its early-style printed circuit
board is impressively clean and original.
(BOTTOM) The Dominator's control panel,
with inputs along its rear edge for mic and
guitar channels (tremolo on the latter).
Owner Marcel Cavallé tells us the amp has
a truly British sound.
"The mids and highs are sparkly clean,
with warmth and depth," he said. "Push the
volume and you still have control, with a
clear, round tone; and if you play with attack,
the amp responds with a gratifying growl. It
also has a fantastic tremolo that washes over
you as you play."
The V-front baffles do throw sound at an
impressively wide angle, though there can also
be a gap in its soundstage directly in front.
Cavallé had the large filter caps replaced and
installed some new tubes. The footswitch jack
has been replaced by a toggle, for ease of selecting the tremolo effect. Otherwise, this beauty
is delightfully original and impressively clean.
A couple years after its creation, Charlie
Watkins removed his surname from the amps
in favor of the acronym WEM - Watkins
Electronic Music - which he felt more closely
resembled the popular Vox logo. Around the
same time, Watkins moved the Dominator
into a more-sedate rectangular cab and
would eventually remove tremolo from its
Into the '70s, iterations of WEM's cornerstone amp remained good-sounding, fun,
and today are reasonably affordable. None,
however, are as collectible as the stunning,