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Let’s Get Busy

Let’s Get Busy

Chris Brandt Says You Can’t Succeed in Business Without Really Trying

by Jonathon Peterson

Originally published in American Lutherie #26, 1991 and Big Red Book of American Lutherie Volume Three, 2004

When he was eleven, Chris Brandt converted a $13 guitar into a 12-string by installing autoharp pins. He now owns a successful repair shop in the Portland area. I visited him there to find out how he makes it work.

Chris, you have almost always worked with other luthiers, either as an employee, in a cooperative shop, or as an employer of several repairmen. You seem to prefer working with others. Why is that?

There are a lot of benefits to working in a shop with other repairmen. It’s a rich learning situation. You are exposed to so many more instruments. It enables you to specialize more, and conversely, to not specialize where you don’t need to. There are a lot of jobs which I don’t do anymore simply because I don’t need to and they’re not my preferred jobs.

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In Memoriam: Jonathon Peterson

In Memoriam: Jonathon Peterson

March 14, 1953 – February 15, 2022

by GAL Staff, Jeffrey R. Elliott, Cyndy Burton, and Woodley White

Originally published in American Lutherie #145, 2021


We were very sad when we learned that former longtime GAL Staffer Jonathon Peterson had passed away suddenly. If you’ve been a member a while, or if you have attended any GAL Conventions in the last few decades, you’ll remember Jon as the guy behind the camera and the author of many articles in American Lutherie. Jon worked for the Guild from 1987 until 2011. He started out doing clerical tasks and darkroom work, and through years of on-the-job training and experience, became a prolific writer and photographer for the Guild. He made many personal connections with the luthiers he interviewed for our “Meet the Maker” articles, and was one of the regulars at the NW Handmade Musical Instrument Exhibit in Portland. Probably Jon’s most notable accomplishment during his more than two decades with the Guild was photographing and documenting Robert Lundberg’s lute-building process over the course of several years. The articles produced through the collaboration of Bob and Jon eventually resulted in the Guild’s book, Historical Lute Construction, the premier book on the subject. Rest in peace, Jon.

— GAL Staff

At the 2006 Convention. Photo by Robert Desmond.
At the 2008 Convention. Photo by Hap Newsom.

Jon Peterson excelled as a husband, a father, a friend, a luthier, a 6´4˝ dancer, a photographer, a writer, a story teller, a collector of vinyl records and bicycles, and a cyclist extraordinaire among other talents. What stands out for me is that Jon always seemed to have a certain calm about him. It has been there the entire forty-five years I have known him, ever since the 1977 GAL Convention, where we camped out in a teepee pitched in the backyard of Jon’s in-laws. I came to know and love this kind, gentle, and compassionate man, who seemed to easily roll with whatever life threw at him. He had a kind of knowing way about him, as if his understanding of the bigger picture was in tune with the universe, and he was at peace with it. I’ll miss him dearly.

— Jeffrey R. Elliott


Ever since he died, I’ve been thinking about Jon and all the years that have seemingly slipped by since the 1980 GAL Convention in San Francisco. For reasons I don’t know, I hear him saying, “Don’t trouble trouble till trouble troubles you.” I know Jon’s life was not without troubles, and yet he inspired people to be better partly by his example and more than anything, his warmth and empathy. He had the ability to convey acceptance and encouragement. Our paths crossed at Conventions, in our work for the GAL, and in our living room and at the kitchen table. His GAL work included luthier interviews and many other articles that provided and continue to provide a bounty of useful information to share with the readers of American Lutherie along with many of the books the GAL has published, particularly Jon’s direct work with Robert Lundberg on the Historical Lute Construction book.

I’d like to think that Jon is somewhere admiring the enormity of the great unknown and has, of course, already made friends with other sentient beings.

— Cyndy Burton

Jon Peterson at the 1980 GAL Convention. Photo by Dale Korsmo.

We who work with wood, almost automatically sense that we are engulfed in a thick orchestration of life and death. Fresh green things sprout beside the decay of fallen giants. The mulch of generations of leaves and branches fertilizes every manner of plant, fungus, tree, flower, or spider. Life emerges from death, and death from life, at every turn in the trail. It feels as if the earth is absolutely incapable of not producing life at every opportunity. The constancy of it, the relentless expansion and contraction of life and death is so insistently miraculous that we only become more and more quiet in the presence of this endless cycle.

Such is our life. We are born, we live a while, and then we die. It’s true of every living thing. Taken at face value, it makes us seem so small, or insignificant. In the midst of such impermanence, how can our meager, individual lives possibly achieve any real meaning? All beings live and die; billions of lives on earth arise and pass away. Whole worlds are born and then destroyed. Entire galaxies come into being and then dissolve. What possible value can a single, modest human life have in this breathtaking cacophony of life and death?

When I think of my friend, Jon Peterson, I want to say, “the value of a single life shines brightly.” A single rose, a single star, a single note of sweet music played at the right moment — these are things of great beauty and wonder. All that we do becomes embedded in the whole; because of this, our every day — our every word, every act of kindness, love, or beauty — is an invaluable opportunity to contribute to the growth and beauty of all things. With our single life, we change the shape of the universe. With his single life, Jonathon has changed the shape of our world.

I really loved my friend and I will miss him. I loved his dry sense of humor, the crinkle in the corner of his mouth when he smiled; his pony tail; the sparkle in his eyes. I loved his thoughtfulness. I was surprised when he rode his bicycle down from Tacoma to Portland with his son and then all over Portland. I loved his appreciation for life and for love and for guitar making and his place in this universe, his generosity, his commitment. I remember asking if he thought I could handle a guitar repair one day and he said, ”That all depends on how skilled you are with a scraper.” That comment sticks with me twenty-five years later.

One time we were at Jeff and Cyndy’s house with Jim Kline evaluating two sister guitars I had made and we were talking about what we thought of them and Jon interrupted and said, “I disagree with you. The guitar with the stronger trebles will become the better instrument over time as the midrange and bass open up.” He wasn’t shy about expressing his opinion.

In the shadow of his death, we ask ourselves, how will we live? How will we let the gentle, loving strength of his life color ours? A clear perception of death invites us to consider our life as something worth living; an active, creative, passionate event. Life is impermanent. It is precisely because of its impermanence that we should value it dearly. I am thankful for his life and for all the friends I have made in the GAL universe.

— Woodley White

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In Memoriam: Jess Wells

In Memoriam: Jess Wells

1953 – 2010

by Jonathon Peterson, Eric “Rico” Meyer, Ed Geesman, David Kerr, and Hiram Harris

Originally published in American Lutherie #105, 2011

My dear friend Jess Wells died at home of cancer on December 13, 2010. Jess was a big-picture kind of guy, with a real awareness of the interconnectedness of things. He was a fine craftsman with expertise in, among other things, violins, lutes, viola da gambas, bamboo fly-fishing rods, custom interior woodworking, and pipe organ construction. Our conversations always branched to music, food, religion, art, history, politics, social responsibility, sustainability of resources, local agriculture, and other big and small topics. I visited with him at shows, in shops, at his home, and too many times in the hospital. He knew what was coming, and faced death with grace, humor, and dignity. Jess is one of my heros.

— Jonathon Peterson

Photo by Jonathon Peterson

Jess and I shared shop space several times in the ’80s. During one of those periods in the back room at Kerr's violin shop, I was trying to make an archtop guitar. The juxtaposition of our benches was a model of contrast: his meticulous and orderly, and mine, well, not so much. After listening to me curse and grouse and fix my own mistakes, he gave me the most left-handed compliment I’ve ever had. He said, “Rico, how the hell can you wind up with something so nice after screwing up so much along the way. It’s not fair.”

He also kind of half cajoled, half exampled me into giving up a traditional Thanksgiving Day to serve dinners and wash dishes at a homeless mission. I’ve been delivering Meals On Wheels for over fifteen years. Thanks Jess. I guess most of us are ultimately self-absorbed. Jess may have been the exception.

— Eric “Rico” Meyer

I remember Jess having a very strong sense of social awareness. Although he was a live-and-let-live sort of guy, he had no patience with somebody taking advantage of his fellow man. Definitely a child of the ’70s, with a healthy Oregonian essence. I enjoyed his upbeat attitude and was inspired by his positive nature. I will miss seeing him.

— Ed Geesman

I remember Jess having a mischievous side. You could tell when he was up to something when he all of a sudden had this Cheshire Cat grin, halfway between a seven-year-old boy’s glee and the devil. When we were apprentices I had spent nine months making my first violin and had just glued the top on with great satisfaction. The next day I came in and Jess had filled the insides with as many wood shavings as he could possibly fit through the f-holes. I was both despondent and furious. He spent the next three hours pulling them out with a pair of tweezers, all the while grinning from ear to ear!

— David Kerr

I first met Jess in 1975 when I came to Portland to apprentice for Paul Schuback. Jess and the other apprentices welcomed me and took me into their homes or apartments even though we were all strangers. Jess was one of the older apprentices, and he and Dave Kerr looked after the younger ones to make sure we understood how the program worked. Jess was married and in that first year he and Beth had their first child, Megan. Jess was the first person I knew near my age to become a father. After Megan’s arrival, Steve Moore renamed Jess “Dad” Wells. This nickname and Jess’ obvious joy at her arrival is what I remember most from those days.

Jess left the apprenticeship in 1976 to make viols on his own and work for Bob Lundberg. He had the highest respect for Bob and was proud to say that he was the only person to work full time with Bob in his shop. Jess told me that almost everything he knew about instrument making he learned from Bob.

In the early ’80s Jess also worked part time in Dave Kerr’s shop. He drove an old VW van. Megan would frequently accompany him at the shop and draw or play. One of her drawings became Kerr Violin Shop’s first t-shirt. It was a sketch of three people: Dave, Jess, and me.

Jess was a fine craftsman with an exacting eye and high standards. He never made much money on his viol work because he either didn’t charge enough, or he spent too much time trying to get them just right. I remember Dave telling him once that no matter what business Jess was in he would find a way to lose money. Jess liked to tell that story with a laugh and an acknowledgement that Dave was probably right.

He and Beth helped set up a soup kitchen at St. Francis church in southeast Portland. Giving back to the community and helping those less fortunate was a big part of Jess’ life. Jess was quite active in his church. Faith played a huge role in his life, and it was reflected in how he handled his terminal illness. He saw death as a transition to a new beginning and a way to get closer to God.

I spent a month with Jess last summer. It had been years since we had seen each other, but this was of no importance to Jess. He was friendly and open to all no matter how long he had known them or their station in life. I never saw him down or depressed, even though at times he was in a lot of pain. He could have easily, understandably, felt sorry for himself, but he did not. His main concern as always was for his family.

Jess was decent, kind, generous, warm, and a true man of all seasons. I remember how he tilted his head just so when he was engaged in conversation, and the twinkle in his eye when an idea particularly struck him. He had a ready smile and made you feel wanted. He loved life fully and deeply, and embraced death with the same intensity. Above all, I will remember him as a family man with a strong faith in God and a true love for his fellow man. Rest in peace, Jess.

— Hiram Harris

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Review: From Harp Guitars to the New Hawaiian Family: Chris J. Knutsen, History and Development of the Hawaiian Steel Guitar by George T. Noe and Daniel L. Most

Review: From Harp Guitars to the New Hawaiian Family: Chris J. Knutsen, History and Development of the Hawaiian Steel Guitar by George T. Noe and Daniel L. Most

Reviewed by Jonathon Peterson

Originally published in American Lutherie #62, 2000 and Big Red Book of American Lutherie Volume Six, 2013

From Harp Guitars to the New Hawaiian Family: Chris J. Knutsen, History and Development of the Hawaiian Steel Guitar
George T. Noe and Daniel L. Most
Noe Enterprises, 1999
ISBN 978-0967483306

The first time I ever saw a harp guitar, I was smitten. It was made by a man named Chris Knutsen in the early 1900s in my hometown, Tacoma, Washington. I was so infatuated and curious that, when I began branching out from guitar repair into guitar-building-and-repair journalism, I did some research and wrote a couple of articles about harp guitars (American Lutherie #29 and #34; and Big Red Book of American Lutherie Volume Three). At the time I was doing that research, I was still very active as a repairman, and one day a guy walks into my shop with a Viennese-looking harp guitar with six sub-bass strings. His name was Dan Most, and he shared my fascination. In fact, he had the bug worse than I did. The culmination of his interest is this book, which he co-wrote with George Noe.

These guys did their homework. Dan has told me that their basic approach was to disregard conventional attitudes and rumors about these instruments and their maker, and look for hard evidence so that they could reach their own conclusions. Their investigation took more than six years. In the book’s preface the authors write, “We have spent countless hours in libraries, museums, the National Archives, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, and visiting all of the addresses known to us as Knutsen’s. We have immersed ourselves in immigration records, census records, city directories, books, magazines, and newspapers. As we progressed, each new clue resulted in facts falling into place like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, permitting us to reconstruct the events of Knutsen’s life in the 20th century.” George Noe’s background is as a patent attorney, so researching public records for evidence of the history of design development is right up his alley. Dan is a luthier and collector of Knutsen instruments, with lots of experience in their repair and restoration.

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In Memoriam: Hammond Ashley

In Memoriam: Hammond Ashley

Passed on May 1, 1993

by Dave Wilson, Peggy Warren, and Jonathon Peterson

Originally published in American Lutherie #34, 1993 and Big Red Book of American Lutherie Volume Three, 2004

Hammond Ashley died on May 1, 1993 at the age of 91. We have lost an advocate for fine music and fine musical instrument making, and a good friend. Music was always an important part of Ham’s life. He played banjo in a dance band while studying mechanical engineering at Stanford University. Later, when working for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Europe, he bought a bass and began learning to play. Years later, while working in Seattle as an engineer for Boeing, he played bass with the Highline Symphony, a group he helped to found. At the age of 80, Ham’s hearing deteriorated so he couldn’t hear directions from the conductor, so he took up the cello, which can be played without a conductor in smaller groups.

He had a woodworking background, too. Ham had his own cabinet shop 1928 and specialized in custom antique furniture reproductions and fine interior woodwork. His clients included Edward G. Robinson, Jack Benny, Jerome Kern, and Mrs. Oscar Hammerstein.

After the Christmas 1963 layoffs at Boeing, Ham planned on having an active retirement. With a background in engineering, woodworking, and music, lutherie seemed a natural choice. He set up shop under the airport’s landing approach and worked on a little of everything — organs, pianos, and even furniture. But the second floor was devoted to lutherie. He ended up having a whole new 30 year career.

His lively interest in advancing the science of sounds led him to explore both the old and the new. Making, restoring, and repairing included experiences with many varieties of stringed instruments including gamba, bass, cello, viola, violin, the eight members of the “new family” of violins, rebec, sitar, sarod, crwth, and harp. But his specialty was the violin family, particularly basses. He worked with Carleen Hutchins of the Catgut Acoustical Society, and was an active member of the GAL.

Dozens of people worked for and with him over almost 30 years. Ham set the pace. You might see him elbow-deep in papers at his desk, or working with the plates and winding up with glitter all over his face, or all bent over, with curled up hands, carving a scroll, varnishing a bass, or talking with customers, many of whom became friends. At age 90 he cut his hours down by taking more than an hour for lunch, and so putting in less than 44 hours a week.

Ham made music by playing, by his craftsmanship, and by making instruments usable and available to others. Joyful noises came from the house over the years as Ham had fun making music with others.

Ham knew what he liked, and generously helped himself, as he in other ways helped others. Friends were invited to stay to lunch or overnight on the spur of the moment. He treated others as he’d like to be treated, giving them the freedom to be themselves. When asked if something was all right with him, he’d say something like,“Whatever works for you,” or, “Don’t undervalue yourself or your work, or others won’t appreciate what you do for them.”

Ham was well educated, interested in a wide variety of subjects, and had a wide variety of friends. He was a woodworker, a builder, a storyteller, a figure-it-out scientific kind of person, a thinker who worked with his hands, a courteous, determined, matter-of-fact, down-to-earth gentleman. He was greatly loved, and he will be missed. Hammond Ashley Associates, Inc. will continue under the guidance of Dave Wilson and Paul Hammond Ashley, his grandson.

— Dave Wilson and Peggy Warren

Photo by Michael Darnton.

Ham called the Guild office a few weeks ago to let us know he was dying, and to say goodbye and thanks for everything. I asked him how he was feeling about it, and he said he was tired, that he was ready. He said he missed his wife. They were married for 63 years. She died in 1991. He said there was to be a party at his house. He was so matter-of-fact.

I went up there with my wife, Ruth. He was sitting in a wheel chair, looking very content. There were kids running around, and co-workers, family and friends eating and talking, having a good time. Not a tear in the house.

Ham and I talked. It was like every other conversation we had ever had. He had such grace and dignity, such honesty. We shook hands, and said goodbye.

I learned a lot from Ham, almost none of it about stringed instruments. What a man! I loved the guy.

—  Jonathon Peterson