Making music one guitar at a time in WNC

Published 1:44 pm Friday, October 6, 2023

Many a soul with calloused fingertips has made music that is best kept on the front porch. Others go on to the bright lights of fame and fortune. But the road to either success or merely personal satisfaction never happens without a luthier.

Making stringed instruments, especially the fiddles of Appalachia so richly influenced by Scot and Irish immigrants and acoustic guitars is as old as the hills. A luthier can make a guitar in a well-equipped workshop with dozens of tools, or with little more than it takes to build a sawhorse.

Noted local luthier Jay Lichty of Tryon made his first with a circular saw and a sander, two tools left over from his days as a homebuilder until the real estate market collapsed in 2008. Now he’s easing into retirement, accepting only an occasional special order.

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His shift from home construction to building acoustic intruments might sound nuts to some people. Not Lichty.

“The biggest compliment I ever got as a kid was when someone called me a rebel,” Lichty said. “As both a player and a builder, I have gone my own way.”

A good luthier is an engineer, a craftsman and an artist who uses fine and exotic woods, inlays and hardware to create a fiddle, ukulele or guitar that makes a sound that will project a performer’s talent.

“The guitar Jay made for me plays as beautifully as it looks. Exquisite craftsmanship, detailing, customized for my needs and sounds amazing.” Those are the words of Bonnie Raitt–songwriter, blues singer and guitarist known for “Angel From Montgomery” and “I Can’t Make You Love Me.”

Lichty philosophically sizes up his considerable body of work this way: “What I am most proud of is being able to dream something up and then build it.” As retirement takes over his life, he finds more time to play in popular local band Mercury Rising, smack around tennis and pickle balls and spend time with his wife and business partner Corrie Woods, a photographer, web designer and native plant expert.

Billie Jordan of Green Creek is an emerging luthier with seven acoustic string guitars notched on her belt. She, like Lichty, got much inspiration and guidance from Wayne Henderson, founder of the Wayne C. Henderson School of Appalachian Arts in Marion, Virginia. Many consider Henderson the god of bluegrass stringed instruments.

She also learned from Gerald Anderson, who became friends with her and husband Russ, both well-known bluegrass musicians in the area.

Then Anderson, who mentored her through her first three guitars, unexpectedly passed away. “For a long time, I could not bring myself to step foot in my shop or continue work on that guitar,” she said.

A Henderson guitar today might cost you $50,000. One of Lichty’s instruments generally ranges from $12,000 to $17,000. Jordan is just starting out, so hers range from $3,000 to $4,500. Those prices are deceiving, however, when you consider the time luthiers spend on their products.

“I don’t even want to think about the hours, days, weeks, months that I spend building a guitar,” Jordan said.

Larry McDermott is a local retired farmer/journalist. Reach him at