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Bass Musician Magazine’s Year of the Luthier – Tomm Stanley, Stonefield Musical Instruments

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How did you get your start in music?

As far back as I can remember I wanted to be a musician. I have recollections of trying to sing along to Jackson 5 albums when I was just a kid and after constant pestering from me, my parents sprung for guitar lessons when I was around 12 years old. They signed me up for classical lessons so that didn’t last long but I later bought a guitar with money I made mowing lawns and kept on playing and teaching myself. I was 18 or 19 when some friends with a band had scored a gig at an outdoor party but didn’t have a bass player. They asked if I could do it and, well, man… a gig! My first gig. I was definitely in on that action. I went out and bought a cheap P-bass copy and some kind of amp.

I pretty quickly realized that the instrument physically fits me better than a guitar (I’m 6’7”) and I really dug the role of bridging between rhythm and melody. I was a bassist from that point on and kept trying to scratch a living from music until I was about 24 when I finally had to make a choice: live in my car and keep trying or get into something with better prospects.

Are you still an active player?

I’m no longer in an organized band or out trying to make a living at it but have regular jam sessions with a handful of friends and participate in open stage nights at a few local clubs. I’m always practicing a new technique or style and do keep my chops as good as I can keep them. You never know when opportunity will knock… yeah, still dreamin’, even at this advanced age.

How did you get started as a Luthier? When did you build your first bass? 

I started tearing my instruments apart beginning with that first bass. It wasn’t too long before I realized I should have bought something better and I also learned about changing over to hot pickups. That lead to adding series/parallel switching, phase switching and other electronics mods. My dad was a building tradesman and the ultimate DIY’er. He taught me basic woodworking skills from when I was pretty young, so it wasn’t a great leap before the saws and files were coming out, firmly pointed at the bass.

The first bass I built, as in ‘start with a pile of wood/finish with a bass’ was during a winter-over in Antarctica. I was 30 and by that time life had taken me a long way from professional music. I was working the second of two winter-over contracts with the US Antarctic Program, supervising materials supply crews for construction projects at McMurdo and South Pole Stations. I had access to the McMurdo Station carpenter’s shop and decided to see if I could build a bass as a winter-over project. I had never seen a book on the subject and in 1994 there was no internet, so I sat down and tore apart a bass that I had with me, really looking it over and figuring out how it all went together. At the end of the day, the majority of an electric bass is just fine woodworking, so that was all pretty easy to figure out but I can remember struggling over how a truss rod worked. I understood the concept but really had no idea how they worked; I just had to reason it out.

I had no fret material so made it fretless and the station’s machinist got into the game, making me a beautiful brass bridge/tailpiece unit. Electronics were scavenged from the other bass and that was it, I was hooked. I wanted to be a Luthier.

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How did you learn the art of woodworking/luthiery?

As mentioned in the last question, basic woodworking came from my dad and then more advanced skills were learned on my own through trial and error, reading woodworking books and magazines like Fine Woodworking. I would just try to do the hardest stuff that I came across. Later on, closer to when I finally decided that if I didn’t try to make a business out of bass building I’d die wishing that I had, I was into every book and DVD that I could get my hands on. Most of what’s available is in the space of acoustic guitars and I have found some stuff on the making violins and cellos; ukulele’s too. It’s all related so every little bit helps.

Who would you consider a Mentor? 

I had no one to learn from so it was the magazines, books and DVD’s. Bob Benedetto’s DVD on making archtop guitars was an amazing discovery. His superb craftsmanship rang true with me and I play archtops, so seeing how the good ones are made was enlightening. I was so inspired by both the DVD and his book that I sought out and eventually bought a Benedetto guitar. I found a very early one: Benedetto number 12 from 1977 (s/n 1277). When you handle, play and closely inspect an instrument of that quality, you learn.

How do you select the woods you choose to build with?

For necks, I only ever considered using laminates. The strength to weight ratio is much better than with solid wood and the variability of individual boards is eliminated. Okume is used in acoustic guitars so the choice of neck timber was easy once I learned that okume is also available as laminates that are used in both the aircraft and marine industries. On the downside, we’ve found it just about impossible to shape a laminated neck with machinery, so there’s a lot of handwork involved on that side of our build.

Stonefield’s bodies are made from a 40mm thick core and a 10mm thick top. We have one and only one wood that we use for body cores. I came across it through trials with a lot of different woods. I wanted a bright tone but also wanted light weight; a difficult combination to find. Sustainability is an important value with me as well and, being a New Zealand-based company, I wanted to find something from the South Pacific region. Of course, using only oil finishes required that the wood have a natural beauty. It was a bit of a mission to find something that met all the criteria but when I tried salusalu, the search was over; it has everything that I was looking for.

The tops are largely decorative but they do alter the tonality as well. Using a dense, brittle wood like African wenge for the top imparts a real snappiness; a softer wood like NZ-grown cypress has a more mellow tonality. It’s pretty cool to try different top woods to see what they do to the tone. Fingerboard woods contribute as well. Regardless of the topwood or fingerboard, it’s never like a totally different instrument but, in a comparison to something visual, I think of it like drawing a line with freshly sharpened pencil vs. one that’s well used; crisp vs. fuzzy. I guess that’s how I would describe the difference in tonality depending on the choice of fingerboard and topwood.

How about pickups? What pickups did you use in the past? What electronics do you use right now?

Sorry, that’s Top Secret (laughs). As I’ve gotten older, I’ve lost the hang up of feeling that I must use some hot rod pickup. Again, look at the high quality archtop guitars. They have this amazing tone with just a single, small, relatively low output floating humbucker.

I spent a lot of time developing the electronics circuit that we use in the Stonefield Model One and it largely negates the need for hot rod pickups. I can take any decent, commercially available humbucking pickup and make it sound as thin or as fat as you want it to be with that circuit. We draw on that circuit for the lower priced line as well, which doesn’t have the mid control but still offers some of the widest tonal range on the market. Best of all is that we’re doing it with passive electronics, so no batteries, no overdriving, just nice tonal variation to suit any genre or style of music. Yes, the output signal strength is lower because passive cannot add but if the output isn’t enough for you, get a bigger amp and continue to live your life free of batteries.

Who were some of the first well-known musicians who started playing your basses?

We met Freekbass at the London Bass Guitar show. He was just cruising the exhibit hall and checking out what was there. A real gentleman, he introduced himself and asked if he could play one of our basses. I still think that’s kind of funny for some reason; seems like the conversation should have been the other way around. As he was having a go on that first instrument he just kind of stopped and looked at me saying something like, ”man, this is a nice bass.” Over the weekend he kept coming back so I realized it was more than just passing curiosity. I got his contact details and after a couple months of discussion and development time, it all lead to our Freekbass Signature Model.

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How do you develop a signature or custom bass for an artist?

Discussions, trialing ideas, test, tune … emails and Skype calls. Ultimately though, for a signature model, the bass has to reflect the wants and needs of the artist while embracing what a Stonefield is. If it’s not a situation where I can supply that something special or unique the artist is looking for, I’m not interested. Conversely, if the artist doesn’t really just dig what a Stonefield is, I’m also not interested. It’s got be a two-way street and then the artist has an instrument that they can’t get anywhere else and we have an ambassador for the brand, not just someone playing a Stonefield with their name scrawled on it.

What are a few things that you are proud about your instruments and that you would consider unique in your instruments?

I think you’re going to need another interview! I’m going to need to lead into the answer for that question:

Learning to build basses by first learning how to build archtop guitars, violins, cellos … it makes you realize that there are features, materials and methods used in those instruments vastly superior to what we find in solid body electric basses or guitars. Beginning in the 1950’s the electric instruments became the subject of mass production, to be made cheaply and for every possible player, while the others largely remained the subject of skilled craftsmanship and made for select players that will provide harsh criticism if they are not receiving the sound and feel that allows them to express their inner voice. For concert grade instruments, price is the secondary consideration, not the primary one.

Mass production combined with mass marketing creates mass opinion that this or that is the best when, in a lot of cases, whatever it might be may not actually be the best. In marketing, the created perception is what matters, though that perception may not always be the factual reality. If I’ve been conditioned to believe that a brass bridge makes for the best tone, I buy it. Perception equals Reality. My observation: if brass made the best tone it would be used on the bridges of violins and cellos. It does make a good counterweight to heavy headstock tuning gear however. But, with the right marketing spin…

So I started with an interest in building basses but by the time I came around to the decision to form Stonefield, my years of corporate management experience would not let me step into this overcrowded market with another version of a P or J bass made with a different shape and interesting colours. I mean no offense to the bass luthier community at large but look at basses and what do you see?

I sat down and made a list of features that I’d always wanted as well as things that are on these other instruments and started making prototypes. Right from the beginning I promised myself that if I couldn’t create an instrument that was different and, most importantly, different because it was functionally better, not just different for novelty’s sake, then I wouldn’t bother. Along the way I learned why some of the items on my list are not incorporated on an electric bass but most of it stuck. In the end we have a Stonefield, an instrument designed from a blank piece of paper, incorporating elements from a wide range of musical instruments into a new kind of electric bass.

Okay, now to the answer to the question:

There is so much about a Stonefield that is unique. Obviously, the Tomm Stanley Tuning System stands out. I’m proud enough there to have put my name on it and there’s no question that it is the smoothest operating tailpiece tuner ever designed. And it looks cool too. The passive electronics with high, mid and low controls are just so darn versatile. That took about three years to get right and uses some pretty expensive componentry, but to get that range of tonal options without preamps and batteries was something unheard of. Floating wooden bridges; back-angled necks; neutral balance; stainless steel, brass and titanium hardware so you’re never, ever going to have rust … our company slogan, The Bass You’ve Always Wanted, is from the fact that this is the bass that I always wanted. Being either the inventor, creator or the designer of it all, I’m proud of it all.

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Which one of the basses that you build is your favorite one?

Being entirely honest, the one that I’ve not yet built; the Holy Grail is still waiting, somewhere out there. Looking at what I have made it would be the high-strung version of our six string. Six string basses strung E to E allow me to be a bassist and a guitarist at the same time. I love the versatility of that. With our titanium hardware option, weight-wise, you can hardly believe it’s a six string.

Can you give us a word of advice to young Luthiers who are just starting out?

Don’t do it! (laughs) McDonald’s is hiring! (laughs) I’m serious. (laughs).

Like everything, do it if you love it and feel compelled to. With a bit of persistence and marketing savvy you can make a living producing what people are used to seeing but if you decide to introduce something new and different make sure to come into the situation with your eyes wide open that in spite of the exploratory and creative nature of music, that open-mindedness doesn’t seem to readily apply to the instruments. People are pretty conservative when making a decision on where to spend their money, especially when so much might be on the line. It’s hard work to bring something like this into the market but once people settle on the fact that it is actually a good choice to make, and they make it, you can’t beat that kind of satisfaction. There’s huge satisfaction in someone wanting an instrument that you create and there’s very little on the coolness scale that can compare to seeing a world class performer on an instrument that you can remember as a pile of wood.

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What advice would you give a young musician trying to find his perfect bass?

Buy a Stonefield, it’s The Bass You’ve Always Wanted (laughs).

I’d say that a young player needs the best instrument they can get if they want to develop into the best player they can be. Unfortunately, that’s not always going to be an instrument they can readily afford. The typical approach of buying some affordable piece of junk and seeing if you like playing music sets you up for failure though (parents: don’t do this to your kids). Music is challenging enough without finding yourself in a situation where you’re fighting with an instrument. I wonder how many potentially world class players may have given it up or not pursued the interest because their first or second instrument was rubbish, making it all too hard? If you have a quality instrument and still decide that music isn’t for you, at least you can get a return on that spend in the second hand market. Distill that down to one nugget of advice: you will never regret buying quality.

What is biggest success for you and for your company?

Simply being accepted by the players. To me, it’s such an honour and privilege when someone chooses to purchase a Stonefield.

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Are you preparing something new, some new model or new design? Or maybe some new gear amps, etc?

For ages I’ve been dabbling with putting the Model One electronics into an outboard piece of gear. I’ve got prototypes of both a pedal and a rack mounted unit. It’d be nice to bring our tonal versatility to players that choose another brand for their instrument. That will happen, I’m just not sure when.

What are your future plans?

Keep looking for ways to push the boundaries of electric bass design but, as in the beginning, only for reasons that create a better instrument in one way or another; never just for novelty or appearances.

Is there anything else you would like to share that we have not included?

Are you sure you want to ask me that? (laughs)

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