As you read this, master luthier Jay Lichty is probably in his workshop in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains in North Carolina, USA, creating something beautiful. A former home builder, Jay’s been making custom ukes since 2008 and has garnered praise for his elegant designs and his instruments’ exceptional tone.
The first instrument you ever built was a ukulele. What inspired that decision and where is it now?
I became infatuated with ukuleles about 10 minutes after I opened the box containing my first factory-built baritone. I loved it and the potential I saw in what could be played on it. I’d played five-string banjo and mandolin for years and I saw the ukulele as a combination of the two. So then I thought, “I wonder what a tenor with a high G would sound like?” A week later, I had a tenor. Then I thought, “I wonder what a custom-made ukulele would be like?” After a bit of dreaming about custom ukes, I decided I should try and build one. The first one I built was a soprano from a kit. It now hangs on a wall and is very playable.
What’s so special about a custom instrument?
A well-built custom instrument will typically look, play, feel and sound better than a factory-built instrument because they are put together with more direct thought and intention. They are typically more refined, so have better intonation and responsiveness. Add to that having a builder build that instrument specifically for you and your style of playing with the woods and ornamentation you helped select and you have magic. I’ve always had custom banjos and mandolins. My feelings were that if I was going to put all this effort into trying to play well, I wanted the resulting sound to be as good as I could produce. In other words, if it was going to sound bad, it was on me, not the instrument.
Do you have a favourite tonewood?
Now that is a tricky question. Each species of wood has its own set of attributes, so my favourite depends on what my goal is. I love working with Brazilian rosewood. The smell alone is addictive. Unfortunately, that particular wood has become hard to get. Fortunately, there are a lot of other choices that look and sound great. We use at least 18 different species. I find most ukulele players want wood with some visual pizzazz. That is not hard to do with the back and sides, since they are tonally speaking more like the spice you add to a recipe. For those, I’m quite fond of cocobolo, ziricote and granadilla. The top is the key tone-producing ingredient and for that I prefer the sound of spruce. Of course, spruce doesn’t have the visual pizzazz of curly koa, so lately I’ve been using a lot of bear claw sitka spruce because it has a visual element as well as the great tone of spruce. I also love sinker redwood.
You don’t currently build sopranos. Do you think you might in the future?
I have only built that one kit uke that was a soprano. Initially, I thought they were too small to get the type of sound I was chasing. Let’s face it, I don’t build the typical Hawaiian-sounding ukulele. My intention has always been to build ukuleles that play best as solo instruments. The soprano is so small that I just didn’t pursue those builds as I felt I couldn’t meet my goal. I have rethought that now and would be delighted to build a custom soprano.
Your Baby Bard Archtop Ukulele looks and sounds incredible! Do you have any other non-standard models in the works?
Thank you. It rarely leaves my hands. Funny you should ask about non-standard models. I have experimented with different scale lengths for years and have found that adding one inch to the standard tenor or concert scale really makes a huge positive difference. Additionally, I just finished a baritone without a typical sound hole in the top. By having the neck/body connection at the fifteenth fret instead of the typical fourteenth, I was able to locate the bridge in a more optimum place. I used my Baby Bard body style and placed the sound ports in the cutaway areas. It looks pretty cool and sounds amazing. The notes are clearer and the sustain is about 20% longer than my typical model. I sent it to Kimo Hussey for his evaluation. This is a project we are working on together and it’s great to have someone to bounce ideas off. We are like two kids in a science lab trying to cook up fun projects. I want to do a tenor-size one soon. You can see the Modified Baritone on our website.
As well as being a great luthier, you’re a talented musician. What’s your favourite type of music to play on ukulele?
Thank you for that. I am not one of the gymnast ukulele players whose right hands are so amazingly fast and nimble, but I love to hear the notes. I compose a lot of tunes, mostly instrumental based around melody. I like playing Beetles music, as well as other popular music because these songs lend themselves so well to ukulele.
How many ukes do you own?
Had to ask, eh? You do realise some of them are research? Well, they are all research. I have a dozen ukuleles, including those first two factory instruments. Thanks for not asking about guitars.
You also teach workshops. What’s the first lesson in building a ukulele?
The very first lesson is to get in the right head space for the task. You are getting ready to create something magical and alive out of a pile of seemingly inert objects. That build is going to be directly influenced by what and how you’re thinking. If you are building with trepidation and fear, then you will have a confused ukulele. If you are building with love and good intention (and actually communicate this either internally or externally to the uke as you build) then you will produce a wonderful instrument.
“You are getting ready to create something magical and alive out of a pile of seemingly inert objects”
The Blue Ridge Mountains are famous for music. Do your surroundings influence your work?
There is no doubt about that. I get inspiration just looking around at these mountains and nature. A hike around here is like taking an air hose and blowing the cobwebs out of my brain. Musically, my ukuleles are a combination of the sounds I’ve heard listening to banjos and mandolins. I love that throaty sound of a great Lloyd Loar mandolin or the deep timber of Earl Scruggs’ Gibson banjo. Those are some of the sounds I have incorporated into my builds.
Stars such as Bonnie Raitt and Kimo Hussey play your instruments. Are there any other famous artists you’d love to see holding a Lichty uke?
Wow, great question! I have not really given that much thought. Do you reckon Tommy Emmanuel plays uke? [ED: He does!]
Get a feel for Jay’s unique ukes at lichtyguitars.com