The History of Jean Larrivee Guitars
Jean Larrivee 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 life's work.
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 45â€ 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 90â€ 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
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 Larrivee
symmetrical bracing, these types of problems are virtually non-existent.
From 1971 to 1977, Larrivee 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 Larrivee
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.
Larrivee 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 Larrivee 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
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,
Larrivee 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, Larrivee 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 $1000, the demand increased and it soon became a standard model.
In early March 1998, Larrivee Guitars moved to a new 33000 square foot facility in the heart of Vancouver, where 100 highly
skilled people in the Guitar industry made 60-72 guitars a day. Much of this production was to accommodate our largest client at the time. On
September 1st 2001 Larrivee expanded again, and opened the door on it's new factory in southern California. Ten days later the events of 9/11 occurred. As you can imagine this was not a time for companies to be expanding. The following two years were quite turbulent for the guitar industry as a whole. People where not spending money on acoustic guitars. Almost every major manufacturer was having layoffs - Including ourselves. Production dropped to 35 guitars a day. Over the next two years, Larrivee would go through of number of production changes including: a refocus towards high-end guitar, A redesign of the 03 Series, and the development of the Traditional Series.
Today Jean, his wife Wendy, his son Matthew and daughter Christine all work in the California plant producing the gloss finish guitars. Jean's
other son John Jr. runs the Vancouver plant in Canada which produces all the Larrivee satin finish models.
Since the move, the company has continued to grow. Reflecting this growth, and the continued deployment of leading-edge production tools,
Larrivee also acquired two new Fadal CNC machines in spring, bringing their total CNC complement up to 8, as well as a Laser cutter. These
additions to the factory have allowed Larrivee Guitars to achieve even higher levels of efficiency and quality control which benefit buyers and players of Larrivee guitars.