The Industry Interview: Why Jean Larrivée has no plans to retire any time soon
The 76-year-old and his son John Jr discuss the past, present and future of Larrivée Guitars.
Although Larrivée’s acoustic guitars may not be quite as well known in the UK as those from the likes of Martin and Taylor, among experienced players Larrivée is widely regarded as inhabiting a similarly professional class, and possessing a sound that is distinctly its own. Why the company hasn’t achieved similar recognition on this side of the pond has mostly been due to relatively limited production numbers coupled with low-key marketing in the past – a situation which has recently begun to change following the appointment of a new UK distributor.
This is just one reason why an interview with Jean Larrivée is timely; we are already starting to see more of his guitars in the better UK shops. Another is that while he may not be the best known North American luthier, Jean Larrivée, who has been making instruments for over 50 years, is unquestionably one of the most respected. And, among his peers, Larrivée is reckoned to have an unparalleled knowledge of tonewoods and advanced manufacturing techniques.
Jean Larrivée’s career as a guitar maker began in his native Canada in 1967, where he learned his trade from a recent German arrival in Toronto, Edgar Moench Sr. Moench’s speciality was classical guitar building in what Larrivée has described as the German tradition, and what he taught made a profound impression on the young Canadian, who was then in his early twenties.
“I didn’t actually work for him,” Jean explains. “He allowed me to build guitars in his shop and whenever he was doing something I would learn from that. I happened to be pretty good with my hands and I learned pretty quick. It was a great experience because he was very talented and a very interesting guitar builder and through him I met a lot of other people as well.
“He never actually made steel-strung guitars, though. I did, because even though I enjoyed making classical guitars, and in Toronto there was a big demand for them, I also enjoyed steel-strung guitars because I played them. So I decided to make a few and I was very successful at it with some very interesting people playing them like Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul & Mary, Bruce Cockburn, and many others that were about at the time.”
“People would come to Toronto for concerts and they knew about me somehow and would come to my shop”
The transition from learning how to do it, to actually making your living as a guitar maker is always fraught with financial risk. How did he manage it? “I don’t actually know how I got into that but somehow I did and at that point I was mostly selling direct to musicians. People would come to Toronto for concerts and they knew about me somehow and would come to my shop. I also sold guitars at the Toronto Folklore Centre. I wasn’t making a lot of guitars at the time but I was doing it full-time. Previously I’d worked for General Motors as a mechanic and one day I decided I couldn’t go on working for them all day then going home and making guitars till eleven o’clock at night, then next morning getting up and going to work – it was a little bit too much and I had a lot more love for building guitars than I did for fixing cars.”
Toronto’s then thriving folk scene and Larrivée’s growing reputation meant that he was soon established as a respected local manufacturer and at a time when there were relatively few guitar-makers around beyond the big names like Gibson, Martin and Guild. From the outset he always had an apprentice working with him: “I went through lots of them because I didn’t have any money to pay them” he laughs. He was following the traditional craftsman/apprentice relationship, passing on his skills to a succession of guitar makers among whom number renowned Canadian classical guitar maker Sergei de Jonge who, in turn, has passed on his skills to his daughter, Joshia de Jonge who also has also established a tremendous reputation for her instruments.
Jean takes great pride in having passed on the skills he learned to what is in effect a third generation from the Larrivée family to have become noted luthiers. “She makes great, great guitars and I’m very proud of her.” It’s no exaggeration to say that Jean Larrivée became, through his apprentices, a father figure to Canadian luthiers.
Moving with the times
Over the years, as his reputation grew, Larrivée expanded the business, moving to Victoria in British Columbia in 1977, then to Vancouver in 1982. With an eye on his major potential market over the border in the USA, in 2001 he opened a plant in Oxnard, California, eventually moving there himself, taking US citizenship and finally closing the Vancouver plant in 2013, largely in response to the 2008 international economic crisis, since when all Larrivée guitars have been made in the USA. While still in Canada, the business was no small operation – occupying a facility which Jean estimates must have been about 30,000 square feet and making from 50 to 70 guitars per day. “In some periods we did more but it depends on the models we were making. High-end guitars with inlays meant smaller numbers but the numbers went up when we were making simpler guitars. At one time we had 185 employees.”
“In the end we came to the conclusion that making a lot of guitars was not the answer”
In the early 1980s, following the introduction of affordable and versatile synthesisers, sales of both electric and acoustic guitars plummeted, threatening even some of the long-established US brands. Larrivée responded by making solidbody electrics for other companies (among them the then high-fliers, Kramer) and even offering pointy-headstocked solidbody guitars complete with the obligatory Kahler vibrato system and eventually producing some 13,000 of them before returning to acoustic production as sales of the latter began to increase again following Eric Clapton‘s epoch-making MTV Unplugged session.
“In the end we came to the conclusion that making a lot of guitars was not the answer,” Jean says, reflecting on his years trying to cope with the demands of high volume production “Currently we are making 12 or 15 guitars a day and demand is increasing, so we are going to have to increase production. We employ about 25 people but it is growing and that is very difficult because you have to train people and then you’ve got the raw materials factor.” It’s clear there will be no return to the days of numbering his staff in the hundreds.
What he describes as the raw materials factor is one of the keys to Larrivée’s success and reputation. His knowledge of tonewoods has been enhanced by a passionate interest and a wanderlust which has seen him travel the world in search of the raw materials of his craft. Larrivée guitars are only ever made of solid wood and he insists on sourcing as much of it personally as he can, which entails frequent trips to Europe to personally select the woods he needs.
“That’s a real problem now,” he says ruefully. “Since January and the restrictions caused by pandemic I haven’t been able to go anywhere. I can’t even go to Canada. Fortunately, I know a lot of people I can trust so we can get raw materials but I do prefer to go over there and select them myself when I can. Also it gets me away from here and I don’t have to work,” he laughs.
It may seem contradictory that Larrivée, which is famed for its founder’s obsession with tonewoods, is also widely known for its early adoption of automated production equipment but it isn’t as strange as it may seem, because the company uses machines to do the donkey work and keep the price under control. Back in Canada it was an early adopter of CNC machinery as well as laser engraving equipment needed to produce the company’s exquisite and complex inlays, mostly designed by Jean’s wife, Wendy. But did the relatively reduced numbers he is making today mean that he had stopped using so much automation?
“Oh, no – on the contrary, we’re buying new machinery on a daily basis almost. Without the CNC machines we couldn’t do what we’re doing; it would be impossible. Even in Vancouver we had a lot of CNC machines. Carving necks will burn somebody out in a week, but you put it in a machine, push a button, it takes all the raw material off and then you can finish it. Also there’s the competition factor. The Chinese are highly mechanised now, I know because I go to China fairly often and I would go there and they would have up to 15 CNC machines in a factory. They didn’t always know how to use them but they had them.”
Despite Jean’s frequent trips to Asia, he is adamant that he will never have his guitars made outside of North America. “I haven’t and I wouldn’t – unlike some of my friends who have gone to Mexico or China. I’ve been to China maybe 20 times but it was for my own personal interest, not to go there and build guitars. It’s not me. We’re really proud of the fact that we’re only made in America and that’s good for us and our business because people like to buy American products and all we buy from outside the country are tuners, bone nuts and saddles.
“we’re buying new machinery on a daily basis almost. Without the CNC machines we couldn’t do what we’re doing”
“Of course, some of our woods come from overseas, and I have one of the largest collections of rosewood and a lot of moonwood – spruce that comes from Austria where it grows at high altitudes. That’s one of the reasons I go to Europe so much. I go to Austria four times a year. I go to the mill and spend the entire day going through the woods. They know what I want and they pick out the good stuff. It’s the same with rosewood or ebony. For ebony I go to Spain twice a year and when I go there I might go through 20,000 fingerboards in order to get 5,000. It’s African ebony that’s cut in Africa and then shipped on pallets. When it arrives they have to go through it themselves to grade it, so when I go there they have a stack of wood that’s already selected for my consumption and then I go through sometimes 10,000 or 20,000 to get what I need. I like doing it.”
Does Larrivée’s obsession with the finest wood run up against the scarcity and ecological obstacles that seem to become more pressing every year? “I’m using other different woods, but with wood in general I don’t find availability a problem most of the time. I use everything, all kinds of wood, but I am buying in small quantities, except for rosewood, which we did have so many problems with over the CITES restrictions. At one point it meant we had to drive 80 or 90 miles to Los Angeles to visit the Fish & Wildlife people at the airport to show them a guitar, get given some paper and then we were clear to go. That was a pain in the butt. Then people stopped buying rosewood and we slowed down with it too and began buying wood you didn’t need to clear for CITES, like mahogany.
“For about two years we made a lot of mahogany guitars. That actually affected the business, because mahogany is more for lower end guitars – you’re not going to make a fancy guitar out of mahogany, so that has an effect on the money you can make. When the CITES situation finally eased, we already had a huge amount of rosewood that we hadn’t been able to use – some of it I’d had for 25 years – maybe one and half thousand sets of rosewood that I hadn’t been able to use, so we were in a good position.
“As for using alternative woods, I know what makes a good sound so I know the woods we can use. For example, there’s a wood in India called silver oak, though it’s not actually an oak. It’s one of the best woods for sound. We also use a lot of Sitka spruce and we have some of the best suppliers in Canada who get us super-high-grade Sitka spruce that only we can get. We get different woods to other people – for example we use wider grain than others because it gives a better sound. And then there’s the moonwood I mentioned earlier, which is European wood from Austria. It’s all about altitude. To get relatively big logs at high altitudes is a little bit complex and the big problem there is availability as the laws there are very difficult. I’m fortunate to have the supplier as a friend.”
What are his views about the trend among some the smaller makers, some of whom are looking at using native woods rather than imported exotic types? “You have to look at it commercially,” he says. “We use a lot of different woods, even for acoustic guitars, where we’ve used are European walnut and Romanian maple, when you can get it, while for electric guitars we use swamp ash, in which case we’re able to get very high quality swamp ash. We’ll use anything but commercially it’s not always acceptable. It works for some people – you’ll find a shop that has 20 rosewood guitars on the wall and then they’ll want something different, but most people want the woods they know, which means mostly mahogany and rosewood for a $4-5,000 guitar. They want what they believe they can trust.”
Back on the subject the guitars themselves, the one thing that players seem to comment on most about Larrivées is their distinctive sound. Much of this stems from unseen factors, including the particular attention paid to the inside of the guitars. There is also a choice of bracing patterns – the company’s Contemporary series features Jean Larrivée’s take on X bracing while the Traditional range comes with what Larrivée calls ‘scalloped hybrid bracing’.
“We don’t use anything that’s traditional for steel strung guitars and I guess that comes from my classical upbringing,” Jean says. “I wanted to make everything myself and it’s nothing like, for example, Martin. We didn’t copy anyone and we eventually came up with some very interesting ideas that contribute to the sound – like our design of bridge plate, as well as the bracing pattern we use. We’re getting a sound that nobody else is getting. I think it’s a really well-balanced sound. I’m not knocking them at all but it’s quite unlike a Martin, say, which gives a Bluegrass sound, which is fine and is what their customers want, they like that big sound. Ours is different and you can hear it.
“there’s a wood in India called silver oak, though it’s not actually an oak. It’s one of the best woods for sound”
“I don’t hide anything though. People come into the shop and they’re free to wander round and see what we do but in order to duplicate what we do is not so simple. The techniques that we have are quite complicated – some are old and some are new but it’s not like the average guitar company and I’ve been to almost every guitar company in the world. I see them and I take hundreds and hundreds of pictures so that I see what they do but I don’t feel the need to duplicate it. I have a very close relationship with all the other guitars makers and we all share ideas. If I go to see Taylor and they have a secret they’ll show me it and vice versa – the same with Martin and Santa Cruz – we’re all very open with each other and there’s no reason not to be. I think it’s stupid to hide things.”
At 76 you might suppose that retirement is in Jean Larrivée’s mind but you’d be wrong. “I’m not even thinking of retiring. What would I do? Last Thanksgiving we had a four-day holiday and I came to work. Why not? It was boring otherwise. I live across the street from a golf course but I don’t play golf – what would I do? I love what I do. I run the CNC machines, I’ll cut braces at the same time – it’s what I do. I don’t know for how long, until something happens to me I guess, but I’m in pretty good shape for an old guy.”
With his sons, Matt and John, working in the business with him, Jean Larrivée’s determination to carry on, despite being in his mid-seventies means he doesn’t have to shoulder the entire burden of running a modern guitar manufacturing business alone. Matt, who is ten years younger than John, has specialised in the production side of the business, while John (known as John Jr) who has been with the company since 1986, has a wider brief.
“As kids, my brother and I were going in on weekends and tinkering around, learning how to use tools and then eventually power tools and eventually machinery,” says John Jr. “By the time I was in 11th grade I started working summers, so was on the payroll making my $4 an hour or whatever it was then. Eventually I was working full-time. I was doing things like cutting inlays on the pantograph, doing some kerfing, binding fingerboards, really just guitar making. Eventually I started using more and more machinery and gaining skills and eventually I became the neck carver and after that the final fitter, which are two of the most difficult jobs which take a lot of skill and a lot of years to master.”
John still lives in Vancouver, courtesy of the famously awkward US immigration department. “I went into a managerial roll in the late 1990s when we were expanding and had a lot of staff which meant we needed supervisors, and I was supervisor of a division. Then in 2001 when the company split and went down to California, I stayed in Vancouver and my father put me in the role of general manager for Canada, which I did from early 2000 till we closed Vancouver in 2013. then, as we’d merged everything in California, my wife and I went to the border with all our paperwork and – well, it’s hit and miss who you get at the border and the guy I got had a problem with me entering the US to work, you know, taking jobs away from American workers. So, even though it was all legitimate, my parents were US citizens by then, we had a company down there employing people and we were putting into the American economy and I’m Jean Larrivée’s eldest son, that wasn’t enough for him to let me in.”
Stuck in Canada, John, more used to working flat-out in the factory, looked for something to do and began by building the company a new website. Having done that, his next task was to turn himself into a photographer. The company needed high-quality pictures of its guitars so in true Larrivée’s style, John set about learning how to do it. “Shooting 200 guitars is no small feat,” he says. “First I had to learn how to shoot guitars and then I had to learn how to use Photoshop and Lightroom, so that took up a lot of my time.
“Once I got to that point we decided we needed to build an online store, so I created that and an apparel line, so that’s where I’m at now, marketing and dealing with the kind of stuff where there’s no job description, filling in the cracks, dealing with day-to-day problems, special customer stuff, artist relations – a lot of that I’m able to do from home. Eventually, we’d got the visas sorted out so now I can travel and up until COVID came along, I would spend about seven to 10 days a month down at the factory, helping run things, design things, step in for final neck fitting and so on.
“As for the future, the industry has been waiting for a resurgence in the acoustic world for quite a while. We saw it back in the 80s with Unplugged which triggered a boom that lasted for some time and another around 2000 and now I think we’re into another one due to COVID. People are at home spending a lot more time playing and getting better at it and other people are picking up guitars for the first time and learning to play. Hopefully we’re going to see a whole new explosion of musical talent coming out of all this and that will drive the industry even more.”
How would they respond if demand greatly increased? “We’ve discussed this as a family several times and we’ve come to the conclusion that we don’t want to really increase production. We went through periods where we were building over 60 a day 20 years ago and now we’ve found a good comfort zone of about 48 guitars and that’s where we’re comfortable. As soon as you start increasing production a lot of focus goes – it’s hard to explain. We’re a family of guitar-makers and a lot of other businesses aren’t really family companies any more – they’re large corporations and that’s different. We’re a family business with my mother my father, my brother and myself and our factory is like our second home.”
Another advantage of being a medium-sized company he feels (and one with not only a full order book but a lengthy waiting list) is that when something like the 2008 financial crisis or the pandemic comes along, it is far easier to handle than if you are, at one extreme, a single luthier relying on selling a small number of very expensive guitars, or an industrial giant, needing to sell thousands of instruments to stay afloat.
Which isn’t to say that the acoustic guitar world is a steady one in which nothing ever changes. As John says, there are definite shifts over time. “Maybe about three years ago all of a sudden parlour sales were going through the roof and I think maybe it was because a lot of people were looking for a second guitar – who knows? For a while something like one in every six or seven guitars was parlour-sized. The latest trend we’ve seen is for 12-fret guitars and to a lesser extent short-scale models and I think a lot of that could be because people are getting into fingerstyle. I’m not saying it’s a major trend but I am seeing it – shifting the neck down, moving the bridge down the belly gets a new kind of tone. It’s a little louder, a little punchier, more articulated and very percussive, which is great for fingerstyle.”
Speaking of trends, what is Larrivée’s take on torrefecation – the heat ageing process that began with bespoke manufacturers then spread down through the acoustic market to the point that even some mass-produced acoustics were being offered with heat-treated woods, claimed to give a brand new guitar a played-in tone. Torrefaction isn’t something they have really explored, John says. Instead they have an even more esoteric secret weapon – moonwood, as Jean Larrivée mentioned earlier.
“Moonwood is European, high Alpine spruce, harvested under certain conditions where the earth’s rotation means there’s no stress on the wood. Is that a real thing? I think so. There have been enough people over hundreds of years who have been convinced that it makers a difference. It’s something my father picked up on and people love it. Personally, I can hear the difference if you compare a Sitka spruce top and a European Alpine spruce top you can see the difference visually.
“The European is a lot lighter, more even on colour. Sitka spruce is a little bit darker in colour. Tonewise, the moonwood is a little bit stiffer and you can get a little more tonal articulation from it. It’s a little more percussive, it’s crisper and it’s a nice wood to pair with things like Madagascar rosewood or Malaysian ebony. I find them very complimentary and they make very interesting sound boxes.”
It would be easy to be cynical about the mysteries of moonwood, but the fact is that it was the spruce of choice for violin-makers for centuries and, for all that the rules concerning its planting and harvesting (mostly to do with phases of the moon – hence the name) sound a little like Biodynamics (the Rudolph Steiner invented growing system sometimes regarded as a bit out-there, even for organic farmers) there is scientific evidence to suggest that moonwood’s qualities are very real and that the violin-makers were onto something. Once again, Jean Larrivée’s connections give him access to supplies of this rare and scarce tonewood.
The presence of more Larrivée guitars on shop walls in the UK brings welcome diversity to the professiona; end of the acoustic guitar market, finally bringing the recognition of Jean and his family’s achievements closer to the esteem in which they are held in North America and in other European countries. Long may it continue.
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