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.