This is my original sketch for the Vernon Reid “Clock” guitar. Vernon and I collaborated on the ideas for what would be included in the painting. We sat in my car in front of The Lincoln hotel on Clark Street in Chicago, where Vernon was staying, for about an hour jotting down ideas in a notebook. You can see the page from that notebook in the photo.When I got back to my home studio I drew this layout. The body and drawing went to Jim O’Connor to airbrush, and he did a great job. It was all stream of consciousness stuff—we didn’t think it would be so iconic at the time, it was just something we thought would be cool and tell a story.
This is a tough one. A rough day, a sad day, and it has just begun. I’ve lost a friend. No, scratch that—we’ve lost a friend. Whether or not you knew him, Tom Wheeler was your friend too. If you’ve ever played a guitar or a bass, or made any kind of guitar music, Wheeler was there with you in some way. Most folks know him as the author of definitive books about Fender products, like The Soul of Tone, Celebrating 60 Years of Fender Amps, and The Stratocaster Chronicles, but he was more than just a writer of guitar books. Wheeler was the embodiment of the world’s passion for guitar, a position he held for four decades. You could say that he wrote the book on guitar, and you’d be correct. In fact, he wrote seven.
In 1974, Wheeler published his first effort titled simply The Guitar Book. This and its follow-up, American Guitars, an illustrated history, set the standard for how serious study of the six string should be conducted. These two volumes did more than just satisfy the curiosity of a handful of curious guitar lovers. By researching and chronicling the arc of the popular guitar—including electrics—Wheeler put a stamp of legitimacy on what might have been considered a bastard instrument. In no small way these books were part of the genesis of what is now called the vintage guitar trade. As both early reference guides and celebratory stories, these two books were cheerleaders for the continuing guitar juggernaut. By looking back to see from where the present had come, Wheeler gave the shadowy world of guitar shape, and a gravitas that invited players to learn history and honor the past.
We met in 1977 on a flight from Chicago to Nashville. He was going to Roy Acuff’s Opry Museum to photograph famous instruments for what would be American Guitars, and just like that—he invited me to tag along. I kept the notes as Bashful Brother Oswald gave us run of the place and told us stories. Acuff met us after a while and showed us Jimmie Rodger’s guitar. That’s just the way Wheeler was, sharing and inclusive. He and I were friends from that day forward.
Tom Wheeler was a husband, father, musician, historian, researcher, editor and a writer. He was the former Editor of Guitar Player Magazine, and was Professor of Journalism at The University of Oregon. I am proud and humbled to have known this kind man.
Dear Tom, we will miss you.
This month’s Vintage Guitar Magazine features a review of my Tulsa Korina guitar. It’s a short piece that lays out the basics of what is essential about the guitar. The reviewer, Tom Guerra, got all the points of interest dead-on, so it was a joy to read. You’d think I’d be jaded, but I still get a thrill when people like my work.
Although the bit about being a “legendary luthier” has been used before to describe me, I’ve never been comfortable with the title. I feel as though there’s a bit of exaggeration going on—with both terms. In contrast, I am proud of the headline. The New Vintage. It describes what I am going for perfectly. And even more profound is what it means in the context of all my work.
Almost 30 years ago I devised an ad campaign for Hamer Guitars called “Modern Vintage” and the phrase became synonymous with the brand. Since then it has been appropriated by companies that probably were not even in business then. Most of the tactics and ethos of our little company were new for the time. What we started has been ground into a meaningless barrage of boilerplate ad copy that I never saw coming. “Made for musicians, by musicians.” What a concept. “Time honored craftsmanship, the most exquisite tone woods, and state of the art hardware…” The jokes practically write themselves.
So, here’s to you—the marketing men and women of the boutique guitar world. When all the hipster hyperbole is sliding into the ditch you can pivot to bragging about how your CNC accuracy and SolidWorks 3D plotting makes you the NASA of the garage builders. Meanwhile, I’ll just keep doing what I’ve always done. Hey, I’d better steal that New Vintage™ phrase before somebody else does. Thanks again Vintage Guitar for truly making my day. And that’s no exaggeration.
It has been a very busy few months here in The Workshop. The response to our Tulsa model variants has resulted in a massive uptick in the amount of work to do.
I’m still pressing on with the Artist Proofs—trying out ideas I have for future options on my Team Built guitars. The German carve top has proven to be a home run, and the number of customers requesting the back carve is up too.
Right now, I’ve got the “Espresso” Tulsa in the paint room, getting its first coats of nitro. It features a bookmatched top of roasted (torrefied) curly maple. The idea and name came from the color of this piece of wood. I’ve had it in my shop for about three years, and up until now I hadn’t thought of what to do with it. The inspiration came when I used a dark filler on some mahogany for a client who wanted a tobacco shade. When I saw the result, I immediately knew what I was going to use that maple for.
The thing about this torrefied wood is that even though I had glued up the top several years ago, it was still perfectly straight and dead flat in every direction! As skeptical as I was before, I’m convinced that this stuff is extremely stable. In the case of pure white maple, the color change is really drastic, so it’s not for everyone, but it’s perfect for my coffee-themed build.
I love guitars.
I love books.
I don’t play guitar as much, or read as many books as I would like—but that it even more special when I do. I truly savor those times.
When I play—and it’s good—it’s like worlds far away. It’s a story of fantasy where everything in life is good. Even when it hurts. Time stands still in that “speeded up, slow-motion” sort of way. You feel the notes and chords inside you.
Books take you where only minds can go too. You make the stories your own by the way you see words inside your imagination. Words like notes.
That’s why I want rooms full of books and guitars. I just want to have them near me for when they are needed. For safety. For transport. To live more fully and feel more deeply.
Every time you pick up a guitar, it tells you a little bit of a story. It tells you of its history and its life. It helps you tell your own story—every chapter a little different from the one before and the one after. Sometimes you play a passage over and over again, just to feel the way it moves your imagination.
Subtle, joyful, bittersweet. In a way only you can understand.