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In Memoriam: Wesley Brandt

In Memoriam: Wesley Brandt

August 24, 1954 – September 17, 2021

by Chris Brandt, Michael Yeats, Dan Compton, and Mark Moreland

Originally published in American Lutherie #145, 2021


My memory of Wes began in the mid-’70s when Jeff Elliott’s apprentices loosely banded together to co-rent shop space. It was an exciting time with various instruments underway including a Baroque guitar, a hurdy gurdy, violin bows, mandolin family instruments, and even a bass viola — all under one roof. Eventually this led to The 12th Fret, and by then, Wes had become a full-fledged member of Portland’s scene.

As far back as I can remember, Wes had wanted to work, study, and live in Europe. At one point he owned a house in Southeast Portland which he was able to rent out to a fellow luthier during one of his early forays to Europe. He became a man split between two countries. I remember him telling me, “I don’t want to live in a country that sells cheese in an aerosol can.” (OK Wes, point taken.)

Conversations with Wes easily turned into quality events. This was absolutely the case when discussing instruments and all things related. But he had a wide range of interests and had even volunteered on an archeological dig. He read, he listened, he thought, and he was curious and engaged with the world. But towering above all of this, he had an enormous drive to be an instrument maker.

During the last years, when he both lived and worked above The 12th Fret, I began having the same feeling that I used to get when I visited Robert Lundberg. I can’t just call it respect, because that was always what I felt from the beginning. But, by this time, he had grown in his skills so far that something else emerged. Maybe I felt a kind of reverence, or something close to it. It was an honor to work with him and have him as a friend.

My regret is that I didn’t spend enough time really talking to him, getting down to the deeper, essential Wes. He was in many ways a private man. He gave generously of his knowledge and skill. He was enormously supportive during a transition of The 12th Fret, and everyone I’ve talked to seems to say that they always wanted to know him better.

He struggled and reached for a dream. Just as it seemed as if he had finally arrived, he tragically left this world. He will always live in our hearts.

— Chris Brandt

Photo courtesy of Michael Yeats.

So many of us hold music as our main passion, and Wes was no exception. He enjoyed eclectic music from all over the world, created his own music, and, of course, made instruments beautifully. His repair work is legendary; most of the professionals I know wouldn’t trust their instruments to anyone other than Wes. He was a caring, passionate person who carried visions of excellence within and continually strived to achieve them. In addition, he was bright, funny, and always interested in sharing ideas. He cooked for the family when he visited; he always wanted to contribute. His absence will be a presence forever among those he knew.

— Michael Yeats

The loss of Wes has left a huge hole for a lot of us. He had a unique genius in his understanding of what makes a stringed instrument sound its best, whether it was one he designed and built himself, or one that he repaired or set up. I think Wes did work on every fretted instrument I own at some point. He was also great company, and a cup of coffee with Wes could stretch to a couple of hours of wide-ranging conversation.

Wes made many gorgeous instruments: viols, guitars, mandolins, and his own hybrid creations. The most memorable for me is a parlor guitar he made a few years ago: light to the touch, beautiful to look at, resonant and responsive to play, perfectly balanced. Not too flashy, but deeply astounding — not unlike the man himself. He’ll be greatly missed.

— Dan Compton

Wes Brandt was a long-time respected luthier in the Pacific Northwest. My encounters with him were numerous over the years through shows and his visits to the Portland shop where I was employed for several decades. His fretted instruments were something to behold; the detail and careful execution of craftsmanship was amazing. Though I knew Wes in those years, our paths rarely crossed, as I was deeply involved in bowed instruments and he with fretted instruments. After my wife and I left the NW for several years, we returned to start our own shop, where we specialize in cello making. At this point, Wes was specializing in viols and gambas and our lives came together more. We spent hours conversing on so many different ideas, and I came to really treasure those times. We even shared a client; I built a cello which was purchased by a well known artist, and Wes later made him a gamba.

The loss of such a gifted and passionate maker and individual is hard to comprehend and accept. Wes was special and lovable, and his joy for his work was infectious. He was sincere, thoughtful, creative, incredibly curious, quite shy, and soft spoken. Since his passing, I have learned more about Wes and have grown to appreciate his work and accomplishments even more.

I am so sorry that Wes is gone, but his work, and his interactions with those of us lucky enough to have known him, live on.

—Mark Moreland