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The Innovators

Remembering Tom Wheeler
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Wheeler (left) interviewing Michael Bloomfield for Guitar Player in 1978

Wheeler (left) interviewing Michael Bloomfield for Guitar Player in 1978

On February 10, We lost a giant. Tom Wheeler, the editor of Guitar Player from 1981–91 and the founding editorial director of Bass Player, died unexpectedly at the age of 70. I was stunned and saddened by the news, as were many others who’d had the good fortune to work with Tom.

Connecting with Tom changed my life. In the 1980s, I was a working bass player and aspiring music journalist. I’d had some articles published in newspapers and magazines, but I really wanted to write for Guitar Player, which I had read for years. I started pitching stories to Tom but didn’t have much luck at first. He finally gave me the green light for a feature that became the first of a dozen articles (all but one about a bass player) that I contributed to GP from 1987–89.

After GP and its sister publication, Keyboard, were acquired by Miller Freeman Inc. in 1989, the new owners decided they wanted to add more titles for musicians. Tom told me that one magazine they had in mind was Bass Player. Would I like to apply for a job?

What an unbelievable opportunity. I interviewed to become BP’s founding editor and was hired. I reported to Tom, which meant that I worked closely with him almost every day. I got an education in how to run a magazine, and I also got an education in how to be the kind of person who can succeed in that role, interacting with artists, publicists, managers, advertisers, printers, distributors, and—most important—readers. Tom taught me that the chief editor’s job was to connect the people who create the magazine with the people who read the magazine, a lesson I never forgot. I could not have asked for a better mentor, and I tried to absorb as much as I could, from the right way to cover the “nuts and bolts” of gear to how to conduct myself at trade shows and other events where I would be the public face of the magazine.

All of us who worked with Tom at BP remember him with gratitude, and since his death, we have been swapping messages with our recollections. Karl Coryat, who was BP’s first assistant editor (and is still onboard as consulting editor), wrote: “On several occasions, Tom brought me up to his office and had me watch over his shoulder as he edited stories on his Mac Plus. I couldn’t believe how fluid he was editing a story, and he explained every change that he made. Most memorable was his ability to tighten sentences. He’d reword something to half the length, and then he’d say, ‘You don’t lose a thing!’ While editing BP stories over the past 28 years, that catchphrase has echoed in my head hundreds of times.” Paul Haggard, who was BP’s first art director (and remains in that position today), recalled: “There were times he would be given a layout to assess, and there would be several moments of palpable tension while he would begin to slowly shake his head side-to-side in a silent no signal, then softly say, ‘Great.’”

That was Tom—brilliant and warm and unfailingly gracious in sharing his knowledge. At first, finding a note saying see tw in the margin of a story would scare me, because I knew he had spotted a big problem. Over time, though, I grew to treasure those editorial conferences with Tom, because I always learned something valuable. Bass Player could not have succeeded without his knowledge and guidance. After he left our offices for the University of Oregon, where he would teach journalism for the next 27 years, we kept his name on the BP masthead, as consulting editor, for a year. He was our sage.

I last spoke with Tom when I interviewed him about his seventh book, The Fender Archives, for an article that ran in BP’s March ’15 issue. He was the same thoughtful guy I had known as a rookie editor, enthusiastically describing his research and telling me how he had assembled the materials in the book “like a museum curator.” I’m very sorry I’ll never hear his voice again, but I’ll never forget how much I learned from him. Rest in peace, my friend.

Jim Roberts was the founding editor of Bass Player and also served as the magazine’s publisher and group publisher. He is the author of How the Fender Bass Changed the World and American Basses: An Illustrated History & Player’s Guide (both published by Backbeat Books/Hal Leonard).

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