Guitar Player Feature (Part 1 of 8: Tom Wheeler)

Strumming, Picking, and Shredding:

An Oral History of Guitar Player Part 1: Tom Wheeler

By Steven Ward

After freelancing for Rolling Stone during the seventies, Tom Wheeler joined the staff of Guitar Player and eventually became its Editor in Chief. He served in that capacity for ten years, was also the founding Editorial Director of Bass Player, and continued to provide a monthly column for Guitar Player long after leaving the office.

His first encyclopedia, The Guitar Book: A Handbook for Electric and Acoustic Guitarists (foreword by B.B. King), was published by Harper & Row in various languages over a period of 14 years; a new Japanese translation was published in 2000. His next book, American Guitars: An Illustrated History (foreword by Les Paul) was in print for more than 20 years and was called by one retail catalog “the best book ever written about guitars.” His 2004 book, The Stratocaster Chronicles (foreword by Eric Clapton), was named Book of the Year by Vintage Guitar magazine. Tom’s latest book is The Soul of Tone: Celebrating 60 Years of Fender Amps (foreword by Keith Richards).

Tom has interviewed Muddy Waters, B.B. King, Chuck Berry, Eric Clapton, Michael Bloomfield, Les Paul, Leo Fender, Keith Richards, and many others. He co-edited Richard Smith’s Fender: The Sound Heard ’Round The World, and also wrote the foreword. He wrote the foreword for The PRS Guitar Book, and contributed chapters to Gibson Guitars, 100 Years of an American Icon; The Electric Guitar; Electric Guitars of the Fifties; and Electric Guitars of the Sixties; among others.

He has been interviewed by The New York Times, The Chicago Tribune, The Wall Street Journal, U.S. News & World Report, Irish Public Radio, American Public Radio, MTV, NPR, the BBC, and CNN. He is a consultant to The Smithsonian Institution, host of the American Guitar video series, and the writer and host of informational videos for Fender and Guild. He holds a Juris Doctor degree from the Loyola School of Law, is currently a member of the faculty of the University of Oregon’s School of Journalism, and gigs regularly with soul singer Deb Cleveland.

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“The idea of a full-time job with a magazine I respected was too appealing…”

“My first book, The Guitar Book, was reviewed in GP, so they were familiar with my work. I pitched a story on Michael Bloomfield to them. Having just covered him, they declined, but Don Menn called to let me know of a vacancy on the staff. I said no. I was living in Hollywood, teaching guitar at Westwood Music and trying to figure out if I was going to put my law degree to use. One goal was to be a record producer. But they were nice enough to offer to fly me up to the Bay Area, so I called them back the next day and said, why not?

“I was already a regular reader of the magazine, and when I got to their offices I was impressed with both Jim Crockett and Don Menn. The idea of a full-time job with a magazine I respected deeply, where I could interview artists I cared about and actually get paid for it, was too appealing to pass up, so I said yes, moved north, and assumed my new position as Assistant Editor. I arrived in the summer of 1977, a week or two after Tom Mulhern’s arrival. I rented the ground floor of a beautiful old home on Webster St. in Palo Alto for not much money.

“After a couple of years I more or less invented a new job description (I think it was Associate Editor), which acknowledged the extent to which my duties had expanded. When Don was promoted to Associate or Assistant Publisher, Jim and Don tapped me to fill Don’s shoes as Editor. I was Managing Editor for a while, but that period was really my trial period as Editor. I was the Editor of Guitar Player for 10 years, from 1981 to 1991.

“True professionals didn’t get caught up in mere fandom…”

“We were fairly conservative in our editing, especially for a music magazine, because there weren’t many truly professional writers out there with the technical knowledge required to write for us. Much of our editing amounted to wholesale rewriting. The people on the staff, I enjoyed working with all of them, for various reasons. Sometimes our knowledge and tastes would overlap, which gave us plenty of fodder for enthusiastic conversations and debates, and other times my colleagues had tastes and knowledge very different from mine, which helped me learn a lot and expanded my horizons considerably.

“If I had to single out one writer, it would be Don Menn. He had a literary background, was principled and witty, and I admired his work. He was a role model for me my first couple of years there. Otherwise, I don’t really want to name names. There were so many I enjoyed working with, I’d no doubt leave someone out inadvertently.

“Some crazy stories involved our getting to know the stars of rock, jazz and other fields, but at the same time there was sort of an unspoken assumption in our offices that true professionals didn’t get caught up in mere fandom. Not that we were snotty about it, but we saw a zillion cases in other magazines where the writer was just so full of himself (‘I’m hanging out with rock stars!’), and we thought it was trivial and lame, so we tried not to let that stuff seep into the magazine. In the old days, for example, you won’t see many photos (or any photos) of editors hanging out with the subjects of our stories. You don’t even see much first-person at all in the feature writing.

BB and John Lee BB and ZZ

“A mission from God…”

“The mission of GP? Here are some excerpts from my Foreword to the magazine’s new 40th Anniversary book:

“Like the Blues Brothers, we were on a mission from God. We saw ourselves as true keepers of the flame, heirs to the legacy, trustees of our readers’ interests. We were also lucky as hell to have our jobs, and we all knew it. I described my role as Editor of Guitar Player as the best job I’d ever heard of, and I meant it literally.

“Re-reading these stories I am reminded of the various codes, unofficial mottoes, and expectations that working for GP entailed. In my first week as a green Assistant Editor, the publisher, Jim Crockett, told me two things. He said, ‘Listen, there’s something you need to know. For our readers, the day Guitar Player arrives in their mailbox is a big day in their lives.’ I was tempted to think, jeez, are they incarcerated, or what? But at the same time, I knew exactly what he meant. I was one of those readers, and had been for years. For thousands of players around the world, Guitar Player was the Big Guitar Textbook, inspiring us with insights into the techniques and careers of worthy players famous and obscure, and walking us through chapter and verse of Guitar Basics 101.

“In these pages I learned the difference between humbuckings and single-coils, tubes and transistors, preamps and power amps, bolt-on and glued-in necks, classical and flamenco guitars. I first heard the name Leo Fender here. Guitar Player taught me the differences between open-back and sealed cabs, and why bass amps often had big speakers, and how you could play a D major scale over an E minor rhythm guitar and sound like Carlos Santana, only not as good.

“We preached the gospel of the worth of all styles, and we knew that some unschooled, so-called ‘primitive’ players were among the deepest musicians on the planet. A rock and blues player myself, I discovered Hank Garland, Howard Roberts, Jimmie Bryant, Julian Bream, Doc Watson, Carlos Montoya, and scores more in Guitar Player. I was fascinated to learn that certain big-hat Western Swing players were sophisticated jazzers at heart, that certain hot-licks country pickers revered Segovia, that some rock guitar superstars worshipped less famous and even obscure blues artists. All of those musical tributaries and streams flowing into a big rushing river–that’s how we saw the landscape we explored.”

Guitar Player wasn’t well-known outside music and magazine circles, but that’s OK. We heard a great deal of positive feedback from readers, artists, and advertisers and other industry people.

“We tried hard to make every feature, at least the cover stories, be the definitive piece on the musician.”

“The first decade or so of Rolling Stone, with writers such as Robert Palmer, Chet Flippo, Lester Bangs, Greil Marcus, Jon Landau, Robert Christgau, David Fricke, and others, remains the gold standard [of music writing], at least for me. Then again, Guitar Player’s mission was different, and for some of the artists we covered, GP’s stories are as good or better than anything else that was written about them before or since.”

“Publisher Jim Crockett gets a lot of credit for Guitar Player’s influence, as do many of our writers and editors. The way features are structured, the ways columnists are used, the way gear is covered–so much of this, in scores of music magazines, is rooted in standards and practices developed by Guitar Player in the ’70s and ’80s, years before we had any serious competition.”

“Shorter features are typical of the magazine industry as a whole…”

“New owners, and an offer of a new job as a college professor, which sounded intriguing is why I left. We became more corporate. I left in 1991, having accomplished pretty much everything I had dreamed of accomplishing as Editor, and having had a good run and countless fond memories.”

“I do miss longer, more in-depth features, the kind you’d really live with for a while, but it’s a different world now. Shorter features are typical of the magazine industry as a whole, and we’re all working on figuring out how to best make use of the Internet as a complement to the printed page.

“Right now, Guitar Player seems to me to be living up to its legacy. It’s impressive. The gear coverage, so essential to us, has never been better. The in-house staff accomplishes an extraordinary amount of high-quality work (on a limited budget), and relatively recent associates such as gear reviewer Dave Hunter and graphic artist Jason Seiler are contributing outstanding work. In 2007, I’m proud of Guitar Player.”


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