Interview: Jay Lichty Ukuleles and Guitars from Contractor to Construction
by Joe Mendel
Outside forces affect the choices all of us make in our lives, sometimes those choices have a greater impact on our lives than we could possibly imagine. Jay Lichty has been a lifelong musician and ran a successful home building business. When Jay’s love of music and the poor economy collided, he decided to fill in some of the down time building a ukulele, while waiting for things to turn around. While the economy has yet to turn around, Jay certainly has. That first uke led to another and then to a guitar building workshops with Wayne Henderson and Charles Fox. Jay closed his contracting business in 2009 and is gaining an excellent reputation for his luthierie skills and instruments. He and his partner/wife Corrie are very busy building and promoting Lichty guitars and ukuleles.
Joe Mendel: Hi Jay thanks for taking the time to be interviewed, it’s appreciated.
You’ve been involved with music all your life, what got you started as a player & what instruments do you play?
Jay Lichty: You are welcome and thanks for the opportunity to be introduced to your readers. I’m one of those guys that have always had an aptitude for playing music but not enough talent to make it a career. I remember being about 13 years old and picking up a cheap plastic ukulele and picking out a melody with very little effort. I didn’t realize that this was not something that everybody could do. After high school I went to a college in the NC Mountains. While there I picked up the guitar and was taught the basic bluegrass backup technique. We had a band that played for the school clogging team. On the last day of school the banjo player showed me the three basic Scruggs style banjo rolls. It was a couple of years before I got ahold of a banjo but I was able to play a basic version of Cripple Creek right off the bat. I bought that cheap banjo at a gas station along the highway in Kentucky and proceeded to drive my wife insane with my obsession to learn how to play it well. She is still in the institution :>). Anyway, I’ve kept playing various instruments all these years. My primary instruments used to be the banjo and mandolin. Now that I’m making guitars and ukuleles those instruments have become my focus.
JM: Going from contractor to luthier is a very big change, as far as the finished product. What are the biggest differences and similarities in build instruments and building houses?
JL: Having been a home builder I am used to details and scheduling…looking ahead to the next step. I’ve always been a customer oriented, high quality product kind of thinker. A ukulele (or guitar) is obviously a lot smaller and less complex than a house and therefore a lot less stressful to construct. As a home builder my main job was heading off potential problems and giving the customer what they want while keeping them happy. That can be very challenging when someone is laying out a quarter or half a million dollars. Now I still strive to give my ukulele and guitar customers what they want and keep them happy but the keeping them happy part is so much easier. Everything about a custom instrument is a joy and the customers are typically very excited to be treating themselves to a fine instrument. So I went from a high stress job to a high fun job when I made the leap to luthier.
JM: Both occupations require quite a few tools, have any of your contracting tools made it into your luthierie shop?
JL: In a word, yes. When I decided to build my first ukulele I went on YouTube and watched everything I could find on how to go about it. I stumbled upon a clip of a guy building a tenor ukulele. He started by going to his firewood pile and grabbing a piece of oak firewood. He went to the lumber yard and bought a spruce 2×6 for the top. He then, using a belt sander a standard hand drill and a skill saw, proceeded to build this ukulele that he strung up with weed eater string. I did not let the fact that his ukulele sounded like a piece of firewood with weed eater string distract me from seeing that I had enough tools to build a ukulele. My first ukulele was built with the same hand tools…though I used the proper wood and strings.
JM: Did you make a big investment in specialized tools? Have you made many of the tools and jigs yourself?
JL: Once I saw that I was going to keep building ukuleles and guitars I bought the necessary tools to do the job both efficiently and correctly. I made pretty much all the jigs I use myself…that was part of the fun.
JM: Besides just having the time to do something creative, why did you decide to build a ukulele? How did the first one turn out?
JL: I’m sure most of your readers are familiar with U.A.S. (ukulele acquisition syndrome). Well I caught that early on. I bought my first ukulele, a baritone, off of EBay. It arrived and I was hooked. I then wanted a tenor with a high G…then I wanted another with another type of wood and on and on. It was exciting and scary at the same time…I knew I had a problem that was likely going to need a twelve step program to correct. That’s when I figured I should just try and build one. The first one was a low g tenor that I keep close at hand for playing. It turned out nice and has a lot of sentimental value. I keep it on a small table in the dining room. It gives me inspiration and a thrill every time I set my eyes on it.
JM: Were there any parts of building the first one that had you a little nervous or scratching your head? Did you make use of videos or books?
JL: You know I just dove in and built the thing. It was kind of interesting because in a way it was like I knew what I was doing. Again my skills were new and therefore had a lot of room to grow, but I had no trepidation about the process…only how to do it well with such basic tools. I did buy a how-to-build-a-ukulele book to help with the angles and dimensions. Once I started building full time I bought quite a few books and DVD’s.
JM: Do you have any advice for beginning or aspiring builders?
JL: While it is possible and somewhat admirable to figure out how to build an instrument by oneself, there is nothing like building one under the leadership of someone practiced in the art. If you can afford that opportunity you will advance much faster and hopefully skip a lot of opportunity for costly mistakes. With sites like YouTube you can learn a lot just sitting at your computer. Keep in mind though that there are a lot of ways to do almost every task involved in building an instrument. If you see a way that does not seem smart or practical keep searching because there will be another, better way that suits your aptitude. I’ve watched a lot of videos and had to scratch my head in wonder at why someone would go to all that trouble to do a task that can be done so much easier another way.
JM: Let’s talk about your ukes. How much have they evolved since the early ones? Have you made any major changes?
JL: My craftsmanship skills continue to grow with each build and I have done some experimenting with the bracing as well as the thickness of the top and back plates. The good news for me is that I have been completely happy with all of our ukuleles and therefore, other than aesthetic improvements I have not had to do a lot of tweaking. I’ve also started putting a coat of shellac on the inside of my guitars and ukuleles. I started doing this on our Brazilian models to help stabilize this often fragile wood. As it turns out it really looks nice and I like what it does to the projection of the sound so I’ve incorporated this into all the instruments. I don’t do the top plate only the back and sides.
JM: What’s the reason you have chosen to focus on tenors and baritones?
JL: Good question and the answer is pretty simple. Though I can and will build concert and soprano upon request, I have not had any requests for any sizes other than baritone and tenor.
JM: What signature features do you include in your ukuleles? Do you employ any atypical design features?
JL: My ukuleles are pretty traditional in their construction though one could say my choice of woods is not so traditional. While I do like Koa I more prefer woods like Cocobolo and Brazilian rosewood. I’ve also started using some Grandillo and love the way it looks and sound. I’m also putting sound ports in the upper bout facing the player in addition to the standard sound hole. The effect this has is quite remarkable. Not only does the player get a better sound advantage but these extra ports give the uke more bottom end and over all projection.
JM: How do you approach a build, what is the process and the various steps in the construction?
JL: If I’m building a custom uke then the first step is getting the needs and wants of the customer ironed out. With email and our website ( http://lichtyguitars.com ) this can be done with folks from anywhere in the world. (I’d like to acknowledge my wife, Corrie Woods, here for her amazing job on our website. She has made it so thorough and user-friendly and just fun to surf.) I like to have everything figured out with regard to the components…wood selection, etc…before I start the actual build. That goes for a speculative instrument for our inventory as well. Corrie keeps a photo blog going on our web site so a customer or anyone with an interest can keep current with each instrument’s process. I build the bodies before the necks and I only build one instrument at a time so I can give it my full focus. I’ve tried doing multiple ones at the same time for efficiency purposes but I find that the instruments built one at a time benefit from my full attention.
(JM: Jay’s website features a cool, design you own ukulele page: Custom ukulele design process )
JM: Descriptions of sound can mean so many different things to different people, since most of your building is done to fulfill an order, how do you go about figuring out what the customer is really asking for in terms of sound?
JL: When possible I like to hear the customer play. At the very least I like to hear a recording of someone whose style and sound they like. With that input I can then recommend the combination of woods and designs that would best reach that goal.
JM: Do you believe the type of glue used affects the sound of an instrument in a significant way?
JL: I think everything affects the sound but you’ve got to ask…how, how much and does it matter? There are plenty of folks that think hide glue is a must and for them I’d say it is. I use Titebond glue and am very happy with the results. Have you ever wondered how much better Stradivarius’ violins would have sounded if he’d had Titebond? :<)
JM: What finishes do you use on your instruments and why?
JL: I use a water based lacquer because I care about my health and the environment. The water based products have come a long way and are work great for musical instruments. They are hard and clear.
JM: What are the major differences that you find between building ukuleles and guitars?
JL: Oddly, it takes almost as much time to build a ukulele as a guitar. As far as the construction the main difference is in that bracing. A guitar requires a good bit more for obvious reasons. As a result there is more room to tweak a guitar’s voice and also a bigger chamber to manipulate.
JM: Can you describe your philosophy as a builder?
JL: My goal and intention is to build only high quality instruments. And our prices, though not the highest of the custom builders, reflect that quality. We all know that a player can buy a ukulele for as little as $25.00 and that for some players that is the perfect instrument at the perfect price. That is not our market. I build my ukuleles and guitars for people like me who require a great quality, well-crafted instrument that responds effortlessly to whatever style of playing they choose. From just opening the case and seeing the ukulele to picking it up and playing, I want my instruments to inspire and excite. I am a one man shop so each instrument is built 100% by me. That affords me the advantage of tweaking every bit of the materials in pursuit of that goal.
JM: How long does it typically take to build a uke from start to delivery?
JL: I usually figure 3-4 weeks which includes plenty of time for the finish to properly cure and set up. I like to keep them on hand for a week or so to let the strings set and for all the parts to compress under tension. Then I can do a final set up if needed.
JM: Are you taking orders and is there a waiting list?
JL: I am taking orders and, though there is a waiting list I try and accommodate if someone is in a pinch.
JM: You mentioned learning to build from an experienced builder, have you done or do you do any teaching?
JL: I love to teach and do offer building workshops here at my shop though due to shop size I can only accommodate one student at a time. The one on one classes are very instructive and great for someone who wants to go on and build more ukuleles or guitars. Additionally, there is a local art center with a larger shop space that I use for larger (four student) classes.
JM: What happens in a typical workshop? What would a student end up with?
JL: Both class structures yield a high quality instrument. The one on one class is more extensive as we, in addition to building the instrument, learn about jigs and shop setup and the other important information. The four person class, due to the division of attention by a factor of four focuses on just the build. Both type classes offer a great opportunity to get a top end instrument that you have, for the most part, built.
JM: How would one go about scheduling a workshop?
JL: The best way to get on board with a workshop is to contact me directly. The one on one class is pretty easy to set up since it’s just the student and me. The four student class requires coordinating with the art center and multiple students so that requires a bit more effort to schedule.
JM: Do you do any repair work?
JL: Yes, I do repair work but I typically shy away from working on expensive vintage instruments because I’m just not familiar enough with the value ramifications. I’d hate to turn a $10,000.00 vintage ukulele into a $1000.00 item because I used the wrong glue or something.
JM: Do you have any new instruments in mind for the future?
JL: I’m always dreaming up something or the other. I’ve drawn up a plan for an arched top and back instrument sized somewhere between a baritone ukulele and a parlor guitar…but closer to the baritone. Instead of a carved top or back I will use the bracing to create the arches. It will have a tailpiece like a mandolin/arch top guitar with a non-fixed bridge and a raised fret board extension. I’m thinking “f” holes and a side sound port but am still undecided on the number of strings. I guess I’ll have to wait for another flash of brilliance to direct that option.
JM: Jay, it’s been great talking with you, hopefully we will cross paths someday soon. Thanks again for doing this interview, it’s been very informative.
JL: This has been my pleasure. There’s nothing like good questions to get one reflecting on what and how they do what they do. I too hope we cross paths in person one day.
JM: If you would like to talk to Jay about an instrument or to schedule a workshop you may contact him through his website: http://lichtyguitars.com/
It’s well organized and informative, and filled with great pictures of ukuleles & guitars and sound clips of many of Jay’s creations. Jay’s YouTube page is also worth checking out: YouTube Channel: http://www.youtube.com/user/jaylichty?feature=mhee
There you’ll find videos of Jay in his shop telling his own story as well as several instruments being played.
If you would like to contact Joe, he may be contacted through his website: http://jmendelfrets.com/
Suggestions for future interviews are welcome. If you are a builder and would like to be interviewed, let me know.