When Jean Larrivée told his family he wanted to give up his career as an auto mechanic and start making guitars, they were skeptical.
It was 50 years ago, and it seemed like an absurd idea to pass up a steady pay cheque for something so unusual.
“There were no guitar makers in this country at this time,” Larrivée told The Early Edition on Friday morning.
Now, looking back on a career that has seen his guitars played around the world — and even in outer space — that gamble has more than paid off. The former Vancouver resident is back in town this week to receive a lifetime achievement award for lutherie — the craft of making string instruments — at the Vancouver International Guitar Festival.
Larrivée still has the first guitar he made — built in 1967 — in Toronto under the German luthier Edgar Monch. Larrivé relocated to Vancouver a few years later.
“When I started 50 years ago as a hobby, the hobby part lasted about a month and then I got serious about it,” Larrivée said.
“You become addicted. You can’t get away from it.”
Now his two sons and wife all work for Larrivée Guitars, though Larrivée admitted the close work and home relationship does sometimes make them “want to strangle each other.”
Design is key
He’s made guitars from countless wood species over the years, from rosewood grown in the southern latitudes to Sitka spruce from the north. He used to roam the forests of Vancouver Island looking for the perfect wood, and still experiments with new samples he’s found on his travels abroad.
But he said design is still the most important aspect of building a guitar, and that’s something he’s figured out by trial and error.
“I didn’t look inside guitars — I kind of did it on my own,” he said. “I was able to develop something totally different, totally new.”
‘I wanted musicians to have the guitars’
Larrivée famously sent a guitar to the International Space Station, and Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield used it in his viral video covering “Space Oddity” by David Bowie.
Still, despite his astronomic success, Larrivée makes it his mission to keep his guitars affordable.
“I was a musician and never had any money. To be able to buy a $20,000 guitar or something, then the only people who end up with the guitars is the collectors. I wanted musicians to have the guitars,” he said.
Larrivée will be offering a master class at the guitar festival Saturday.