History of Larrivee Electric Guitars And Basses
In 1982, Jean Larrivee closed his shop in Victoria,BC and moved his operation to North Vancouver. Acoustic guitar sales were at low ebb industry-wide, and Jean was faced with some decisions. He could have laid off his staff and continued by himself, or with a very small staff, continued producing only acoustic guitars. With almost 20 years worth of equipment, he could have made a very good living. The market was soft, but not dead and Jean had distributors who could have absorbed what he could have produced with a small operation. However, he had "been there, done that", and he was not interested in covering old ground. The market for electric guitars was healthy, and for the first time in years, companies other than Gibson and Fender were having some success in the high quality, high end of the market.
Jean was intrigued by the challenge of learning to manufacture electric guitars. He had a excellent dealer and distributor base from acoustic guitars, good woodworking equipment, and knew a lot about guitars. He also knew a lot of musicians who were willing to help steer him in the right direction. He decided to go for it.
The very first Larrivee Electric was made in Victoria, BC in 1982 and was a double cutaway â€œStratâ€ like guitar. When the shop moved in 1983, production began almost immediately. The first electrics were bolt-on necks.
The electric guitars underwent many changes over the seven years that we produced them. There are two main branches to the model tree: bolt-on necks and neck-thru-bodies. Bolt-on neck guitars had model names beginning with "L" (for Larrivee) and neck-thru-body designs had names beginning with "R" (for a reason that seemed logical at the time, but which no one still here can remember). Numbers were used to designate pickup configuration, as follows:
1 - Single humbucker in bridge position
2 - Double humbuckers
3 - Three single coils
4 - Two single coils plus a humbucker in the bridge position
Thus, an LS-3 was a bolt on neck design with 3 single coil pickups. An RS-2 would be a neck-thru-body design with 2 humbuckers. Body designs were not copies, exactly, but they were certainly derivative. The "S" in LS-3 stood for Strat* derived body (Larrivee Strat*-style -3 pickup), while an LT-2 would have been a Tele* derived body. Basses were called LB-2 and RB-2. Most had a Jazz Bass* type pickup in the bridge position and a P-Bass* style in the neck position.
It should be noted the the current model RS-4 does not follow this naming path and that we have started over from scratch with names.
While the LS-, LT-, and RS- guitars, and the LB-2 and RB-2 basses, accounted for the bulk of electric production, there were other models as well. The middle period of electric production coincided with a brief return to fashion of wild body shapes. Flying V designs and Randy Rhodes style guitars were in style, and so we made some. It was also the time Eddie Van Halen burst onto the scene with his guitar painted with crossed lines. Suddenly graphics were hot, and so we created those too. It was liberating in a way. With acoustic guitars we had strong opinions â€“ prejudices if you prefer - about design and aesthetics. There was a right way to do things and if the market didn't like it, the market needed educating. We didn't have the same emotional investment with solid bodies. Whatever the market wanted we were more than happy to build.
Graphics? You got it. Absurd body designs? No problem. Kahler Tremelos with locking nuts? Sure. Oh, now they have to be Floyd Rose trems? We can do that, too. Banana headstocks? Day-Glo finishes? Why not.
While we cared a lot about building quality instruments, doing good woodworking, and installing quality hardware, we really didn't care whether the guitars looked conservative or 21st century, Rolls-Royce* or Corvette*.
The final stage in the evolution of Larrivee electrics before the electric market dried up was the carved top series. These were very beautiful, very functional guitars, proof that we had learned a lot of lessons. They were RS-4's, neck-thru-body guitars with highly figured carved maple tops. Because one of the other companies was claiming trademark on the banana style headstock, and because the fashion wheel was turning away from that look anyway, we abandoned it for a three-on-a-side set up. The carved tops were offered in several translucent colors, as well as sunburst. They had Larrivee pickups, which by then had evolved into a very good product, and either hard tails or Floyd Rose* licensed locking tremolo systems.
Though made in 1987, the original RS-2 and RS-4 designs are actually pretty close in design to the modern PRS guitars of today. The neck thru bodies made during the late 80s with the carve tops are the most valuable use Larrivee Electrics.
Most basses came stock with EMG active pickups. They were the hottest bass pickup on the market at the time, and they were licensed to only a few manufacturers and we felt very fortunate to be one of them. The early six strings also had EMG pickups.
Later Jean built a pickup winding machine (From scratch) and produced his own pickups. Including magnetizing his own magnets! Once the Larrivee pickup was available, it became the stock pickup for six strings, while the EMGs were offered as an extra cost option.
There was quite a bit of competition among pickup manufacturers in those days. Replacement pickups were big business and there were quite a few companies fighting for their share of the pie. Some of them are still in business today. We received many samples from companies trying to get our OEM business (OEM stands for "Original Equipment Manufacture". It's a shorthand way of saying what comes stock on an instrument.) Those pickups were usually tried on guitars, and if they had acceptable performance, the test guitars were sold with them installed. So you could find a Larrivée electric with pickups other than Larrivee or EMG. It wouldn't necessarily mean the pickups had been replaced. We shipped a fair number of basses with pickups from Bill Bartolini. His pickups were great, but they were hard to get, and they had so many wiring possibilities you didn't quite know what to do with them.
Many people have asked what woods their Larrivée electric are made from. The answers are short and simple.
All bolt-on necks were made of a single piece of eastern maple.
All fingerboards were ebony.
Bodies for bolt-on necks were alder
Body wings for neck-thrus were alder
The core of the neck-thru designs were laminated eastern maple.
Other Brand Names
Larrivee guitars produced some solid body instruments with brand names other than Larrivee. Schon Guitars and Signature Guitars were produced under contract to other companies, as were some Kramer guitars. Scorpion Guitars was an in-house brand. A few prototypes were built for Robin Guitars and Tobias basses, but those never went into production.
Schon Guitars - Neil Schon, the great electric guitar player from the band Journey, had a dream to market his own line of guitars. He wanted to design the guitars, and have his people control marketing and distribution, but he was smart enough to not want to manufacture them. Originally he approached Jackson Guitars, and they produced the first Schons. For whatever reason the business relationship didn't work out, and Neil approached Jean Larrivee and asked him to build the guitars. Jean had already gone through the worst of a steep learning curve and was feeling confident of his ability to build the guitars. Sales of Larrivee electrics had been good in Canada and in Europe, but had never really got off the ground in the US. Jean felt the association with a famous and respected guitar player like Schon could only help his own credibility in the electric guitar world, so he agreed to take on the contract. Perhaps at some future time I'll collect more details on this production for this space. It was a few hundred instruments. The whole project was a little too far behind the curve. By the time it really got going the whole market was changing. Electric guitar sales were weakening for everybody. The project lost its reason to exist and just petered out.