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Strings Attached

Artistry, craftsmanship and a family passion for quality are the ties that bind at Larrivée Guitars.

By Mike Nelson

Photo by T Christian Gapen

 

or all its attributes — climate, beaches, strawberries — Oxnard has never been known as Musicland USA.

So it would no doubt surprise many locals to step into a warehouse in the city’s industrial region and find themselves smack in the midst of one of the world’s most respected guitar manufacturers. And to find the company’s founder, owner and chief guitar-maker — a friendly, soft-spoken, ponytailed member of the septuagenarian set — hard at work, cutting and sanding and covered in sawdust, just as he was more than 50 years ago when he began this business.

That would be Jean Larrivée, the Quebec-born mechanic-turned-luthier (a.k.a stringed instrument maker) whose Larrivée Guitars have been played by recording artists Peter Yarrow, Brad Paisley, Michelle Wright, Bruce Cockburn, Kelsea Ballerini and more. A Larrivée acoustic was even played aboard the International Space Station in 2013 by astronaut Chris Hadfield in his rendition of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity.”

But neither worldwide nor out-of-this-world fame has ever been the motivating factor for Jean Larrivée, whose graying hair belies his eternally youthful love and passion for his art.

“I never wanted to build or sell the most guitars,” he says with a quiet smile. “Only the best.”

Such passion drives Jean on a never-ending worldwide search for forests — in Canada, Europe, India, the South Pacific, South America, you name it — for the best wood to use in making, in his words, “high-end guitars at an affordable price. That has always been our mission.”

It’s a mission that involves family. Jean’s wife, Wendy, one of the first designers of intricate inlays for Larrivée guitars, is still active in the company, as are sons John Jr. and Matthew, who bring a combination of gifts — musical artistry, business sense, technical expertise — to the enterprise as general managers.

“We’re all very passionate about what we do,” says John Jr. “I grew up as a musician, playing drums and guitar; my brother is a tech junkie who grew up in the computer age; and Mom is an artist who loves inlays and engraving. We can express ourselves any way we want, and together it lends itself to the success of our company.”

From Canada to California

Fittingly, it was a family enterprise that fueled Jean’s own passion and, ultimately, his life’s work.

That was in the 1960s, when young Jean — enamored of classical guitar amidst a burgeoning folk-rock music scene — saw a performance in Toronto by noted guitarist Edgar Munch Jr. and met the performer’s father, renowned German luthier Edgar Munch Sr. So impressed was the elder Munch by Larrivée’s interest in classical guitar making that he took young Jean on as an apprentice.

Working in a basement, Larrivée made steel-string guitars and developed a unique “X-bracing” system that became the key to the signature Larrivée tone — a technique still used by leading guitar makers around the world.

Within a short time Larrivée recruited a host of artists who helped design his guitars, among them Wendy Jones, who created many of the intricate inlays on Larrivée guitars (and, not incidentally, became Jean’s wife).

In 1977, with Yarrow and Cockburn leading a parade of artists from the U.S. and Canada who were turned on to Larrivée guitars, the company moved to Victoria and later Vancouver for better access to Sitka spruce, which was, and remains, a primary component in Larrivée guitars. As he scoured the forests of Vancouver Island for the most suitable wood, Jean also developed new machinery and tools to produce better-sounding instruments.

But in the early 1980s, the acoustic market was slammed by the influx of electronic keyboards and guitars as flashy heavy metal and “computer” rock began to flourish. Undeterred, Jean simply adapted, building high-end electric guitars for his and other companies (including Kramer, Schon and Signature).

The MTV/Eric Clapton-led “Unplugged” movement in the early 1990s led to a resurgence of acoustic guitars, and Larrivée stepped up production as Jean expanded his search for the best wood overseas. That led to production of the first made-in-North America, all-solid-wood, high-end guitar for under $800, the D-03, which became the workhorse for the Larrivée company and players alike.

In September 2001, desiring to be closer to the firm’s growing number of U.S. customers, Larrivée opened a production facility in southeast Oxnard that made Larrivée glossy guitars, while satin-finish guitars continued to be made in Canada. Jean and younger son Matthew headed California operations, and elder son John Jr. managed the Canadian facility. Sales flourished — until the worldwide economic downturn of 2008.

By 2013, it became necessary for Larrivée to close its Vancouver plant and move everything to Oxnard. “And that was painful,” admits John, “given our ties to Canada. Those will always be meaningful to us — but we are also proud to be in California.”

Family ties

Now firmly ensconced in Oxnard, Larrivée continues to produce high-end acoustic guitars that are repeatedly well-received. Marketing those guitars via the Internet, however, and in fewer stores where buyers can see, touch and hear them played, presents challenges.

“It’s not like pre-2008,” John Jr. notes. “You have fewer brick-and-mortar music stores who are not carrying as much inventory; buyers are not buying on credit; the middle class is declining; Asian companies are pounding the market with cheaper copies; and younger kids want to play video games instead of becoming rock stars” — he laughs — “like I once did.”

On the other hand, Guitar World Magazine recently reported that the acoustic and electric guitar manufacturing industry has experienced “solid, sustained growth” over the last five years. And the National Association of Music Merchants says guitar sales have risen 28 percent over the last 10 years.

“We’ve seen the market soften before and then come back,” John Jr. says. “It always will, as long as there is desire for music and great guitars. And we are coming around the next corner.”

It helps, he adds, to be “a smaller, family-run operation that doesn’t answer to corporate shareholders, so we can adapt pretty quickly to changes and needs in the market.”

Today, Larrivée produces between 2,000 and 3,000 acoustic guitars a year from its climate-controlled, 12,000-square-foot headquarters. All instruments are handcrafted from wood that either the founder himself or his eldest son has personally inspected.

“All of our guitars are solid wood — no laminates, no layered woods, no plys,” says John Jr. “We’ll use spruce and maple from Canada, walnut and maple from the U.S., ebony and mahogany from Africa, rosewood and silver oak from India, koa from Hawaii, and more.”

And Jean will go through 10,000 sets of one variety to find the best 1,000, or the best 100, or the best 10 — an awful lot of work for a few guitars, but essential.

“If your name is on that guitar, you’re gonna pay attention to it,” he says firmly. “When you buy a Larrivée guitar, you’re buying a legacy, built by a family, not just individual workers. And my whole family is involved in construction of each guitar in one form or another.”

Even his pre-teen grandson, he smiles, likes to drive the forklift truck, which means another generation of Larrivées is becoming involved.

“Larrivées will always have their hands on the guitars,” says Jean. “We’re not office people. We’re people that work with our hands directly on the guitar. One day you’re the CEO, the next day you’re sanding bodies. That’s what a real family business is, and it is a great feeling to know my children will take over and produce guitars for generations to come.”

Not that he will ever retire.

“I’m still in very good condition,” he says with a big smile. “I don’t sit in my office. I walk up and down the shop 100 times a day, and if someone needs this cut or that sanded, that’s what I do. Now when I get to be 80, I’m probably not gonna want to be behind a bandsaw cutting wood. But as long as I can contribute, I will be here.”

Because no matter what happens in the world, says Jean, “There will always be music. And if it’s not from the guitar as we know it today, it will be a new design that maybe we will come up with. But the guitar will never go away. I wouldn’t spend a lifetime working, designing, perfecting them the best I can, and involving my entire family, if it was something I thought would no longer be with us. The popularity of the guitar has had its ups and downs — but it always comes back.”

Larrivée Guitars can be found locally at Guitar 48 (www.guitar48.com) in downtown Ventura. For more information, visit www.larrivee.com.

THREE OF A KIND: Jean Larrivée (center) with his sons, John Jr. (left) and Matthew together maintain the Larrivée reputation for exceptional instruments of incomparable sound and
long-lasting quality.

Wood is sourced from all over the world, but Larrivée guitars are made exclusively in the Oxnard factory, and much of the construction process is still carried out by hand. A set of nearly finished guitars await their finishing touches — strings and tuners — before being prepared for shipment.

Lilly Hernandez finishes sanding a guitar body.

THE ART OF SOUND: Larrivée celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2017 with a limited-edition anniversary model of the LV-10. Made from Indian rosewood, European alpine, mahogany and ebony woods, it featured an elaborate inlay that consisted of an intricate 50th Anniversary design and the “Impossible” Knot on the fingerboard.

 
One of the things that sets Larrivée guitars apart is their handcrafted quality, which has earned the brand the respect of musicians such as Peter Yarrow (of Peter, Paul and Mary fame), Grammy-nominated country star Kelsea Ballerini and Jeff Douglas of the Oak Ridge Boys. For folk singer Willie Watson, a deep appreciation for Larrivée has led to a creative collaboration with the renowned luthier.

The founding member of the Old Crow Medicine Show got his first Larrivée in 2001: an acoustic OM-03 that he got in 2001 and played extensively.

“Old Crow Medicine Show had a habit of driving over instrument cases,” Watson says with a chuckle. During a 2005 tour, the van backed up on his OM-03, and he found himself on the road with no guitar. He went shopping at a small guitar store in Nashville, where he came across the OM-01. It was a spare thing: no binding, no trim, no inlays, not even any fret markers.

But the sound quality belied its simplicity.

“I loved it,” Watson recalls. “It’s loud but has more of a clarity to the lower notes. Old-time music tends to have base runs on the lower notes, and [the OM-01] gives a dry, punchy, clear sound. It makes a very balanced and even sound. It’s able to give those base runs a character all their own. It sounds close to those old recordings.”

John Larrivée Jr., the founder’s son, is a fan of Watson’s music, and reached out to him a few years ago about a potential collaboration. The singer/songwriter was excited to take part.

“It’s a well-known guitar company, for sure,” he says. “Everything is made in smaller batches — that much more care goes into each guitar. They’re putting more love into each aspect of each guitar. They care about the wood they’re using. They’re just doing a fantastic job.”

The OM-01 went out of production some years ago, but has come out of retirement, so to speak, as the recently released, limited-edition Willie Watson Signature Reissue. The series features African Khaya mahogany back, sides and neck, and a top made from Sitka spruce sourced from British Columbia. The body and fingerboard binding are Eastern maple, with an African ebony fingerboard and bridge.

Only 18 will be available for purchase, and each will come with Larrivée-branded leather items — a strap, a field notebook and a small accessory bag — precision handmade by Koch Leather. Also included will be CDs of Watson’s critically-acclaimed "Folk Singer Vol. 1" and "Vol. 2." albums, a signed poster and a certificate of authenticity.

Watson played every OM-01 reissue before selecting one for himself and is impressed by the series’ exceptional tone and construction. He’s looking forward to debuting it onstage. But he admits that his original OM-01 will always “be the one that I pick up first.”

“A guitar gets better with age,” Watson says. “The more the wood ages and the more you play it, the better it sounds.”

For information on price and availability of the OM-01 Willie Watson Signature Reissue, visit www.williewatson.com.

10-01-2018

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