Written by Anna Raddatz | Photos by Anthony Harden
Jay Lichty’s workshop is not a high-tech place. Sure, there are things that plug into the wall—buffers, sanders, drills, and saws. But the simple wood-paneled building is also home to more hand tools than you can shake a hammer at. And there’s not a bit, byte, laptop, or desktop in sight. As far as this workshop is concerned, the digital revolution never happened.
That’s the way Jay likes it. He’s a luthier, a maker of stringed instruments—in his case, acoustic guitars and ukuleles. He’s following a path that began centuries ago, using techniques that have been honed over generations. He trusts his intuition and sensory judgment—not scopes and digital equipment—to lead his process toward a visually stunning and aurally delightful instrument.
However, to make a living by handcrafting one-of-a-kind, custom instruments, you need a lot of individual customers—and these days, the wide marketplace is online, not on Main Street. This is where Jay’s wife, Corrie, comes in. Corrie’s role at Lichty Guitars is to make sure the world knows about Jay’s beautiful products. And her tool belt holds decidedly more modern tools. Using her digital camera, SEO skills, and online marketing instincts, she has rapidly brought Lichty Guitars front and center in the world of custom acoustic instruments.
“Without her,” says Jay, “I would be surrounded by dust and instruments that nobody knew were available.”
This business is a testament to the couple. They bring their wide range of life experiences and complementary skill sets to bear on a shared venture. They demonstrate a commitment to constant improvement and learning within their respective roles. And they show how essential it is to connect with the right people, in life and in business—from spouses and friends, to mentors and partners. Each individual contributes a voice, a melody to a song that exists for the pure pleasure of its making.
The Luthier in the Workshop
Jay Lichty is a likeable guy. Easy to smile and warm in his demeanor, he dresses simply and speaks calmly with a subtle Southern drawl. It’s easy to imagine him spending hours focused at a workbench, or strumming a toe-tapping tune on a front porch. It seems natural that this would be his profession, that he should spend his days making beautiful things in the workshop next to his house, on a peaceful wooded lot outside of Tryon. So perhaps one of the most surprising things about Jay’s vocation is how recently he came upon it.
Up until a few years ago, Jay was a builder of a different kind—a general contractor for nearly 30 years. He got into construction in the late 1970’s when he was living in South Carolina. “I was trying to sell real estate,” says Jay. “But interest rates were at 22%, so to supplement that I ended up getting a part-time job with a fellow that did remodeling.” The man he worked for wanted to get into speculative building, so he hired someone to train Jay on how to build a house. “I started building houses for the realtor, who I quickly saw was making all the money,” he says.
Jay built a few more houses on his own and moved to the Tryon area. Due to a stroke of luck (hitting that market at the right time) and his own dependability (“At that time if you had a driver’s license and you knew how to call when you couldn’t show up, you were the best around,” he says), he found his skills were in high demand. He started his own contracting business, which he ran from 1985 to 2009.
As a hobby, Jay played music. Over the years he had learned to play the guitar, banjo, and mandolin, and he performed from time to time with a bluegrass band. Playing stringed instruments came naturally to him. “The first time I ever picked up any instrument with strings at the age of 13 or 14,” he says. “I could play a melody. I always assumed that everyone could. It just seemed like swimming if you’re a fish.”
Then one night in 2009, Jay had a vivid dream. In that dream, he was playing a small-bodied guitar on stage with his band. “I woke up really excited about that instrument, but not sure what it was,” he says. After some online research, Jay recognized his dream instrument as a ukulele and immediately bought a baritone ukulele from eBay. Then he purchased a tenor version the same week. He quickly realized that this new obsession was beyond his means, so he decided to see if he could build his own. He made his first ukulele in his garage using his construction equipment.
After that, he was hooked. He went on to learn how to build guitars as well, and studied under several master luthiers including Wayne Henderson and Charles Fox.
At first, Jay worked on his instruments when things were slow with the construction business. “I thought, I’ll build guitars until the phone rings for houses,” he says. But due to the mortgage crisis and ensuing economic downturn, the phone stopped ringing for houses altogether. So he shifted over to working on instruments full-time.
Jay explains that his construction experience has influenced the work he does now. It taught him how to work to a high quality standard, communicate with clients, provide good customer service, and plan and execute a project. He says that as a luthier, he has the same method of working, but “without the hassle of subcontractors not showing up.”
A self-proclaimed introvert, Jay enjoys the fact that the work he does is mostly self-sufficient and solitary. His daily schedule involves waking up around six a.m., walking a few yards from his home to his workshop, and then working until dinner with a break for lunch. He does this six days a week. And he loves every minute of it. “It’s such a creative, fulfilling process with tangible results. It’s just exciting,” Jay says. “I cannot get enough of it.”
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