Best know for its fine acoustics, Canadian maker Larriv饠has a history of dipping in an and out of the electric game. Marcus Leadley checks out the latest offering
It’s my understanding that very few of the Larrivée electric guitars manufactured in the 1980s made it to England, so you may be unfamiliar with this company’s rock’n'roll pedigree. After all, for most of us, Larrivée is a brand that speaks of acoustic quality and finely toned sonics, not rip-it-up attitude.
Yet Jean Larrivée has always been a pragmatic businessman as well as a fine luthier, and his response to the evils of synth rock, pointy guitars and the branding of all things acoustic as ‘hippie’ in the early ’80s was to make… well, more pointy guitars. And he did it very well, delivering quality souped-up T-styles, Dinky-esque Floyd Rose-loaded rockers, Rhoadsy V-shaped guitars and Strat-tastic bolt-ons with banana headstocks. When the wind changed and acoustic music once more caught the imagination of the wider public at the end of the decade, the company was able to unbatten the hatches and fully focus on acoustic production again – and it’s been that way pretty well ever since. Well, almost.
About four years ago, possibly influenced by the high-profile success of a number of makers in wrestling part of the high-end action away from Gibson and Fender, Larrivée set out to add just one fine electric guitar to its catalogue. No holds barred; the best wood, hardware, pickups and components. And today’s RS-4 is the result – not to be confused with the more PRS-alike through-neck model of 1987 which carried the same name.
It’s hard not to be impressed when you first feast your eyes on the new Larrivée electric. The cherry sunburst – laid on top of what we’re told is the industry’s thickest carved flamed maple top – is immediately eye-catching. It’s a little bright for my personal taste and I’m surprised to learn of the company’s choice of a polyester finish given the high-end buyer’s fetish for all things ‘vintage’, including nitro-cellulose, but poly will certainly be more durable, and it shows up the grain of the beautiful South American mahogany of the body and set neck very well.
The Indian rosewood fingerboard is a peach, but I feel the abalone in the elaborate block markers adds one colour inflection (green) too many to an already vivid scenario. However, the simple paddle-shaped headstock adds a beautifully understated touch – even if the edging is sterling silver! To my eye the extra-deep single cut carve of the body delivers a strong resonance with acoustic styling rather than electric tradition… a nice touch considering its heritage.
Add master tone and volume controls, a three-way selector and a pair of humbuckers and someone in the crowd is bound to shout ‘Les Paul’ sooner or later. However, this guitar is not a clone for a couple of very specific reasons. Firstly, the scale length is the Fender-preferred 25.5" as opposed to Gibson‘s 24.75", so the feel is tighter and twangier. Secondly, no Gibson ever had a neck like this: it’s substantial, wide but not too deep, and the fingerboard radius is extremely flat. While not being entirely an ‘acoustic’ neck, some consideration of Larrivée‘s core market has definitely played a part in its formulation. As a committed electric player who’s been known to dabble with the acoustic, I can vouch for the fact that it feels great; really classy and immediately comfortable.
There is one oddity: at first I thought there was a small inlay missing above the last fret at the body end of the guitar. However, removing the black foam plug reveals a pinwheel-style truss rod adjuster! The point of access is arguably a tad brutal, if acceptable… but surely there’s a better way to cover it?
Returning to the bigger picture, it’s class all the way in terms of hardware: Schaller M6 tuners and Schaller strap locks, a high quality chrome stoptail and tune-o-matic bridge, and a Switchcraft switch and jack. The pickups are Jason Lollar Imperial humbuckers and Larrivée has gone to the trouble of selecting CTS pots, vintage shielded push-back cloth wire and even ’60s-style bumblebee paper-in-oil capacitors which at around $40 a set are totally steeped in vintage tone mojo. They’re made using NOS Russian military capacitors; you could probably get the guts for a fraction of the price if you know a man in St Petersburg, but they wouldn’t look the part.
With a pair of humbuckers, a three-way selector and a predominantly vintage tone circuit the RS-4 isn’t setting out to break new ground in terms of character. What it does do, quite impeccably, is deliver clearly defined, hi-fi renditions of sounds that are instantly familiar to the experienced player. At this level it all gets a bit like fine wine; what sets this guitar’s sound apart from that of an instrument costing a tenth of the price? At times it may seen subtle to the untrained ear, but try telling a master sommelier he can save a few bob with a visit to corner shop.
Despite the humbucker’s usual tendency to project the midrange rather forcefully, the bridge pickup tone is bright and chiming. The RS-4 performs beautifully for clean blues, country and jazz – though for the latter the warmth and overall richness of the neck pickup is more obviously suitable. Strangely the mid position using both pickups has less definition than either unit operating independently. It’s a good smooth chording voice, and great when layering parts in an arrangement. Also, the quality of the tone circuit means you can vary the voice by degree to good effect without losing the integrity of the individual note.
Turning up the juice brings on all the RS-4‘s mojo. This is not a polite instrument. The sound has a vintage-style authority while not being specifically old-school in a Gibson PAF sort of way. Yes, there’s a creamy richness to the driven character and the sustain is natural and extended, but the sound is still clear even when pushed really hard. It also works across a lot of genres: Lust For Life one minute, Summer Breeze the next. Whether you love classic Page, Ronson, Green or Kossoff, you can pull off a convincing guitar attack and still enjoy a tone that’s just a little bit different. The same goes for that crying tone when you back off the tone control all the way on the neck pickup and give it some welly. This Larrivée is a really good combination of new and old ideas, all tied up in one quality package.
If you already own a name-brand guitar of similar value and features, you may not need this Larriv饠RS-4. However, given the chance, I defy anyone not to want one. If you're more of an acoustic player the neck has similar spatial dynamics, so there's a familiarity factor you may like to consider. For humbucker fans it's a real alternative with a dollop of distinctive character, and it's an option you'd definitely want in the circle around you next time you're testing guitars to buy.