Maxim Amplifiers – Peter McCarthy

This is the story of the late amazing Peter McCarthy, guitar and amplifier pioneer who created wonderful amps and guitars under the Maxim brand in his workshop in Bridge Road, Richmond, Melbourne for many years.

Peter centre (on guitar) in the 1930’s

I have a few lovely old amplifiers from the 60’s and later (all valve “tube”), but the jewel in the crown is my 60 watt Maxim head which, paired with my old beat up Marshall slant top quad box, has been my number one weapon constantly since Peter made it for me in 1974. It’s never missed a beat and has tone and grunt to burn.

I met Peter that year and ordered my amp the day after I went to a Muddy Waters concert in Melbourne’s old Festival Hall. Muddy was supported by Chain and Carson, who were also labelled the Carson boogie band. Playing slide with Carson was Greg “Sleepy” Lawrie, plugged into his Maxim amp. Greg’s guitar tone soared above everything else at that gig, and the stage was littered with Fenders and Marshalls and you name it! That Maxim sounded so sweet and clear in comparison that I couldn’t wait to get around to Peter’s workshop the next morning and put my order in. It’s easily the best thing I’ve ever bought.

Peter also made a few guitars in his earlier days and I tried one at his workshop and the tone was, unsurprisingly, fantastic. That’s what he was all about, tone. He was better at it than everybody else. He had transformers wound to his own specifications, built everything by hand and used the best parts available, and his circuit designs were unique. Everything was over-engineered and the fact that I can turn my amp on over 40 years later and still beat anything in existence is a testament to his genius.

He told me that he started experimenting with electrifying guitars in the 1930’s, and here’s an excerpt from an email from his son (already in his late eighties) confirming this.

“G’day Rick

Yes, Peter WAS the first. He made his first pickup (contact) with an earphone with a piece of hard rubber on the diaphragm making contact with his old Martin guitar when he played with the ABC concert orchestra. He found it much harder to be heard than with the ABC dance band. That would have been very early thirties.

He made Hawaiian steel guitars (lap steels) originally with horseshoe magnets and hand wound (flat wound) coils. The coil former was spun slowly on his lathe while the coil of 40 gauge enamel coated wire was fed out slowly from a hand drill.

The coil winder was built from bits and pieces around the workshop without any drawings or plans. The idea – like so many others – was entirely in his head. Despite having only one eye since 1941, he had an amazing capacity for the most intricate sizes and measurements.

He also made a pedal steel guitar around 1939-40. He took it up to Buddy Waikara at the Hawiian Club (where Bruce Clarke later taught guitar) and Buddy said; “Very nice Peter. Great idea. But who could play it?” He got almost the same response from Charlie Bowden at the Australian Banjo Club.

Today you need to be an octopus to keep up with the number of pedals and knee levers.

I had one of his solid body guitars for all of two months before it was stolen and never sighted. Must have gone interstate. So much better jazz sound than my Les Paul. My Maton Supreme (which he borrowed for the Black and White Minstrel show in Melbourne, Sydney and New Zealand) also had a Maxim pickup.

Did you know he got his start manufacturing by approaching Geoffrey Allen during the depression and asking him what music equipment was hard to import. The reply led Peter into designing and building “Trap tables” for drummers. Hi-hats, Bass drum pedals. He also made stands for all types of brass and woodwind instruments.

Apart from the lathe and the hacksaw machine, every piece of equipment in the workshop was made by his own hand.”

Col Brady was kind enough to send me these pics of some guitars made by Peter many years ago. There’s a Les Paulish shaped jazz solid body and a couple of lap steels with the Maxim brand.

Col also sent me this slide guitar track played on a Maxim guitar. Fantastic playing, Col, thanks for the great clip.

Last but not least, here’s a pic of my mighty Maxim with his best mate, the Marshall quad.

For a while I’ve been thinking about passing on this wonderful amp to another serious player, because I’m not really gigging much these days, and I’m moving back home to Perth from Brisbane in the new year.¬† A friend came over to test it out the other day with a view¬† to buying it. The day before he was due to arrive I set up the amp and tried it out and it was humming and hissing, and on closer inspection I discovered the midrange pot was cactus (it’s first ever failure in 44 faithful years!)

A quick trip to the electronics store for a replacement, $2.50 spent and 5 minutes soldering, then I put it back together. Turned the amp on, noise gone, all back to normal. Plugged in my trusty Telecaster, hit a chord and .. wow! Fell in love all over again! That’s my sound right there. It all came flooding back.

I can’t part with it – it’s the very best tone I’ve ever heard, and I have a vintage Fender blackface Concert from 1963, a Moody GA35 and a Vase from the same era, plus others, and I love them all. But the Maxim is coming back home with me, not for sale at any price. Peter made it for me and it’s going to stay with me until the end. I plan to build a new studio in Perth and fill it with amps and guitars, and the Maxim and quad box will have pride of place. Going to need a whole lot of soundproofing in that studio! It’s big and it’s bloody loud!

Studying this amp again after all this time, I think I’ve discovered the secret of it’s wonderful performance. Apart from Peter’s design genius, it’s ridiculously over-engineered, as I mentioned earlier. The speaker transformer was custom made to Peter’s specs and it’s frequency response goes to 100KHz. I asked him why the need for that extended response when guitar speakers mostly struggle to reproduce much over 6KHz, and Peter said it was essential to get the best tone. The power transformer is big enough to power a whole suburb, there’s that 6V6 regulator, and the tone stack is so powerful that I usually can’t turn the bass above 2 or the windows fall out, mid on 5, treble on 5 and that 4 position Lo/Hi switch is on 0, and the volume never goes above 3. Sweet, fat tone with shimmer and sparkle, and sustain for days. Even playing an outdoor festival to 20,000 people back in the day, it was still on 3, and it filled the big stage, no foldback necessary. I have never encountered another guitar amp from anywhere in the world that packs that much class. Falling In Love Again (thank you the late Ted Mulry). Oh, and those two phase splitter/driver metal jacket valves are the originals from 1974, still working happily and comfortably after Peter installed them all those decades ago. That’s insane!


Peter front row right

Vale Pete!