Not all great values are old instru-ments. For you newcomers, in this column we focus on musi-cal gear that presents extraordinary “bang for the buck.” This month’s entree, the Larrivée D-03E, is available as a new instrument. What makes it so amazing is its tone, workmanship, and playability. A solid-top, handcrafted guitar with Fishman electronics for under $1,000 makes it a great value no matter where you find one.
Jean Larrivée (“Larrivée Guitars: Future Classics,” VG, June ’98) started making guitars in the late ’60s when he wanted a better quality classical guitar but couldn’t afford one. His early experiments eventually placed his stylish, intricate designs with guitarists like Bruce Cockburn and Neil Young. Pete Anderson, Dwight Yoakam’s sidekick/producer, appeared in a recent ad touting the Larrivée’s great tone. More on that later…
I had another guitarist sub for me at my restaurant gig a couple of years ago. He played a regular Larrivée D-03, Jean’s take on a Martin D-18. What blew me away was the clear tone and volume of his D-03. Unlike my rig, he used no wireless; the guitar could still be easily heard. I made a mental note about Larrivée for the next time I went guitar shopping. The D-03E is the same guitar with the addition of a Fishman Prefix Plus pickup/preamp system. I needed a pickup, since we use wireless on my guitar and voice to enable diners in various rooms throughout the house to hear me. This option costs $150, but it’s worth it.
Larrivée uses the best materials, including ebony fretboards and bridges. Fretwork is excellent and the truss rod design is unusual, resembling a cross between a coat hanger and a question mark. It allows access to the truss rod, located inside the body near where it joins the neck. Larrivée guitars feature a hand-fitted dovetail neck joint that promotes better sustain in the upper registers as well as greater strength where it matters. The guitar is solid wood, with mahogany neck (14 frets clear) and body finished in a subtle-but-tough satin finish. Larrivée even has a clear satin-finish pickguard visible only from certain angles.
The Fishman Prefix Plus deserves special attention. Built into the side of the upper bout, the Prefix Plus includes variable notch filter and volume knobs, shelving Bass and Treble, semi-parametric Contour and Brilliance controls with slider pots. A phase-reversal switch and low battery indicator are included and the whole affair terminates in a standard 1/4″ end-pin jack. The top end of this system is amazing – even through mediocre speakers, this guitar has excellent presence and sparkle. Coupled with a fine set of speakers and amplification, this system has few peers in the acoustic electric realm. One word of caution – the battery drain is faster than on other systems. Be sure to carry a spare.
Sound is the only reason to spend large amounts of cash on a guitar, and the D-03E has great tone. Jean Larrivée’s modified X bracing makes this guitar clean, clear, and balanced – three adjectives not often associated with a dreadnought-sized flat-top. The solid wood construction make this a guitar that sounds good in the store and improves over time. Whether flatpicking, strumming hard, or fingerpicking, the D-03E sounds excellent and balanced on a variety of material. I play rock, pop, jazz, country, blues, and even classical pieces on my Larrivée and it does a fine job on all of it.
Recording this guitar does deserve special mention. Like Anderson says, “…the tape likes this guitar.” Recording with either an SM-57, an Audio Technica AT-813 condenser, or straight into the board of my Sony MDM-X4, this guitar sounds wonderful. I’d like to have the chance to hear it on a 24-bit digital workstation with a world-class condenser mic. I suspect bracing is the major factor, but none of the Larrivée’s I’ve played sound unbalanced. Unlike a D-28, this guitar records very easily and needs little compression or EQ.
I do have a few beefs. First is the strap button. No Larrivée comes with one, and any player gigging for an audience has to install one. It’s simply arrogance to not address this issue. Because they are expensive, the majority of buyers will be working pros who will install a button with or without Larrivée’s help. The company needs to make its guitars more gig friendly. Mine came with a relaxed truss rod and needed lots of cranking to level it out with standard light-gauge (.012 – .054) bronze-wound strings. The frets were sticking out of the sides of the neck and my guitar had to be shipped back to the U.S. repair facility to be made playable. This took about three weeks. Finally, my axe still feels and sounds stiff. I was told that due to the thin finish, these guitars break in and sound optimal in about five years, as opposed to eight to 10 for most gloss lacquer-finish guitars. I hope it ages nicely.
All in all, the D-03E is a great value in a new acoustic/electric. All solid woods, hand craftsmanship, balanced response, and a great electronics package under $1,000.
This review originally appeared in VG‘s Aug. ’99 issue.