Different Strummers

Jay Lichty of Tryon is one of six luthiers worldwide to participate in an international program that provides hospitalized kids with instruments. Photo by Corrie Woods

As an internationally acclaimed luthier, Jay Lichty of Tryon makes only about 30 stringed instruments a year — guitars and ukuleles — in his backyard shop. But lying in a leather case with crushed red velvet is a ukulele-in-progress that very few people have ever seen. In fact, there’s no other uke like it in the world, although there will be five others made from the same two legendary trees, a Honduran mahogany known simply as “the tree” and prized for its beauty and tone, and a “Lucky Strike” redwood species.

The six top-of-the-line instruments — the remaining five made by five other esteemed luthiers — will come together this fall in Hawaii and be marketed to serious collectors. The money generated from their sale goes to the Ukulele Kids Club; the nonprofit will use the funds to buy other ukes for hospitalized children.

Attending the Ukulele Guild of Hawaii exhibition last November and sharing time with another builder and ukulele enthusiast, “I had an idea that a project involving several builders would be fun,” says Lichty, standing amid ukuleles and guitars in various stages of production. “My thought was to get several builders to collaborate on a build … we would then sell [the finished products] and donate the proceeds to charity. As we tossed this idea about, we decided to have several builders each make a ukulele out of the same main woods.” With the material a given, the delight was in the details: “We could then see what each individual builder came up with both visually and sonically,” he explains.

The Ukulele Kids Club was the ideal nonprofit, and so Lichty and five other uke-making masters — Steve Grimes of Hawaii; Beau Hannam, originally from Australia, now living in Colorado; Jake Maclay, West Virginia; John Kinnard, California; and Joji Yoshida, Japan — became “Luthiers for a Cause.”

To date, Ukulele Kids Club has handed out more than 4,000 ukuleles to hospitalized children in North America, Europe, and the Middle East. Its mission is to “harness the healing power of music by … gifting ukuleles to hospital-based music-therapy programs so that children in need can be sent home with the gift of music for life” — although instruments are given to terminal patients, as well as those expected to recover. When one visits the UKC website, the music that wells up was composed and performed by Lichty.

Typically, his custom-made ukuleles sell for $4,000-$5,000. He’s hoping this this one will bring in $6,000-$7,000, thanks to the special woods and decorative design features, among other custom components. “[My wife] Corrie and I have always had giving back as a large part of our goals,” he says. “The Ukulele Kids Club fits us to a tee.” He admits, too, the aesthetic thrill: “As a builder, I’m excited that my work is being showcased with the other five luthiers. That we are all giving back in such a fun way is priceless.”

By next month, the six ukuleles will be shipped to the Ukulele Site in Hawaii to be recorded and photographed. They’ll be unveiled at the Ukulele Guild of Hawaii’s November exhibition in Waikiki, and then auctioned and sold via the Ukulele Site to benefit Ukulele Kids Club. To keep track of the project and for more information, see luthiersforacause.org.

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