The History of Jean Larrivée Guitars
At 20 years old, Jean Larrivée, with no prior musical training, decided to study classic guitar. After 4 years he was introduced to German classical guitar builder Edgar Mönch, who was working in Toronto at the time. Jean expressed an interest in learning how to build, Mönch invited him to visit his shop, and it evolved into an apprenticeship.
Jean built 2 guitars as an apprentice to Mönch’s before setting up a workshop in his house. He had found his life’s work.
From 1968 to 1970, Jean continued building classic guitars in his house workshop before moving to a commercial space above a theater. His work there exposed him to people involved with Toronto’s thriving folk music community. At their urging, he built his first steel string guitar in 1971.
This was a period of experimentation. Jean designed his own guitar shapes, bracing patterns and details. His 1st steel strings were basically small dreadnoughts, braced in the Martin style, with an elongated X pattern and tone bars running at about a 45 degree angles. Sensing from his experience with classical guitars that a symmetrical bracing pattern might result in better tonal balance, Jean tried a pattern designed with a true 90 degree X brace and tone bars running parallel to the bridge. It worked – the guitar had a strong, well-balanced sound.
25 years and over 20,000 steel string guitars have demonstrated that the design has structural integrity. Bulging of the top behind the bridge or sinking around the sound hole are common problems of traditionally braced guitars, particularly those with scalloped braces. With Larrivée symmetrical bracing, these types of problems are virtually non-existent.
From 1971 to 1977, Larrivée Guitars grew steadily, moving 4 times to ever-larger spaces. There was a steady flow of new apprentices. Many would go on to become successful builders on their own including Linda Manzer, David Wren, Grit Laskin and others.
In 1972 Jean married Wendy Jones. Wendy designed and engraved the intricate and detailed inlays for which Larrivée guitars have became well known.
Bruce Cockburn tried and fell in love with the sound and feel of Larrivées instruments in the early 1970’s and commissioned a number to be built to his specifications. These included Jean’s first 2 cutaway steel string guitars in 1975 and 1976: The first was Brazilian and German spruce; the second was Macassar ebony and German spruce – both with Florentine cutaways.
Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul and Mary acquired a 1973 non-cutaway Larrivée that became his primary instrument for many years until stolen at a Florida concert. The instrument re-appeared on EBay in 2005 and was ultimately returned to Peter Yarrow.
By 1976 8 people were producing 25 to 30 instruments a month. Most of these instruments were sold in Canada and some exported to Europe where the public was comfortable with their classically inspired shape. The American market proved to be tougher. Larrivée guitars, with their wood binding, marquetry rosettes, clear pickguards, and Renaissance-style inlay designs were out of step with the American tradition of dreadnaughts, slope-shoulder dreadnaughts and OM style shapes. Over time several high-profile artists bought the guitars and word began to spread.
In 1977, Jean and Wendy moved the company to Victoria, British Columbia. The wet coastal forests of Canada’s Pacific Rim produce some of the finest spruce and cedar in the world, and Jean recognized that the future growth of his company could depend on access to these tone woods. (There was also the allure of Canada’s mildest climate and the spectacular scenery of British Columbia.)
In Victoria, BC Jean began to focus on manufacturing instruments in larger quantities. He bought space and created a climate controlled production space and an industrial paint booth. Jean designed and built specialized machines and tooling for more efficient production, and a higher level of quality control. Within a year of the move, 14 people were producing 4 guitars a day.
As the company continued to grow in Victoria, eventually the problems inherent in manufacturing on an island led to the decision in 1982 to relocate to the mainland. It was the era of electronic keyboards and electric guitars and not a good financial time for acoustic guitar building. Rather than reducing production and laying off employees, In 1983 Jean decided to try to build some solid body electrics.
By 1989 the market for acoustic guitars had begun to improve. The experience gained from electric guitars proved valuable as Jean reinvented his acoustic guitar production techniques. New tooling included computer controlled milling machines allowing quicker and better production. New models were then added.
When the acoustic market demonstrated resurgence in 1991, Larrivée moved to an 11,000 square foot facility. At 25 guitars a day and 35 employees, they quickly began to outgrow the new building as well.
In early 1997, Larrivée Guitars introduced the D-03 model. It was originally intended to be a limited run of 1,000 but, as people caught on that it was the only all solid wood guitar for under $800, demand increased and it became a standard model.
In March 1998, they moved to a 33,000 square foot facility in the heart of Vancouver, where 100 skilled people in the Guitar industry made 60-72 guitars a day. On September 1st, 2001 Larrivee expanded again, and opened a new factory in southern California. 10 days later 9/11 occurred. The following 2 years were turbulent for the guitar industry. Production dropped to 35 guitars a day. Over the next 2 years, Larrivee would go through of number of production changes including: a refocus towards high-end guitars, a redesign of the 03 Series, and the development of the Traditional Series.
Currently Jean, Wendy, son Matthew and daughter Christine all work in the California plant (producing gloss models). Jean’s son John Jr. runs the Canadian plant (producing satin models). Larrivée has a complement to 8 Fadal CNC machines and a Laser cutter. Efficiency and quality control continue to expand with new production techniques.
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ⓒ 2008, Leonard Wyeth