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.