The Tale of the Red Monster
The Tale of the Red Monster
“My gift was making equipment, not music.”
Necessity is the mother of invention, and Hartley Peavey had a real need to realize a dream. Therefore, he had a drive to innovate.
In 1959, Hartley leveled up his engineering skills with his earliest attempts to build a “big amp,” first for himself and then for a friend. The sizable design was inspired by the amp of rock ‘n roll legend Bo Diddley, whom Hartley saw perform in 1957 in Laurel, Mississippi.
“I watched Bo up there playing a Les Paul Special flat top, and it was covered in rabbit fur. He had an amplifier about halfway across the stage, and he did his typical Bo Diddley beat,” Hartley recalled in an interview at Guitar Summit. “I decided right then and there that I wanted to be a guitar player.”
Hartley was completely captivated by the music and vowed to become a world-class rock ‘n roller. However, his father J.B. Peavey, a saxophone player and retail music shop owner, was less than enthusiastic about his son’s ambitions, especially after Hartley resisted formal guitar lessons. As a result, he was reluctant to reward Hartley with the wares of his music shop, including an electric guitar amplifier.
In later interviews, Hartley acknowledged that his father’s reluctance to support his desire to play electric guitar was likely crucial to his career.
“I’ve often wondered what would have happened if he had given me a guitar and given me an amplifier. These days, that’s probably what a father would do,” Hartley said in The Peavey Revolution. “But my dad was a product of the Depression—he didn’t have it, so he didn’t think I should have it.”
In a separate interview, Hartley’s father rhetorically posed the question, “If I had gone on and bought him a $1,000 outfit, what would have happened? I just believe he’d have picked on it for a few days and that would have been the end of it. He wanted an amplifier but I wouldn’t give it to him, so he just decided to make one.”
Brainstorming designs, Hartley remembered Bo Diddley’s amp from the 1957 concert. The massive cabinet was about 5 to 6 feet wide with a Fender chassis inside and speakers sitting on a partial shelf in the middle. In order to replicate this design with enough speakers and within budget, Hartley resolved he needed old junk parts.
Always resourceful, he discovered a useful hack of approaching jukebox operators and asking if they’d sell him the speakers that were rattling. The operators didn’t know better and thought these speakers were broken, when really some internal parts just needed to be tightened up. By the time Hartley was finished with them, he had great speakers for just $2 a piece.
Hartley built his amp over the 1959 Christmas holiday, copying the schematic from a tube manual. It had an RIAA equalization circuit that was designed for playing LPs but not for a musical instrument amplifier.
Despite the unit’s sonic shortcomings, Hartley had succeeded in building the first Peavey amp.
His guitar-playing friend Sonny Roth was impressed by the big amp with castoff speakers, and he told Hartley that if he would build him one, too, he would give him real rock ’n roll guitar lessons.
Hartley built an amp for Sonny with four 12-inch speakers and a 35 W amp. He covered the huge, heavy cabinet in padded red vinyl — a forward-thinking design that predated Kustom’s “roll and pleat” amps — and called this design “the Red Monster.”
Then, despite these impressive engineering feats, Hartley spent the next eight years trying unsuccessfully to become a rock ’n roller.
“Truth is, I was the world’s worst guitar player,” Hartley admitted.