Jean Larrivée first became interested in the guitar as a
teenager, trying to play Duane Eddy licks on an $18 guitar. At twenty, with
no other musical training in his background, he made the decision to take up
a serious study of classic guitar. Four years into this study, he was
introduced to German classical guitar builder Edgar Mönch, who was then
working in Toronto. Jean expressed interest in learning how to build, Mönch
invited him to visit his shop, and so began an apprenticeship.
Jean built his first two guitars under Mönch's tutelage
before setting up a workshop in his home, where he continued to build and
study. The energy which had fueled nightly five hour practice sessions was
now directed toward learning to construct instruments. He had found his
From 1968 to 1970, Jean continued building classic
guitars in his home shop before moving into his first commercial space, the
second floor of a theater. His work brought him into contact with many
people involved with Toronto's thriving folk music community. At their
urging, Jean built his first steel string guitar in 1971.
This was a period of much experimentation. Following the tradition of
European classic guitar builders, Jean designed his own distinctive shape,
bracing patterns, and structural specifications. When he began to build
steel string instruments, a task for which there were fewer
well-established models, the experimentation became especially intense.
His first steel strings were small dreadnoughts, braced in the Martin
style, with an elongated X (the "railway crossing sign" design) and tone
bars running at about a 45º angle. Sensing from his work with classic
guitars that a symmetrical bracing pattern might result in better tonal
balance, Jean tried a bracing pattern consisting of a true 90º X brace and
tone bars running parallel to the bridge. The guitar had a strong,
well-balanced sound. It was, as Jean says now, "success through
ignorance." Twenty-five years later, a much-refined version of this
bracing pattern is still the heart of all Larrivée steel-string guitars.
The sound it produces is distinctive. The bass is solid and tight, with
great projection. Mid-range is strong, and highs are crystal clear.
Overall balance is excellent, with the body size and shape determining the
"tilt" of the balance.
Best of all, twenty-five years and over twenty thousand
steel string guitars have proven conclusively that this design has great
structural integrity. Bulging of the top behind the bridge or sinking around
the sound hole are not uncommon problems with 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
four times to ever larger spaces. There was a continuous flow of apprentices
through the shop, some of whom would also go on to become successful
builders on their own. In 1972 Jean and Wendy Jones were married. Wendy
would make her own unique contribution, designing and engraving the
exquisite picture inlays for which Larrivée guitars are famous.
By 1976 eight people were producing twenty-five to thirty instruments a
month. Most of these instruments were sold in Canada or exported to
Europe, where their classically inspired look won quick acceptance. The
American market would prove to be a tougher nut to crack. Larrivée
guitars, with their wood binding, marquetry rosettes, clear pickguards,
and Renaissance-style inlay designs, were a bit out of step with American
fashion. Still, there were some bright spots. Several high-profile artists
purchased guitars and word began to get around. More than a few American
musicians made the trip to Toronto in search of a Larrivée guitar, and
some American dealers began stocking them.
In 1977, Jean and Wendy pulled up stakes and 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
realized that future growth could hinge on access to these tone woods. Of
course, there was also the allure of Canada's mildest climate and the
spectacular scenery of British Columbia.
In Victoria, Jean began to concentrate on the problems of manufacturing
instruments in larger quantities. Setting up shop for the first time in
space that was purchased rather than rented made it practical to install a
climate controlled construction room and an industrial paint booth. Jean
designed and built specialized machines and tooling which made it possible
to build more guitars, and to achieve a higher level of precision at the
same time. Within a year of the move, fourteen people were producing four
guitars a day.
While the company continued to grow and prosper in Victoria, eventually
the problems inherent in being on an island became too much. In 1982, a
decision was made to relocate to the mainland. It was the era of
electronic keyboards and day-glow electric guitars, and a tough time for
nearly all acoustic guitar builders. Rather than cut back on production
and lay off employees, Jean decided to take the "if you can't beat 'em,
join 'em" route. In 1983, he began to build solid body electrics.
While acoustic guitar production went on at reduced
levels, for the next six years, most of the energy went into electric
guitars. It proved to be a great challenge. Acoustic and electric guitars
are very different animals, and knowing how to make one is only limited help
in making the other. It was a learning experience. In the end, some twelve
thousand electrics were built, almost all sold in Canada and Europe.
By 1989, the market for acoustic guitars had begun to
improve. Jean once again turned his full attention to his first love. The
knowledge gained from electric guitars proved invaluable as Jean reinvented
his acoustic guitar production techniques. New tooling was built.
Computer-controlled milling machines were brought into the process. New
models were added.
In 1991, when the Acoustic market had made a full come
back, Larrivée moved to a bigger building. At first it seemed a little
difficult to fill 11000 square feet. (At the time only 25 guitars a day were
being made by 35 people) However, it soon became apparent that that 11000
square feet wasn't enough...
An the beginning of 1997, Larrivée introduced a model
called the D-03. It was originally intended to be a limited run of 1000 but,
as soon as people caught on to the fact that it was the only all solid wood
guitar for under $800, the demand increased and it became a standard model.
In early March 1998, Larrivée Guitars moved to a new
33000 square foot facility in the heart of Vancouver, where 100 highly
skilled people in the Guitar industry make 60 guitars a day. Many of our
people are respected guitar builders in their own right. A combination of
old world craftsmanship and modern high technology combine to produce
instruments prized around the world for their beauty, function, and lasting
Since the move, our company has continued to grow.
Reflecting this growth, and our continued deployment of leading-edge
production tools, we also acquired two new Fadal CNC machines in spring,
bringing our total CNC complement up to 6, as well as a Laser cutter. These
additions to our factory have allowed us to achieve even higher levels of
efficiency and quality control which benefit buyers and players of Larrivee