BY BLAIR JACKSON | FROM THE SPRING 2021 ISSUE OF UKULELE
Offhand, you might not think that the small town of Tryon, North Carolina—about 30 miles south of Asheville, just above the South Carolina border in an area broadly called the Southern Blue Ridge Escarpment—would be home to one of the top custom ukulele builders on the East Coast. Sounds more like flattop guitar or mandolin country, right? Bluegrass and old-time music. Well, luthier Jay Lichty does come from the bluegrass world originally, and he has built about 140 guitars over the past ten-plus years (as well as seven or eight fiddles and one mandolin). But he has also built around 160 highly prized ukes, was asked to join the Ukulele Guild of Hawaii, and has made an impressive 20 instruments for this issue’s Hawaiian cover subject, Kimo Hussey. Aloha, y’all!
Lichty grew up in Florida and moved to North Carolina in the early ’80s, and has lived “in the Tryon area, where I am now, since 1985,” he says by phone. “My roots are playing bluegrass. I started out with guitar, then I went to a 5-string banjo and mandolin. This is a good area for all that, of course.” To make ends meet he worked as a well-regarded carpenter and custom home builder.
So, how and when did the ukulele come into his life? “One night in 2008 I had a dream that I was playing a small-bodied instrument, and I got up that morning and tried to search to see what I had dreamed, and that’s when I stumbled upon the ukulele. I thought, ‘I should try that,’ so I bought one on eBay and that lit a fire under me, because what was cool about the ukulele is that I could do banjo rolls on it, no problem, play fingerpicking stuff, or strum it like a mandolin using either a plectrum or just my fingers. The 5-string banjo is kind of hard to sing along with, but with the ukulele it was like I could sing and play lead and rhythm all at the same time with the same instrument. I’ve never really played like a normal ukulele player because of the background I’ve had, but I don’t play bluegrass on it at all.
“So, I bought this $100 Lanikai baritone on eBay and I loved it! It was a great ukulele. But within a week, I wondered what a tenor ukulele would sound like, so I ordered one of those, and then within a couple of days I wondered what high-G tenor would sound like, and I got that.
“I’d always been a custom instrument guy—I’d had my banjo and mandolin made for me—so I started looking up how much custom ukuleles were, and I thought, ‘Gosh, I’ve only been doing this for a couple of weeks and I don’t really know what I want, so to go out and buy a custom one right now seems foolish.’ So I decided to try to build one. I’m a carpenter and I like music. I bought one of those Stewart MacDonald [StewMac] ukulele kits—at the time they were just sopranos—and I put it together but I didn’t do a very good job; the neck was crooked. Still, it played well, and I felt like I could do pretty much all the elements with the regular carpentry tools I had, so that that’s how I started building.
“I built the first couple in my garage, and my musician friends were impressed and that was enough to encourage me to continue. That was early in 2009, and in the summer of that year I heard that [noted Virginia luthier] Wayne Henderson was coming to teach a guitar-building workshop at our local art school. Only four people could attend, and I managed to get in, so I built my first guitar with Wayne—after having built four or five ukuleles. Wayne’s style of building was very similar to the way I think—real practical; and not a real engineering mind, with a bunch of calculations and charts and figures and machines. Much more hands-on. In that workshop I learned really quickly that I had the chops to continue, and that’s what fueled that.” Lichty subsequently “did more formal study with guitar building,” taking courses and learning from other luthiers, whereas he relied more on his own instincts and ideas in the uke-building realm.
“After about a year, I had enough confidence to put a few ukes on eBay,” he continues. “I started building tenors, because that’s what attracted me; then a little later I got into doing baritones. So I was doing a combination of those, and that’s basically how it’s been for most of my career. Though I have built sopranos and concerts, they’re the minority.”
Lichty says his long association with Kimo Hussey began a number of years ago when, at a ukulele event in Vancouver, “one of the participants in Kimo’s workshop was one of my customers who had a baritone ukulele, and he wanted Kimo’s opinion about it. Kimo really enjoyed it; in fact, he played it at the concert that night. Some months went by and then the same thing happened at a workshop in California, where one of my ukuleles found its way into Kimo’s hands. So it was not surprising after that that I got a call from him saying ‘We need to talk, buddy!’
“One of the many cool things about Kimo is his model for helping builders and for buying ukuleles—he never, ever asks for something for free. He always wanted to pay full price. I gave him a discount because I couldn’t stand it,” he laughs. “He’d say right up front, ‘Now, I’m not going to play just your instrument, because I’m having too much fun playing all these different instruments, but I’m going to promote your instruments because I believe in you.’ So that’s how it all started.”
When I ask Lichty whether at any point he’s gone back to do a deep dive into ukulele history—say, to learn about what made 1920s Martins sound great, or how early Kamakas compare to newer ones—it leads to another story about his most famous uke customer.
“No, I have not looked into that,” he says. “When I first met Kimo in person—he’d invited me to come to Hawaii for the annual Ukulele Picnic in Honolulu—I brought one of my tenor ukuleles with me. By that time, he and I had developed a long-scale tenor and I was walking around at that picnic and people kept coming up to me and saying, ‘Where did you come up with that sound?’ They were really intrigued by it. And I said, ‘Well, it’s just the sound I hear in my head that I’ve been chasing.’ I don’t have any formal ukulele knowledge or training. I’m building as a player. And some of that comes from my bluegrass background. I’m hearing in my head the throaty chop of a Gibson Lloyd Loar mandolin, and I’m also hearing the clear, bell-like sound of a Gibson Mastertone banjo, and I’m trying to morph them into an instrument that goes with my style of playing. I’ve always been looking for a new sound and not interested in going backwards to the original stuff. My hat is off to all of those builders through the years—no disrespect intended!—but I’ve always been a person who wants to try something new rather than repeat something old.”
Over the course of his working relationship with Kimo, “about half have been baritones and half tenors,” Lichty says, “and with each one we tried to improve on the last, visually or sonically or feel-wise. He’d tell me what he liked about each one and what he’d like to maybe be different, and then I’d do my best to come up with a solution.” Lichty further appreciates that Kimo “seems progressive, in that he likes the modern touches such as soundports and beveled rests and other features you don’t find on traditional ukuleles.”
Lichty Guitars & Ukuleles is essentially just a two-person operation, with Jay building the instruments, and his wife, Corrie Woods, helping run the business side, as well as handling promotion, photography, and more. Whether guitar or ukulele (or any other instrument), Lichty insists on building one instrument at a time. “I tried doing them in batches,” he comments, “but I couldn’t focus well enough on each individual one. Because every component [of the build] has some sort of character, positive or negative, towards what you’re trying to do, and if I have three going at one time, it’s hard for me to remember whatever quirkiness or special attributes I’m going for with each. And it turns out I can actually do them faster one at a time.”