Meet Hartley Peavey—Founder, Peavey Electronics

This interview was originally published in 2010.

Born in the Southern United States, the same fertile region that gave us the roots of rock ‘n’ roll, Peavey Electronics has long struggled with a discrimination that mirrors that directed toward some of the most influential musicians of all time. Seemingly always directed to the back of the bus, behind blue-blood guitar makers such as Fender and Gibson, Peavey has had to fight for every bit of hard-won respect.

And the man that has done most of that fighting is founder Hartley Peavey. At this point in time the second most-tenured company founder in the music business, behind only Jim Marshall who started his company one year earlier Hartley Peavey began his fascination with guitars and amps organically. I saw Bo Diddley play, he says, reminiscing about a show he attended in his teens, and I asked my father for a guitar.

Dad came through with a cheap classical guitar, and when Hartley attempted to put steel strings on it, it broke. So he rebuilt it. Then he built himself a pickup. And an amp. Pretty soon his friends had him building amps too. Full of crazy ambition and against all odds of success, Peavey decided to launch his own company in 1965. Today it is one of the largest musical instrument manufacturers in the world, and one of a very few who make every part of the musical chain from guitars to mics to P.A. systems to cables to speakers.


Hartley Peavey is still fighting for respect though. And in the following interview, the the homey and likable Mr. Peavey explains his personal and company philosophies, recounts his controversial moments, and offers plenty of proof for why he deserves your approval. Hello Hartley, how are you today?

Hartley Peavey: Well, I’m doing fine. Tell us about your relationship with the guitar, and the philosophy that has kept you in operation for nearly four decades as one of the few family-owned musical instrument manufacturers. What’s your secret?

Peavey: Well, it just so happens that guitar is the easiest instrument to play. If I can half-assed play it, then anybody can play it. I’m probably the least musically talented person you’ll ever meet. And interestingly so was my idol, Leo Fender. Not many people realize, Leo couldn’t play a lick. But that was part of his success. And the reason that he was so successful was that he would listen. He didn’t come to the party with a whole bunch of pre-conceived notions. He would hand a proto-type to somebody and if they came back and said, “You know, if you trim it down a little here it would fit against my rib cage better,” he would just trim it down. “And if you bend it over this and put the upper horn up here.” And thus, the Stratocaster was born. Whereas if somebody had a bunch of pre-conceived notions, like they did at Gibson, what they would come out with basically looks like the figure-eight guitar shape thats been around for 500 years.

In my career, I never claimed to be smart. All I claimed to do was listen. And because I am a piss-poor musician, I’m not going to claim not to have any pre-conceived notions. But to me, the Gospel is what the customer says it is. I’ve always tried to give the customer what they asked for. Unfortunately I’ve kind of, in some cases, screwed up, because every musician I’ve ever talked to always said something like this and this was especially true back in the ’60s and ’70s when all the conglomerates bought in and all they did was basically double the prices of everything. Musicians said, “Man, I wish somebody would make good gear at a fair price.” And I said, “Man, that sounds pretty simple to me. I think that’s what I’ll do.”


And that’s what I did. I always made damn good product at a fair price. I never knew that you were supposed to make 200 percent gross margin. And a lot of people in the music business think the more you pay, the more you get. And the caveat there is true if, and only if, all the other factors are the same. And if I were to tell you, “Hell, all bass players are just alike,” would that be a true statement? No, that’s a pretty asinine statement. Ironically a lot of musicians think that all manufacturers are just alike.

Let me assure you that is just as asinine, or maybe even a more asinine statement than saying that all bass players are alike, or that all people from California are alike. The only way you can use price alone as a judge of quality, value, performance, whatever, is to assume falsely, by the way, that all the other factors are the same.

Like my company. I still own all the stock. I don’t owe the bank one cent. I’m not part of a conglomerate. I’ve been in business now going on 39 years, and do you know how many dividends I’ve ever been paid? Not one cent. It’s all gone back into research and development, machinery, buildings. That kind of thing. And retiring the money that I borrowed along the way. But the fact of the matter is were totally different than, say, a Yamaha or Roland, who is a public company. Even Fender. Peavey is a totally different company in what we do.

And from the time you pick a guitar string or you sing into a microphone all the way through the audio chain. From the diaphragm on the microphone, through the cable to the electronics, through the patch cable to the speaker, the speaker cabinet even the speaker itself. Every single piece of the chain, we make. Who else does that?

There’s only about two or three companies in the whole world that have that capability, and fortunately, Peavey is one of them. Why did you pursue making all the elements of the chain, instead of just making guitars and amps?

Peavey: Because I couldn’t get what I wanted. When I was using a lot of JBL speakers, we were blowing them out like crazy. And when I went to JBL and said, “Guys, do something about your speakers. When I put a JBL speaker in a Peavey cabinet and they blow out, they don’t blame JBL, they blame me.” And they would give me a very stilted explanation of how my customers didn’t understand how to use their precision transducers, which at the end of the day was probably true. But it doesn’t matter.

If you blow out a speaker, or if your customer blows out a speaker– I think it would probably be a fair guess to say that musicians are not technical experts in many cases. And they don’t realize that a 100 watt amplifier can easily blow out a 200 watt speaker. They don’t understand why. And the why is a square wave contains approximately 2.5 times the energy of a sine wave. And if you stick a square wave into a speaker, the square tops and bottoms, that’s like DC, like direct current. And that sits there and heats up the voice coil and the damn thing burns itself out.

And you can say, “Well I wasn’t playin loud!” Well, look here at this fried voice coil. At the time that I started making my own speakers, which was back in the mid-70s, JBL and Altec and all those people were using like craft paper for their voice coils. Not many people realize, a loudspeaker is a better space heater than it is a loudspeaker. If you take a JBL or one of my Black Widow speakers, the best cone type speakers are about four percent efficient. In other words, if you stick in 100 watts, you get about 4 acoustic watts out of it. Well, at 100 watts, you’re not too terribly bad, but what about when you get up to 500 watts? Or 600 watts, 1,000 watts? You can buy in little mom and pop music stores, today, 1,000 watt per channel power amplifiers for $500 or $600. Think about a loud speaker.

First of all the loud speaker is the weakest link from a car radio to the biggest concert system you could think of the weak link is always the loudspeaker. Well, considering that a loudspeaker is only four percent efficient, what if you stick 1,000 watts into a loudspeaker. Now if you get 40 acoustic watts out of it, how much heat do you get out of it? Answer: 960 watts. That starts to resemble a hair dryer.

Have you ever looked at a speaker, from the input terminals over to the cone, these little kind of tinsel wires, these little silver-looking wires? Another thing that’s pretty interesting is a lot of people are convinced that you have to get these big old welding cables from the power amplifier over to the speaker cabinet, and they go out and spend $100 a foot for this wire thats as big as your thumb. It goes over to the speaker, attaches to the terminals, and then it goes through the same little chicken-shit wires over to the cone, right! (laughs). It’s so stupid, but people do that, because they actually believe that the more money they spend, the more they get.

And I’m not saying that there’s not some validity to that, but to simply accept that as Gospel, without thinking about the whole package, is pretty damn stupid.

When you take that tinsel lead over to the voice coil, most companies solder the tinsel wire over to the solid wire to the voice coil. But if you stick 1,000 watts in there and you get 40 acoustic watts and 960 watts worth of heat, what do you think is going to happen to that solder? It’s gonna melt.

Peavey: Bingo! That’s why we don’t use solder. Interesting, huh? Yes.

Peavey: Think about it. You see, we’ve been doing stuff like this for years. A lot of people think– you know I mentioned awhile ago Leo Fender was my idol. Everybody laughed at him because they said, “Well it’s a biscuit board, you can’t do it that way.” But he started his company in 1946 and he sold it in 1965. That was 19 years. Last May 15, I was head of Peavey twice as long as Leo was head of Fender. Now that’s significant. It’s significant in our industry that anybody could last that long. In fact the only person I know of who has lasted longer than I have at owning his own company and managing it, is Jim Marshall. Marshall started his company in 1964; I started mine in 1965. He’s still with it, God bless him, and so am I.

But most of these guys who started their own companies, they’re not with those companies anymore, because the companies don’t exist. Now, you gotta remember that in the music business, companies die but names never do. How many times has Acoustic Control been bought and sold? Or Sunn? Or Ampeg? Even Fender. Fender is now in the third set of hands, do you realize? With Bill Schultz and venture capital firm Weston Presidio.

Peavey: Right. The’yre in the third set of hands since the company was started. They just did their 50th anniversary, but they never bothered to mention that they’ve gone through three different sets of owners.

The thing that sets Peavey and Marshall and maybe Shure Brothers apart is that ours are still family-owned businesses. And that does make a difference. In the early days, the music industry was owned and controlled by family companies. Ludwig comes to mind. But today it’s a conglomerated world. So that’s what’s different about Peavey: There’s still some crazy guy named Peavey running the company. Was guitar your first instrument?

Peavey: No. Clarinet was my first instrument. Which I hated. In a school band situation?

Peavey: No. My dad was a music dealer. And he wanted me to play in the high school band, but I didn’t want to. I thought clarinet was a sissy instrument. And then I switched over to trumpet, and I didn’t want that either. Actually the only reason I hung in there was that he told me if I would do this, he would buy me a car. Well, to be honest with you, I would have drank a bucket of buzzard puke to get a car.

So I was in the junior high school band, and when I got old enough, which was at the end of the ninth grade, he fulfilled his promise and bought me a car. Three months later I went to a Bo Diddley concert and I came back and told my dad that I wanted to play guitar. And he said, “Oh, you don’t want to be a guitar player. Guitar players are lousy, they don’t pay their bills. They play that old rock ‘n’ roll shit!” My dad was a swing musician who played saxophone. He ran this music store and he was a piano man and a horn man the same kind of folks who are running NAMM.

I wanted to be Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley. For the next eight years, I tried to play music. I was moderately successful, but the way I got started building things was that I asked my dad for a guitar and he said, “No, I’ll get you some guitar lessons, and if you learn to play guitar, I will consider buying you one.” So I took two or three guitar lessons, and you know, hell, I didn’t want to learn Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star, I wanted to play Maybellene!

So I kept pestering him and he never would give me a guitar. Finally he gave me an old piece of shit guitar. And I tried to put steel strings on a classical guitar, and of course the bridge popped off of it. So I rebuilt the thing so it would take steel strings. Then I asked him for a pickup and he wouldnt give me a pickup, so I made my own. Then I had a guitar and a pickup and the next thing I wanted, of course, was an amplifier. And he said no, so I built my own.

And then a friend of mine said if I built one for him like that he’d give me some guitar lessons, so I did, and he did. And that’s how I got started building stuff. I’ve often wondered what would have happened if my dad had just given me everything. I think it’s Garth Brooks that has a song called, Thank God for Unanswered Prayers. I often think what would have happened to me and my career if in fact he had given me what I asked for. Right. Things would have been pretty different. And you were a teenager when you were building these things?

Peavey: Oh yeah. I built my first amplifier in December of 1957. Before most guitar players today were even born. I’ve had the opportunity to meet many of the so-called gurus of the business, many of which told me that I was crazy. No way. Even my own friends, my own parents, when I told them what I wanted to do they said, Get out of here. Are you stupid?

But I have always suffered from what people have called the bumblebee effect. Are you familiar with that term? No, I’m not.

Peavey: Are you aware that the bumblebee’s body is too heavy for his wings to support, therefore he cannot fly? Yes. I’ve heard that.

Peavey: Guess who doesn’t know that? The bumblebee. That’s why they call it the bumblebee effect. See I didn’t know that it was impossible for me to compete with CBS who owned Fender at that time and Gulf & Western, who was the Marshall distributor at that time. They were a division of Paramount Pictures. All these conglomerates had come into the music industry. Beatrice Foods had bought JBL. Did you know that? No I didn’t.

Peavey: LTV, the company that makes airplanes, they owned a company called Altec. And what happened is, all these people didn’t get into the music business because of some intense love for music and musicians. They got in this business for money. And you see, a lot of people forget where this thing called rock and roll came from. And by the way, it wasn’t from California. It wasn’t from New York, or Wisconsin. It was from this part of the world called Mississippi and Louisiana and Tennessee, and a little bit of Missouri. That’s where it all came from. This thing called rock and roll started back about the mid-’50s, and it grew, and then in the late-’50s and early-’60s rock and roll kind of took a left turn. It became what I call Little Girl Music. With Leslie Gore, It’s My Party and I’ll Cry if I Want To, and Frankie Avalon and all this kind of shit.

But the English, meanwhile, were very influenced by this basic rock and roll from well, you know the names. They kind of re-packaged it and sold it back to us. That formed the British Invasion. And music exploded again. When they did, companies like Thomas Organ bought out Vox. CBS bought out Fender. An electronic distributing firm, Avnet, bought out Guild guitars. And on and on and on. And what happened, in a very short time, the prices doubled and the quality went to shit.

And all the musicians that I was playing with said, “Man, I wish somebody would make good gear at a fair price.” And I’ve always been kind of a half-assed technician and I’d built a few amplifiers. And certainly I was no expert, but I’d looked inside some of Mr. Marshall and Mr. Fender’s creations and I said, “Well, you know, there’s maybe $50 or $60 worth of parts in there, why should they be selling these for $1,000? I can do it just as well for a hell of a lot less.” And I did. And a lot of people thought that because I sold it cheaper, that it was a piece of shit. The fact is, what they don’t realize is that, a lot of those people were making a tremendous amount of money off them. Because they do believe that if you pay $2,000 or $3,000 for an amplifier, that it’s worth it. What they don’t know is, we’ve had a lot of these boutique amplifier companies come to us and want us to make their amps for them.

You know, with tube amps, there’s not much magic there. I don’t claim to know a lot about anything, but I know as much about tubes and amplifiers as anybody that I know of. But I realize that, hell, I learn something every day.

With guitars it’s very frustrating because we seem to be stuck in a time warp. A lot of people think that the best guitars that will ever be were invented back in the early-’50s. And they actually believe that the guitars made back then were better than the ones that are made today, and that’s not true. I remember asking Mr. Fender one time I always called him Mr. Fender, out of respect and I said, “Mr. Fender, do you really believe that the guitars that you made back in the ’50s are better than the guitars you’re making today?” And he said, “No Peavey, but I’m not gonna tell anybody any different.” He said, “Our problem was consistency, or more correctly, the lack thereof. We made some great guitars, but we also made some dogs.”

And that’s true. If we’re just having a general discussion and I told you I had a ’57 Strat, youd probably say, “Wow!” But you know what? There were some great ’57 Strats, but there were a lot of them that were far from great. And the reason for it is the way that they used to make things. It was all a hand-made process. As a matter of fact about the only thing that I can claim that I invented, is I invented the way to make guitars by computer. Nobody had ever done that in the music industry before. How did you do it?

Peavey: I went out and did a little research. I’ve always been a gun collector. And I’ve always been impressed that you could mass produce rifles and if you know anything about firearms, a good rifle, which is mass-produced, you can’t stick a piece of paper between the metal and the wood. And I said, “Boy, you know, whatever machine they use to make these rifle stocks, I could use to make guitar necks and I could just mass produce them.” And I came to find out they mass-produce these things using whats kind of a rotary pentagraph called a copy-lathe. So I went out and bought one. And they’re not made in the United States, they’re made in Europe. So I started doing that, and as far as routers, the furniture industry had been using a thing called a computer controlled routers to cut out furniture.

So I said, “Why is everybody using hand tools? Why don’t we just go out and, instead of putting the guitar up on a band saw or pin router, you just put this thing up. And if I had multiple stations, I could be cutting three at one time, and off-loading three. “I had six stations; three under the cutter at any one time. And I could make 300 or 400 bodies with one man in one eight-hour shift. And everybody said, “You can’t do that. Oh, you can’t do that, there’s no way.” In fact, Mr. Fender went in one of the magazines and said, “You can’t make guitars with computers.”

Well, to a degree, he was right. But you know what? I wasn’t making guitars with computers, I was making guitar parts. And they make diesel engines, by the way, on computer controlled machines, with tolerances of plus or minus ten-thousandths of an inch.

So guess what everybody is using today to make guitars? It’s all computer controlled at the big manufacturers.

Peavey: And when I did it back in ’75 or ’76 everybody said, “It cannot be done!” Well, you know what? I did it. At that time a Stratocaster was selling for about $800, and a Les Paul was selling for $1,000. And I was selling an American-made guitar, in a case, for $350. And I ran one of the most controversial ads I’ve ever run. I took a Stratocaster and Les Paul, with prices under them. The Les Paul was like $999, and the Stratocaster was like $795, and mine was $350. And the ad had one word: Why?

God damn did that piss off Fender and Gibson. But it was the truth. My guitar used a rock maple neck, it used a heavy northern ash body cause back in the mid-’70s they wanted real heavy bodies, cause they thought it gave more sustain. And what I did was I eliminated the slop. They were using hand methods. This is why you could take a bunch of old Fenders, and go down and feel them, and you’ll never find two Fender necks that feel the same. Did you ever wonder why? Because they were all hand-made.

Peavey: That’s right. They hand-sanded the backs of those necks. If Jose had a hangover that day, and he didn’t feel good, you got a Louisville Slugger. But if he was feeling real good, and he pressed down on that sander, you’d have a nice thin neck. And that’s why theres consistency. That’s just what Mr. Fender said. He said, “You know, our problem was consistency. We made some great guitars, and we made some that, frankly, weren’t so great.” So that’s what I brought to the party, because I’ve always been willing to dare to be different.