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Peavey Chapter Three

Peavey: The Formative Years

Chapter 3

“We did things differently because in many cases, I didn’t know how you were, quote, unquote, ‘supposed to do it.’ We figured out the most efficient way for us to do it.”
Hartley Peavey

In its earliest days, Peavey operated from the basement of the Peavey family home. The young man behind the company, who had grown up in a music retail business, was learning how to become more efficient as an operator. The Peavey Musician™ and Dyna-Bass™ amplifiers were hand-built and rolled out the door at the rate of one unit per week — enough for Hartley Peavey to hire his first employee, a fireman who could devote his two days off.

“It was very tough,” Hartley recalled. “I had to figure out ways to be more efficient.”

In those days, cabinets were finished with five pieces of vinyl — a top, bottom, two sides, and a back. Peavey figured out how to create a one-piece sheet eliminating excess material, time, and labor. To further enhance efficiency, Peavey began incorporating dados into the cabinetry allowing the baffles and backs to be glued. This removed the time it took to drill and screw these pieces during assembly once again, eliminating excess material, time, and labor.

By 1967, Hartley’s father had sold Peavey’s Melody Music to Mississippi Music but kept the building. Peavey established a small shop above the retail floor.

‘I Can’t Afford to Pay You’

One day, the new owner of the music store called Hartley and said there was a salesman claiming that he had the best guitar amplifier in the world. He asked Hartley, the only guitar player available, to come down and try it. The large, pleated amp had a dozen knobs, and the salesman pontificated on how it was the best amp ever made and how great it sounded. Hartley plugged in, played a signature lick, and when asked what he thought by the eager sales rep he responded, “It’s OK.”

The salesman was stunned by Hartley’s lukewarm reaction and learned that this young man made amps upstairs that he thought were better. The salesman asked for an on-the-spot demo of this Peavey amp. Hartley wheeled The Musician over and played the same signature lick. Without a word, the salesman unplugged his massive amp and rolled it out the door with the help of his assistant. Hartley apologized profusely, worried he had offended everyone.

About 30 minutes later, the salesman’s assistant, Don Belfield, returned and asked to sell Peavey amps. Hartley told him flat out, “I can’t afford to pay you.” However, Belfield convinced Hartley to give him an amp to sell for traveling money.

“I had never seen this guy before in my life, and like a fool, I gave him the amplifier to pay his expenses,” Hartley said, dubbing Belfield “the Don Quixote of amplifier sales.” “He went all over the Southeast selling amplifiers. I couldn’t keep up!”

Belfield became an integral part of the company’s early success, and Hartley began hiring more and more employees. By 1968, Peavey Electronics Corporation. outgrew the loft and moved to Plant 1, the first standalone Peavey factory in Meridian. The building measured 100 feet by 32 feet, but eventually expanded to overtake the entire city block.

Peavey Electronics was starting to gain steam, but the industry didn’t exactly embrace the young startup with open arms. “Of course, all my competitors said, ‘Ah, that guy down in Mississippi is just some redneck — he’s nothing to worry about,” Hartley described.

The competition would soon find out that Peavey was a creative force to be reckoned with.

Overcoming Growing Pains

In a startup environment, a lack of outside influence often leads to innovation, as the company is free to explore new ways of doing things. That was certainly the case at Peavey Electronics, which was finding ways to do things that worked for them. For instance, the company had one of the first automatic soldering machines in the guitar amplifier business.

“We did things differently because in many cases, I didn’t know how you were quote, unquote, ‘supposed to do it.’ We figured out the most efficient way for us to do it,” Hartley said. “That’s been a hallmark of Peavey for 55 years.”

The company had entered a crowded amplifier market, and Hartley worked a grueling 9 a.m. to 1 a.m. for the first 3 years of the company. When he wasn’t designing and building, he was out on the road selling. On one trip, a music retailer pointed out the fact that his store was fully stocked with amplifiers; he didn’t want to buy more. However, if Peavey made a sound system, he would be interested.

On the 2.5-hour drive back to Meridian, Hartley mentally envisioned Peavey’s first PA system. It would be simple, a four-channel guitar amplifier paired with a 100 W amplifier that retailed for $600, an offering that was priced about 30% below the competition.

“We couldn’t build them fast enough,” Hartley said, recalling how Peavey focused on expanding its dealer relationships primarily in the Southeast. “My dad had taught me, ‘Son, if you make money for your dealers, they’ll stick with you. If you don’t, they won’t.”

Despite the brand’s regional traction and high level of customer/dealer service, business was touch-and-go during these formative years. The business was barely profitable, and some days Hartley worried if the company would make it. However, while he may have been short on money, Hartley wasn’t lacking passion for the music business. This fundamental love for gear and musicians continued to be a competitive advantage over major conglomerates and led to outside-the-box concepts.

For instance, the Peavey “silver stripe” trademark design emerged in 1969, when Hartley put the grille frame onto a speaker cabinet backwards, with the aluminum mounting extrusions on the outside. He liked the look so much that it became the company’s signature design aesthetic for the next 25 years.

A Pivotal Partnership

The solid-state Musician and Dyna-Bass amps represented Peavey’s total product offering for the first two years. These models had 35 W of power because that was approximately the power that most companies were getting out of two 6L6-S tube amps. Hartley had assumed that the 35-watt solid-state amp would match the competition’s 35-watt tube amp. However, shortly after the company started producing these amps in 1965, Hartley discovered that Peavey would need nearly twice the power in solid-state amps to compete with tube amps in the 35 W to 40 W range.

This discovery led to Peavey’s next offering of a 60 W amp, which Hartley developed in coordination with Jim Askew, a friend from Atlanta. Jim helped improve the basic 35 W design Peavey had developed with ORRadio. The new design gave the amp more output, so it could effectively compete with popular tube amps and other solid-state amps that had begun to appear in the marketplace.

Around this time, Marshall introduced 100 W valve “stacks” from the UK. Not to be outdone, Hartley resolved to build an amp that was 100 W or greater. RCA Labs in Somerville, NJ, came out with a series of specialized audio transistors that were ideal for amplifiers, and they developed a set of application notes for what they called “quasi-complementary” solid-state power amps. These notes provided the inspiration for many companies seeking to build high-power solid-state audio amplifiers. Almost all the hi-fi companies, including Peavey, adopted the basic RCA format.

Peavey forged ahead to build a 120 W amplifier that would more than hold its own against the competition, but Hartley discovered that RCA’s innovation of a “dual slope” protection system was virtually unusable with highly inductive loads, such as bass speakers. A technical flaw resulted in an unpleasant snapping sound, and Hartley couldn’t figure out what was causing it.

Desperate for answers, he called RCA’s applications group in New Jersey. After multiple phone calls, he finally spoke with an engineer named Jack Sondermeyer, who had been on the original design team that developed the RCA circuit. Jack helped stabilize Peavey’s amps with speaker loads that were both inductive and capacitive at the same time. 

As a result, Hartley convinced Sondermeyer to do some “moonlighting” for Peavey. Sondermeyer formed a consulting company called Astro-Associates and did engineering work on an hourly basis, selling a number of computer-grade capacitors. 

As a new decade of the 1970s approached, a new professional relationship had formed that would be pivotal to Peavey’s next chapter.