If you were an American teenager in the late 1950s or early ’60s, and you wanted to play the new rock music, you likely did not have a solidbody electric guitar from Fender, Gibson, or Rickenbacker. More likely the guitar would be from Harmony, Kay, or Supro. If you lived in the U.K., you probably had a solidbody from Dallas, Burns, or Watkins, like this Rapier 33.
In the ’60s, Watkins Electric Music (WEM) was one of the largest and most influential guitar/amplifier manufacturers in England, and lays claim to inventing the rock-PA concept. Since few of their guitars made it to the U.S., they’re mainly off the radar, though the brand has a sizeable following across the Atlantic. Considerable information about WEM can be found, though no satisfactory account of their guitars or reliable chronology has yet been undertaken. Consider the information here “in flux.”
WEM was founded by Charles “Charlie” Watkins circa 1951. Born in the Balham section of Southeast London, he and his brother, Reg, served in England’s Merchant Navy during World War II, where they reportedly performed music onboard ship. Following the war, Charlie briefly earned a living playing accordion with a guitarist. In ’49, Charlie and Reg opened a record shop in London. At some point, they began buying and selling guitars and accordions, moving back to Balham in ’51. It’s not clear if these were new or used instruments. Around that same time, Watkins began buying and modifying amplifiers from a local electronics shop for use with contact mics on guitars, which were well-received and probably serve as the reason for dating WEM to that date, though 1953 has also been put forward. In the mid ’50s, skiffle – a version of American folk and country music – became popular. In ’55, Watkins began importing and distributing its own line of acoustic guitars made by Hopf, in West Germany. Watkins was familiar with the problem guitarists had with being heard and in ’55 also began making amplifiers with a contemporary look, with cabinetry handled by Reg.
The Watkins brothers became interested in American solidbody electric guitars and decided to make their own for the U.K. market, racing to become the first manufacturer there. Dates are fuzzy, but it seems that a Watkins factory was opened in Chertsey, Surry, in ’57, coinciding with the introduction of Watkins’ first solidbody electrics, designed by Reg. These were probably the Rapier models, a Strat-inspired solidbody that anchored the line well into the ’70s. However, the apocryphal story is that they were beat to the market by the Dallas Tuxedo, perhaps by a week.
Three Rapier models were available – the two-pickup Rapier 22, three-pickup Rapier 33, and four-pickup Rapier 44. Most examples of the 33 sport the forward-slanted middle pickup; it appears Watkins made its own pickups. The vibrato is a Watkins Vibra, designed in ’57 and later cast with the name Hi Lo after Jim Burns objected. Most early Rapiers were finished in red, including the neck, though early on they switched to natural on the necks. A few other colors were produced, especially after ’68, but the majority are red.
Dating this example to ’62 is mostly guesswork; it seems Watkins numbered its guitars (more or less) sequentially. Guitars through the early ’60s apparently had up to four digits (this one is 4865), though from ’64 on, some have five digits with little apparent logic. The history on the main fan web site shows a Rapier 22 withe serial number 51567 dated to ’64. That year, Watkins pickups changed to having slotted covers commonly called “toasters,” so our example is prior to that. In ’68, WEM changed brand names to Wilson and pickups appear to be Japanese, or modeled after them.
The Watkins Rapiers were not the only WEM guitar models. In ’58, the Rapier Deluxe debuted briefly, inspired by an American Supro design. In the early ’60s, a variant of the Rapier called the Circuit 4 appeared with a rotary pickup selector. Other models included the Superline 66, Vibra 64, WEM Sapphire, and WEM Emerald – all double-cutaways. In the early/mid ’60s, Watkins also built one of the earliest “organ guitars,” plus the WEM Project IV Fifth Man with built-in effects. Later in the decade, the España exports appeared (see below). Most solidbodies had a corresponding bass version. WEM also sold a line of thinline hollowbodies, most certainly imported from Germany or Italy.
As Wilson, the line remained through ’78 or so. Rapiers continued, plus the Ranger, Super 6, Mercury 6, and W-Type models. Many started sporting humbuckers and by the ’70s were tending to copies of Les Pauls and Teles.
It seems WEM got out of the guitar game in the late ’70s, though it still exists, with Charlie Watkins still in charge, selling accordions and a version of its ’60s tape echo machine, the Copicat. Of all WEM guitars, the Rapier was the most plentiful, with thousands produced. However, as with so many similar starter guitars in the U.S., few saw them as future “collectibles,” so the number of survivors is unknown. And as with their American counterparts, there’s now a small but enthusiastic group of collectors, most of whom started with a Watkins when they were teenagers.
España EL-31 update: Some time ago we profiled a circa-1970 España EL-31 solidbody, suggesting that, even though it was stamped “Made in England” on the neck plate, it was probably made in Finland by Landola. Following leads provided by VG reader Cate Turner, it has been determined that the España line was, as the neck plate claims, made in England by Watkins. The España line was a variant of Watkins’ Emerald models and exported to Buegeleisen & Jacobson in the U.S. This brings into question whether or not Landola ever made its own electric guitars.
This article originally appeared in VG May 2013 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.