When I got the news last night that the iconic author and guitar journalist Tom Wheeler died at 70, it hit hard.
Guitarists who, like myself, came of age in the late '60s and early '70s will remember coming across Wheeler's epic The Guitar Book: A Handbook for Electric & Acoustic Guitarists, which was first published in 1974. Falling somewhere between an erudite, illustrated history of our beloved instrument and a call to arms to play, collect, and study the 6-string, The Guitar Book laid the groundwork for the scene we all take for granted today.
When Tom became Guitar Player magazine’s chief editor in 1981, after being on staff for some four years, he turned it into the bible for 6-stringers around the world. Like so many of my sisters and brothers of twang, I devoured each issue, poring over the artist interviews and lessons, and soaking up everything I could glean about gear.
In 1989, when I joined Keyboard magazine as assistant editor, I worked down the hall from Tom and got to interact with him and the amazing GP crew. Periodically we'd have company-wide jams, where we'd set up gear in a loading dock behind our office in Cupertino, California, and rattle the windows in adjacent buildings.
Thanks to these jams, I formed a bond with Tom, and when an associate editor position opened up at GP in 1991, he invited me to apply. I did, we made it happen, and in that single moment the course of my life was forever altered.
At that time new owners had acquired GPI publishing, and Tom felt restricted by the increasing corporate mindset. His last act at the magazine, before leaving to become a journalism professor at the University of Oregon, was to hire me and brother Art Thompson (currently Senior Editor at GP), teach us the ropes, and open the door to a new world we couldn't have imagined.
Tom taught us all many things about writing and editing, but his greatest gift—for me, at least—was to instill the notion that passion for guitar was the essential foundation on which to build a writing career. He never lost his childlike enthusiasm for the instrument and its players. (Tom and I were both huge Michael Bloomfield fans, and would often dissect Bloomer’s manic guitar solos.)
On several occasions, I had the honor of being the guest lecturer in Tom's U of O journalism class, via Skype. We would see each other at NAMM, exchange news about bands we were playing in, and discuss the pros and cons of different guitar wiring schemes. I felt privileged to be interviewed by "Wheelie" for The Soul of Tone, his definitive tome on Fender amps.
Tom left us amazing books and scores of insightful artist stories (his two-part Bloomfield interview still ranks as the best ever with that mercurial player), and he will be remembered for setting the standards for the modern guitar publishing industry. Yet for those who knew him personally, what we first think of is his radiant smile—it was genuine.
Thank you, Tom Hutchin Wheeler, for your wisdom and inspiration.