Inside Peavey: An Interview With Hartley Peavey
December 16, 2008
|Hartley Peavey inspects the latest prototype for the Steve Cropper Classic, which salutes Cropper’s history of coaxing soulful doublestops out of Tele-style guitars. Production models of the Cropper Classic are available with a mahogany back and flame maple top, a mahogany neck, a 25 1/2” scale length, Seymour Duncan pickups and Wilkinson machine heads.|
If there were an electric guitar/amp-manufacturing version of Mount Rushmore, would it feature the steely gaze of a fellow named Hartley? Many would agree that Leo, Les and Jim would be the Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln for their work as namesake developers for Fender, the Gibson Les Paul and Marshall Amplification—three cornerstones of modern music that can easily take credit for creating and recreating the founding tones that other manufacturers make a business of emulating today. What would a worthy fourth profile have to possess? Someone with a pioneering, progressive spirit (a la T.R. Roosevelt), who built upon foundational ideals and modernized them for new generations. One could argue that the fourth face to be carved in stone on the Mount Rushmore of modern gear may well be that of the bearded man from Mississippi—the man whose last name is among the strongest brands in the music industry: Hartley Peavey.
That seems a pretty lofty honor for a man so often thought of in conjunction with the memory of a “first” amp by so many players under a certain age, but when you consider all of his accomplishments, it’s easy
to see that Hartley Peavey is a worthy contender. He has done much more than most people can recall, or may even be aware of. Whether your measurement is longevity (only Hartley and Jim Marshall have been
producing amps and running their own companies for more than 40 years), innovation (Peavey has earned more than 180 patents) or sheer production volume (only a few other companies are even in the same league when it comes to worldwide distribution and sales), Peavey emerges as a candidate to be memorialized in rock.
In terms of professionals, some famous names have certainly been on the Peavey endorser and user lists: Carl Perkins, Merle Haggard, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Tony Iommi, Eddie Van Halen, Nickelback, Steve Cropper and Joe Satriani immediately come to mind. As far as relevance goes, one only has to go to Nashville(where some of the most refined ears in the industry reside) to see well-worn ValveKings and Classic 30s on Lower Broadway backlines and in Music Row isolation booths.
So, why does such a list of arguments seem necessary to justify Hartley’s place in history? The answer, perhaps, is that the business philosophy that allowed the company to thrive—“Building quality music and sound gear for a fair price,” has branded the company as a producer of affordable quality, which for many is a stage to be passed through. As you know, the “in thing” for a while now has been the desire for ridiculously high-quality gear that often comes with a ridiculously high price. It’s a business niche that Hartley, on sheer principal, refused to participate in for a long time. But as the boutique industry continues to grow, Hartley has finally relented, acknowledging that his company has plenty to offer to the most discriminating of tonehounds. But like everything else Hartley has done in the music industry, his company’s approach to boutique is a little different.
The main Peavey office in Meridian, Mississippi
We recently had the chance to catch up with the industry legend on his home turf of Meridian, Mississippi.
Strolling down Hartley Peavey Drive to the company’s headquarters, one of thirty-three facilities on three continents (eighteen in Mississippi), the establishment literally shines brighter than anything else in this Southern town, which has certainly seen brighter days. Having thrived as the largest city in Mississippi for decades after the turn of the century, the city’s population peaked with the railroad’s heyday in the fifties but has been on the decline ever since. It now hovers around 38,000.
Unlike many American cities where the middle class occupies the meat of the bell curve, Meridian’s vital stats rank lower than the state of Mississippi’s key averages, with a median income of $25K and just eighteen percent of the population above the age of twenty-five having Bachelor’s degrees.
So what does this have to do with guitar tone? Well, the backdrop of the city says a lot about the man who saw it thrive as a youngster and continues to give it hope as one of its largest employers today. The town is resilient; if anything, so is Hartley Peavey. Perhaps it is fitting that the word “meridian” defines the dividing line between polar opposites. That barrier is always looming, waiting for someone to reach across to the other side.
Just as the town’s other favorite son, Jimmie Rodgers, popularized a style of guitar picking and singing that begat basically all the other forms of popular music we listen to today, Hartley Peavey found his own way to make a contribution that would have a global impact. Today, his handprints are in the Rock Walk of Fame. His gear is used around the globe, including a specially designed system for the Sydney Opera House and most recently an integrated system for the Beijing Olympics. There probably isn’t an electric guitar player on the planet that can’t relate to a piece of Peavey equipment or, at the very least, identify the Peavey logo from a mile away. And yes, many of us fondly recall our first amp being a Peavey.
Having heard many a story about the tall Southern gentlemen with the measured, self-assured manner, a ruddy complexion and equally colorful personality (with colorful words, to boot), I was eager to meet the man himself and jump right into a conversation about tone, industry trends and Peavey’s place in history. The following is an excerpt from that conversation.
Hartley, it’s been said that one of your pet peeves is when someone tells you their first amp was a Peavey.
I’m always glad to hear that, but the implication that I’m not so glad to hear is that somehow they’ve moved on to bigger and better things, when the reality is that we make some of the best amplifiers that have ever been made, period—by anybody. And that’s not stopping. We continue to push the envelope, not by reinventing the wheel or reintroducing this or that model, but by building new stuff, building on our experience. I don’t know of any other amp out there that is better than ours—certainly from a standpoint
of reliability. There are amps that sound different, but I build amps for the people.
That utilitarian spirit is a central theme in your company’s history.
Oh yes. Not many people realize that when I started out making a guitar and bass amp, quite honestly I wasn’t very successful at it. This was 1965 – 66, everybody and their brother was making guitar amps. I mean, even Martin had an electric guitar amp. There were so many guitar amps. I got thrown out of so many music stores… one day over in Alabama, a guy said, “Well, you know, I’ve got all the amplifiers I’ll ever need. If you have a sound system it would be great.”
Remember, in those days there were only a few choices. One was the Shure Vocal Master and the other was the Kustom K200 for about a thousand bucks. A thousand bucks was a lot of money back then—it’d be like ten times that today. In other words, PA systems weren’t for everyone. So I went home and thought about what to do to come up with an affordable system. I found an even better way to put one together, so I brought out a 100-watt, fourchannel PA system with two column speakers, which was the rage then,
and it retailed for $599. Everyone said it couldn’t be done. Well, doing it the way they were doing it, they were right.
Your first passion was guitar, though.
I went to see Bo Diddley in 1957 and went crazy. I just wanted to play guitar. I went back and, to make a long story short, my Dad [who ran the town music store] wouldn’t give me one. I built my own out of old
pieces of guitars and made my own pickup and then, once I had the guitar and pickup, I wanted an amp. It was the same story. He said, “Son when you learn how to play that damn guitar, I’ll think about buying you an amplifier or buying a nice guitar.” So, I made one. One of my friends saw it and you know the rest of the story.
Hartley often doodled iterations of his now-famous logo during high school.
You were forced to realize that you were a better gear maker than a guitarist?
When I got out of college in 1965, I had been thrown out of three bands. I was just about good enough to be in dormitory bands. We’d play little dorm parties for the beer. For every group I was with I would build their gear and then a strange thing started happening—once I built all the gear they needed, they’d kick me out. The first time that happened I thought it was just one of those things, and then the second time it happened it kind of bothered me. You know, sometimes when it rains it pours. I had a little shop in my basement so if our bass player needed a bass then I’d build him one and it was easy. I thought everybody knew how to do that. So, when I got thrown out of the third group, I had to do a very difficult thing. I had to look in the mirror and be totally and completely honest with myself and I said, “Okay big boy. Looks like you’re not going to be a rock star so what are you going to do?” The answer was clear. I love music and I love musicians, so I’ll just become what every musician has always told me they wanted to find: somebody to build good gear at a fair price for them. I’ve been doing it ever since.
How did you turn the corner as an amp designer?
A lot of people seem to think there was magic to it back then, but I quickly learned that wasn’t the case. In fact, if you look through some of the old Fender catalogs or the old Gibson catalogs, they’d go on and on about the amps being free of distortion when nothing could be further from the truth. The reality is they didn’t think about gain staging and they didn’t know the first thing that should overload is the power amp and then the pre-drive. The last thing that should overload is the front end for good dynamic range and they didn’t do it that way. Ironically, most of the amplifiers that are thought to sound good by today’s standards were not designed by engineers!
We should talk about tubes here. Many people identify with Peavey products that were very popular during the solid-state era, but you certainly know your way around a vacuum tube. Put the solid-state thing into perspective for me.
You know I’ve been seeking the Holy Grail called “tube sound.” We’ve been doing this for forty something years and I think we’ve probably come closer than anybody else. We have a number of patents on what we call TransTube Technology where we synthesized the overload characteristics of the amp and transformer—the asymmetrical clipping when the tubes clip. They almost always clip asymmetrically. We’ve tried to simulate what happens when you overdrive the grid of the tube, which actually becomes positive and you encounter something called grid current where current actually comes out of the grid and this causes what they call bias shift. All of this occurs in a magnificent choreography that ends up making the tube amp not only sound the way tube amps sound, but respond and feel like a tube amp feels.
There are guys out there who can certainly tell the difference between real tubes and our solid-state technology, but on the stage it’s pretty damn close. It’s ninety-five percent, and when I was in school ninety-five percent was a passing grade. The reality is, I’m not one of these people who wants to get on a soapbox and proclaim that our solid-state amplifier is as good as any tube amp out there, because if somebody wants a tube amp they’re going to buy a tube amp, no matter how good the solid-state version works. That’s why we still make lots of tube amps!
That acknowledgment is evident with your new Vypyr modeling amp. That amp is a straight up modeling amp.
It combines the best of digital modeling and some analog circuits right out of our TransTube playbook. The interplay between the loud speakers and the power amplifier is very, very important. Some people try to do it all with the preamp but frankly, you can’t. The best you could ever hope for is kind of a pseudo snapshot of a tube amp. A tube amp has to push back. It has to have that feel, you know, that response. It has to mimic the situation where you overdrive the grid of a tube. Power tubes have a negative grid bias and when you start pushing the grid positive, the tube is literally stumbling while trying to maintain its equilibrium. You can actually hear this and you can feel it. When I heard the final version of our Vypyr, I couldn’t see it. I could’ve sworn it was a tube stack but it was a solid state, open back with 75 watts and it had that—you can’t describe tone quality in words but I’ll try—it had that choke, that kind of visceral feel like a big tube amp when you hit a power chord. It had that.
So let me get this straight, guitar players are going nuts over tube-driven boutique amps for a few years now, but you’ve just put out a very affordable [and metalfriendly] modeling amp called the Vypyr.
This follows on the coattails of your popular ReValver modeling software
Yes and by the way, this new software is the future. It is amazing because it absolutely mimics anything you’ve ever heard. The beauty of this is it doesn’t just model well-known amplifiers, it lets you literally design your own amplifier. One of the problems that we have with language, written language and spoken, is that no matter how good your vocabulary is, you can’t describe tone. What does “fat” and “thick” mean? It may mean something totally different to you than it means to me. For the first time, we’ve allowed people to go in and design their own virtual amplifier to change the tubes, to change the voltage on those tubes, to change their placement, the plate resistor, the cathode resistor, the cathode bypass resistor, etc. Anything, any sound, you have in your head that you can’t describe to anybody, you can now design and achieve those things.
People measure success in this industry in a number of different ways: maybe by the number of albums their gear can be heard on, their worldwide sales figures, the number of patents they own, etc. How do you measure success in this business?
I believe the measure of success is how long you can stay successful doing something. The saying, “He who is left standing when the dust settles, wins,” is very telling. Peavey is, as Coca-Cola once tagged themselves, “the Real Thing.” The interesting thing about the music and sound business is that companies die but names never do! What is the company, really? At the end of the day, a company is the people. If the name is the same but all the people are different then it’s not the same company. Incredibly, a lot of musicians assume that the name today is the same as it used to be. That couldn’t be further from the truth. So in that sense, I can’t think of anybody else who has been around longer in the same venue or under the same ownership as we have except Jim Marshall, who started two years before I did. He started in ’63 and I started in ’65.
What’s your take on Jim?
He still owns his company, and I have great respect for that. I’m doing the same thing. Because frankly, if I were doing the things that I do under a bunch of bankers or whatever, they wouldn’t let me do them. I don’t know whether you know the old Greek story of Diogenes, who was looking through the darkness of eternity for an honest man. He’s still looking, by the way. I’m looking for the truth, too, wherever it leads me—like when I started out making guitar amplifiers. My first amplifiers weren’t very successful, so I got into the sound system business and we did extremely well. Still do. But I’m still searching for that Holy Grail. One could say that Grail searching is what spawned the boutique industry as we know it today.
The fact is, five years from now most of those companies won’t be around. There are so many pitfalls. Believe me, I know, I’ve stepped in most of those potholes. Thank God I didn’t break a leg, but I almost did. We know some of the things to do and many things not to do, and I enjoy it. The company has become, in many ways, a springboard for me to press my knowledge, because I’m crazy about learning just as much as I can. For me, it’s very disconcerting that the more I read and the more I learn, the more I realize I don’t know. And there are people out there who actually believe they know something and those people, nine times out of ten, really don’t know much because if they did they’d realize we are all pretty ignorant.
We don’t even know what causes magnetism. Most guitar players don’t know how a magnetic pickup works. Nobody ever bothers to tell them. Some of them think you sprinkle fairy dust, or that there really is an old hermit who winds pickups by the light of the moon. That’s just not reality. Some musicians don’t talk about reality. They want to believe in magic and it breaks my heart to see them taken advantage of.
What advice would you have for gearheads, then?
You know, earlier I alluded to that old saying about he who is left standing when the dust settles. As it relates to my story, I’d say just keep doing what you do.
Now, if my competitors were to come to me, hell, I’m not going to tell them what to do. Nobody told me. Not to be selfish, but God didn’t put me here to educate my competitors. What I was put here for was to build the best product I know how to build, and that’s been going on here for probably close to fifty years—full time for the last forty-three years. Good Lord willing, I’m going to be around a few more years. I’ve seen my competitors sell out, go public and get conglomerated. It’s happening again today.
History is literally repeating itself as we sit. There’s hardly a month or two that goes by that some competitor doesn’t get bought out, conglomerated or have to do crazy things for the quarterly reports. You see, we don’t have to do that. I get to play around and invent new ways of doing things, like our Custom Shop.
Okay, considering that you’re the originator and the defender of “good gear at a fair price,” what should people know about your M.O. for the Custom Shop?
Keeping prices down with our production gear is what we’re all about, but when it comes to our Custom Shop, we don’t take a second position to anybody. We know as much about amplifiers as anyone who breathes air and we have the experience and patents to prove it. However, that’s not to say that other brands of amplifiers aren’t decent. The truth is, we can build anything, I mean anything people want in our custom shop.
As I’ve said earlier, the truth is—and my competitors will cringe when I say this— there’s no trick to making a decent guitar amp. It’s just not rocket science. Look at all the guys making decent amplifiers in their backyards, “boutique amplifiers.” They make the same circuit mistakes and packaging mistakes that I made thirty years ago that can cause endless problems. Making amps sound good is one thing, but making an amp that sounds good and stands up, that’s another thing.
One of our endorsees had several very expensive boutique amplifiers and took them out on the road with him, and every damn one of them failed so he gave them back to the guy and said “I’m not going to do it,” and went with us. The amp builder said “I can’t believe you’re going to Peavey,” so the player said, “Well, yeah, not only does it sound as good, if not better than your amp, it holds up.”
Knowing how to get a good tone is one thing, but knowing how to get one that is reliable and sounds good is another thing. We know how to do both.
Let’s talk about guitars. You did some pretty innovative things with the T-Series back in the day, and even had the biggest name in the industry, Eddie Van Halen, on the 4/2 headstock of a Peavey guitar that was very different from the Kramers he became famous with. You were also awarded the Summer NAMM 2007 Best in Show award for your online Custom Shop’s design-it-yourself approach. When it comes to guitars, you seem to be more comfortable trying new things than dwelling on the past.
Guitars are probably the smallest portion of our business. There’s no particular trick to making a guitar, either, although a lot of people will tell you that you need to sprinkle fairy dust on the body and sand them only on Thursdays and Saturdays and all that kind of stuff.
It’s interesting, you never hear anyone say, “I’m an amplifier player.” They’re always telling you they’re guitar players. With guitars, you kind of have to be careful because if you get too far out there people won’t buy it. Guitars have to look like a guitar—forget about that time when everyone made them look like toilet seats, skulls and that kind of thing. Today, if they look too different, they won’t sell.
This fondness for old ways is very interesting to me. For example, on the pickup side of things you have people doing things that make no sense, but they want to do what is “traditional.” For instance, on a single coil guitar pickup, every coil has a beginning and an end; in the old days they were using sand cast magnets that were literally cast in sand and they were very rough. When they wound the old enamel wire on those pickups they would always use the start as ground, figuring that it if it shorted out against the magnet it wouldn’t be a big deal because it would be close to ground. But the problem is that it left the hotwire all the way out at the end and it wasn’t shielded so it buzzed like crazy, which is ass backwards from the way it ought to be. If you ground the outside, you effectively have shield all around the outside and the hotwire comes off around the inside, but now that we use magnets that are centerless ground and better magnet wire, we won’t have that problem. But they’re still doing it.
The 2008 version of the Joe Satriani JSX amp at final assembly. Photos of the newest version of the still-in-development amp were not available at press time, but Peavey did give us working specs and a quote from Satch:
“Traditionally, 50-watt amps always seem to have the perfect amount of volume and sag to create a true rock & roll moment,” Satriani says. “But the golden era of the 50-watt didn’t see a version that had a variety of sounds or were actually useful tools for the gigging musician. Peavey and I were finally able to bring this idea of a really rockin’ 50-watt into the modern era where real guitar players can use it. We wound up with a really bold, in-yourface sound.”
• Two independent channels, Clean and Crunch
• 2 - 6550 power amp tubes
• 5 - 12AX7 preamp tubes
• Global Presence and Master Volume controls
• Global Master Volume Boost with switch and level control
• Six-way attack control on Crunch channel
• Pre-gain Boost switch on Crunch channel
• Built-in MSDI microphone-simulated direct XLR output
• Line out with level control
• Active effects loop with send and return level control
• Rear-panel impedance selector
• Tube bias adjustments on back panel
• Four-button footswitch included
Sadly you can’t believe everything you see and very little of what you hear. The problem, I’ve discovered, is that even when you tell people what’s going on, they don’t want to hear it. The truth is the pickups were “scramble-wound,” and is that a good thing? Well, it depends on who you talk to. Are there people out there who know how to build good pickups? Absolutely, but most of them are nothing but variations on the same tired theme. It’s like guitar players are in a time warp sometimes.
Say a guitar doesn’t balance right—they still build them that way, regardless. I can do that, too, but I just want to do something better. It’s an interesting situation when you think about how this stuff comes about. My god, they’ve been building tube amps for seventy-something years. Audio as we know it got perfected because of the motion picture business—“talkies.” The 6L6 was invented in 1936, the 6V6 the next year and, it was designed, interestingly enough, for car radios. But as we know, it makes a hell of an amp for guitars and so do the European models: the EL34 and EL84. There are a lot of accidents that happen in our industry that turn out to be pretty good.
Outside of your own stuff, do you have a favorite piece of gear?
That’s a hard question because I love a bunch of it. I’ll say this: I used to want a Brown Fender Concert so bad I could taste it. I actually do have one now. I also really wanted a 335 when they came out— I never got one, but I do have a ’59 or ’60 345. It’s just beautiful, cracks and all.
So, what’s the next Peavey project on the horizon?
I’ve got lots of stuff cooking. We are going to revolutionize guitar amplification, and it won’t be long. It’s probably less than a year out. You won’t believe what I’m going to show you. It’s just like the government with all their top-secret projects—rumors about UFOs begin to surface, but we really do have things flying around. Players will be amazed at the power that I’m going to put in their hands.
That’s quite a sell. Should you pull this off, it sounds like it’ll be ‘game over,’ eh?
Ahhh, but no. My competitors have this way of not rolling over. I’ve been at this thing for 43 years, though, and the good Lord willing, I have a few more good ones in me. There are so many different technologies converging and we’ve only seen the tip of the iceberg with the likes of ReValver.
All my life people have said, “You can’t do that. You can’t compete with so and so, you’re crazy.” I suffer from what most people call the “bumblebee effect,” which states that, technically, the bumblebee shouldn’t be able to fly. His body weighs more than his wings can support during flight. Nobody ever told the bee, though.
So he flies, and it’s because his wings don’t go up and down. He found a better way to do it; his wings move in a figure- eight motion, which gives him extra power. All my life, people have been telling me that I couldn’t do it and you know what? Not only are we doing it, but we’ve been doing it longer than any similar company in the US. I believe our future is very bright.