Hartley Peavey

As the company that bears his name celebrates its 40th anniversary this year, Hartley Peavey should be more blissed out than a maharishi who has achieved total comprehension of the universe. Peavey Electronics pioneered computer-controlled machining in guitar manufacturing (among other innovations in guitar, amplifier, speaker, and software design), diversified to the point where it makes just about everything it needs and sells, offered gainful employment to a major share of the people around its Meridian, Mississippi, headquarters, and produced myriad products that have helped countless musicians bring life to the noises in their heads. Both Peavey and his company have received bountiful industry accolades and have generated mountains of press. And the firm has accomplished all of this without owing one single penny to a financial institution, or being beholden to outside shareholders.

And yet, Hartley Peavey is far from satisfied—even as he sits in his plush conference room decked out in the casual, nautical-styled dress of a man quietly enjoying wealth and power. This is not a man who has allowed himself to ascend into a well-deserved figurehead role, and, at this moment, the self-described “tinkerer” is more concerned with a marketplace that doesn’t always recognize his company’s contributions to players, retailers, and the general music industry. This slight gnaws at him despite Peavey Electronic’s more than 100 active patents, its maverick standing in the industry, and its obvious success.

“One of the most frustrating things in my career,” he says, “is that we offer players great products and great prices, and then some will say that Peavey products are ‘good for the money.’ Hell, they’re good—period!”

Not surprisingly, Peavey product managers get a tad cranky whenever gear reviewers tout the value-for-money proposition of their wares without even considering that the sound quality, craftsmanship, and features may be fabulous no matter what the price. But with Peavey—whose quiet, gentlemanly demeanor is always Buddhist warrior monk cool—you get the sense that he will methodically push forward to victory in his own way, and that his company will not be lacking respect in years to come.

“It hurts when the only problem with a piece of our gear is that it happens to be named ‘Peavey,’” he says. “For example, an audio magazine once did a blind test of studio monitors with a bunch of recording gurus, and they unanimously picked our monitors as the best. Do you know what some of those gurus said? They said, ‘I thought I had better taste than that!’ Well, I kind of resent those types of comments. But, hey, that resentment and two dollars might buy me a cup of coffee. I set up this company as a vehicle to make quality gear that everyday musicians could afford. By having only one owner—me—and by making most of our own components, as opposed to buying them wholesale, we’ve been able to build well-made, innovative products, and sell them at a fraction of what the market could bear. Ironically, players say they want good gear at a good price, but when you give it to them, many want to believe it’s not as good as it really is, because then the price would surely be higher. Go figure!”

What has been your greatest challenge as a gear manufacturer?
It’s being better than you were last year, as well as being better than everyone else. That’s extremely hard. Leo Fender, for all his creativity, went off the track. After the Jazzmaster, it kind of went awry. Then there’s the problem of building a better mousetrap, and then presenting it to people who will only accept something more conventional.

Can you elaborate on that?
I learned this from our drum business. We developed the best drum kit out there. It had what we called a radial bridge, which had no lugs, and the .090" drum shell had no tension on it. I had a very famous and successful drummer play these drums, and he said it was the best-sounding kit he had ever played. So I said, “We sure would like you to endorse this.” He said, “I can’t.” I said, “Well, why can’t you?” And he answered, “It just doesn’t look right. It’s different.” This was frustrating. I said, “You can’t be better unless you are different.”

It can be the same problem with guitars, or even amplifiers. Today, most guitars and amps are disgustingly similar, but if you go too much further out than what’s already available, then people won’t buy it. I mean, this is no slam against Fender’s business, but 90 percent of what they sell is stuff that Leo did. And Gibson—can you name a new guitar they’ve successfully launched in the last 30 years? Little has changed in the past 50 years. Except the prices.

Now, we’re always trying new things, and trying to keep an upward trajectory. Take the upscale HP Signature guitars, for example. Those are handmade in our custom shop, which is just down a ways from our Mississippi headquarters. And the Joe Satriani Signature JSX and single-channel, five-voice Penta guitar amps are significant additions to the amplifier world. I’m kind of like Diogenes looking through eternity for an honest man, except, in my case, I’m looking for that better mousetrap. It’s like that show The X-Files—“The truth is out there!”

What prompted the decision to actually build so many elements of your equipment in-house, rather than outsourcing components such as speakers?
Right now there’s hardly any piece of what we build that we don’t make. You mentioned speakers, for example. Well, in some cases, we’ve been buying speakers forever. But we also got into the speaker manufacturing business ourselves in the early ’70s. I didn’t want to, but the biggies at the time—JBL and Altec Lansing—cut me off. They wouldn’t sell speakers to me.

Why not?
Because my customers would blow the damn speakers out! The big shots at JBL gave me a scholarly speech: “Peavey, your customers don’t understand how to use our transducers.” I said, “Well, that may be true, but the reason your speakers are blowing up is because they’re wound up in bobbins of paper. They wouldn’t listen. I met Eminence’s Bob Gault when he was still at Chicago Telephone Supply, and he was a great friend of mine, but—God bless him—he wouldn’t listen. I begged him to give me a 4" voice coil. He wouldn’t do it. I begged him to make me a high-frequency driver. He wouldn’t do it. That’s why I got in the speaker business—because no one would give me what I needed.

By the way, I didn’t want to make guitars, either. I was happy making P.A. systems and amps. I got in the guitar business because the powers that be essentially said, “Look, if you want to buy Les Pauls, you will have to buy these Gibson amplifiers.” So I said, “Well, if the big companies are gonna play that game, I’ll just get in theirs.”

What inspired your decision to incorporate computer-controlled machining into your guitar manufacturing process?
I’ve always been a gun collector, and I’ve always been fascinated with the fit and finish of mass-produced rifles. I mean, you can get a Remington or a Winchester, and you can’t slip a business card between the metal and the wood. So I thought, “Whatever machine is used to make those gun stocks, I’ll bet it can make guitar necks, too.”

The way I figured it was, when you used hand-built methods, the best you could hope for were tolerances of a 64th of an inch, and that wasn’t consistent enough for me. I even asked Mr. Fender once—I always called him Mr. Fender out of respect—if he honestly believed his early guitars were better than his new ones? He said, “No, Peavey—but I would never tell anybody the difference.” Well, I decided that you couldn’t ever deliver consistent quality when so many hand methods were used in the manufacturing process. So I brought in the machines, and I eliminated the slop. Interestingly enough, almost every one of the companies that were throwing rocks and bottles at me back in the mid ’70s for using computer-controlled machining—well, guess how they’re making their guitars today?

With all of Peavey’s innovations and build quality, why do you think some people still think of the company as a “bargain brand?”
This is probably one of the mistakes I made in my career, but I never believed in charging what the market will bear. Let’s say you asked some people, “Do you believe you get what you pay for?” Now, without hesitation, most will answer that you absolutely get what you pay for.

My response is to say, “Really? Well, have you ever paid big bucks to see a concert that sucked?”

“Hell, yeah,” they’ll say.

“Well, did you get what you paid for?”

“No. I guess not.”

Then I’ll say, “By the way, have you ever walked into a club where a band is just smoking, and you didn’t pay a cover charge?”

And they’ll say, “Yeah.”

“Well, did you get what you paid for? No!”

You see, you can’t have it both ways. You either get what you pay for, or you don’t. Where I’m going with this is that most people think you can judge the quality of a product—its workmanship, value, and performance—by price alone. But the only way you can use price solely as an indicator is to assume that all other factors of production are equal, and they never are.

Last year, a very well-respected company that sells guitar amps for around $2,300 asked us if we’d build their amps for them. I told them I would certainly consider making their product, but these people wanted us to build the amp for them at our prices, so they could still sell them at their prices. I guess their users believe if they pay $2,300 for an amp that should be $600, that, somehow, they’re getting more. In most instances, you’re not, but perception is often reality for some people.

Looking back on Peavey’s 40 years in the business, what are you most proud of?
That we never sold out during the “golden era” of conglomeration from the mid ’60s to the mid ’70s, when the conglomerates came in and bought all the family-owned music and sound companies. I was the moderator, then—the only voice of reason when everybody else was charging whatever they could. If it wasn’t for Peavey keeping a lid on prices, there’s no telling what would have happened.

But, having said that, I’m most proud of where we are right now, because I know where we’re going. All the new products we unveil each year begin months or even years before, so I’m already thinking about gear we’ll release in 2007. We’re always pushing the boundaries. If I see a door marked “Push,” you can bet I’m going to pull on it. I’m excited about what lies just beyond every project we undertake. That’s why I’m still here after 40 years, and that’s why I’ve always been here.

A current industry debacle is the issue of “clone” guitar designs. Where do you stand on companies relying upon and/or adapting classic guitar designs?
Oh, that cow has been out of the barn for 50 years! Today, most all guitars are just variations on a theme. Most have six strings, and, quite often, some type of relief or so-called cutaway. Amazingly, some companies are now attempting to claim they invented cutaways, or generalized shapes that have been in the marketplace for decades. I have no problem with any company protecting the exact outline of their guitars, but I do think it’s ridiculous that a guitar company complains about something being remotely similar. In fact, many of the well-recognized guitar shapes and pertinent features—in-line pegheads and cutaways, for instance—have been around for hundreds of years.

I think Paul Reed Smith got a bad rap in Gibson’s lawsuit against the PRS Singlecut. It’s absurd to think that someone would spend what a PRS costs, and then get home and say, “Oh, hell—I thought I bought a Gibson.” If companies are allowed to lay claim to features that have been around for hundreds of years—or even just 50 years—the guitar market will be chaos. What I mean is, if one company can claim that single cutaways belong to them, and another company claims that double cutaways are their “trademark,” then the rest of the market will be making non-cutaway guitars or some other shape. This is silliness. Just as we do every day, the suppliers need to get back to trying to build a superior product, instead of trying to lock everyone else out of the market. That’s the real issue.

What are some things that drive your success?
I always read technical magazines and try to imagine better ways of doing things. I say this tongue-in-cheek, but it’s really pretty sweet that you can be successful without being smart. You don’t have to be an Einstein, you just have to listen. Of course, the problem with most people is that they won’t listen to their customers or anyone else. Well, I do listen, and that’s part of the reason why I do things that other people won’t do.

Also, I don’t believe that the absolute best instruments and equipment have been made yet. Strats and Les Pauls are good instruments, but they’re not the end all. In fact, they are somewhat of a beginning point. If I had to define the difference between Peavey and its major competitors, it’s that my competitors are trying to revive the glories of the past, while Peavey is focused on the future.