Having worked for one of the biggest names in music journalism, Wheeler is no stranger to the Rock n’ Roll beat
Tom Wheeler is a man with extensive experience in the music journalism area and has covered this beat for many years. He currently works at the University of Oregon but stays involved in music by playing with his blues band in local venues around Eugene. Tom has interviewed such people as Eric Clapton, Ted McCarty, Keith Richards, Chuck Berry and many more while working at places like Rolling Stone and Guitar Player magazine. Along with these jobs and others, he has written several books about music, his first was an encyclopedia entitled, The Guitar Book: A Handbook for Electric and Acoustic Guitarists. In this interview, I talk with Wheeler about how he began a career in this field and his experience overall as a journalist covering the music beat.
Q: How did you enter the journalism business? How did you get your foot in the door?
A: I wrote a book. I don’t see a copy here, however…As far as journalism, I had no idea what I was doing, I had never been to journalism school, I was at law school and teaching guitar on the side….I started writing this big amorhpous thing. It was an encyclopedia called The Guitar Book. Harper and Rowe published it. I did it just to get it out of my system but Rolling Stone favourably reviewed the book and asked me to work for them. I hadn’t previously considered working as a journalist…But when Rolling Stone called it was like a bolt of lightening…I free lanced for Rolling Stone so I wasn’t in the building…I later caught the eye of Guitar Player magazine…They had a vacancy and asked me to fill it. I went to work there in ’77 and stayed there for 14 years. The last ten years there I worked as the editor-in-chief.
Q: At what point(s) or place(s) did you learn the most?
A: My biggest motivator at first was to do a good job at Rolling Stone. I thought to myself ‘I cannot screw this up’…I panicked…Panic and fear are great motivators. At Guitar Player we all read each others stuff…and then I edited too…[I] figured out how to deal with others’ writing. The experience of working with good editors and many writers of varying skills couldn’t help but improve my writing…[I learned] what does work and what doesn’t work and when to break the rules…It was a wonderful training ground.
Q: When is it OK to break the rules?
A: You have to have a clear understanding of your audience. I’m not a big fan of breaking lots of rules all of the time…It’s OK to break the rules on occasion when it works…It’s OK when what’s in my head gets in your head and what’s in my heart is in your heart. When it connects. If you’re just showing off or seeking attention that’s ameteaur…It’s about the reader.
Q: How do you stay involved in music now?
A: As a professor, I’m working on another encyclopedia with 300 to 600 color plates…It’s big…I continue to keep one foot in the profession. I think that it’s good for professors to practice…Writing keeps me on my toes.