Tomm Stanley had been playing guitar since he was about 12 years old and made the switch to bass when at around 19 years old he was offered the spot in a friend's band that had gotten some gigs but did not have a regular bassist. He really connected with the instrument and learned that he liked role of a bassist, bridging between rhythm and melody. He also learned very quickly that due to his own curiosity he would not be able to leave his instruments alone. Electronics and wiring systems were modified, bodies were routed and reshaped and other modifications were conducted. In some cases the results were an improvement, in others … not so much. The tinkering with his own basses and guitars lead Tomm to an interest in making his own instruments.
In a rather unusual twist to the story of a business beginning in someone's back bedroom or garage, the first precursors to a Stonefield bass were made by Tomm in 1993 and 1994 at McMurdo Station, Antarctica while working the second of two contracts for the United States Antarctic Program as a Supervisor in the Logistics and Materials Supply department.
The first instrument was made just to see if he could. The instrument was never intended to be playable but rather to try out ideas he had on how to make a bass. Though he’d never seen any written material on the building and construction of musical instruments Tomm was a seasoned woodworker and with the exception of fretwork he could see that the making of a solid body bass was really just another form of fine joinery. Having torn apart, and for the most part re-assembled, quite a lot of guitars and basses by the time he decided to make one from scratch, the cuts and shapes were already in his mind.
The first attempt was successful in achieving what he wanted to achieve and he later set about making the second instrument with the intent of producing a playable electric bass. Completed as an off-work project during the months of 24-hour darkness in an Antarctic winter, the project was also successful. Believing he’d found his purpose in life, Tomm chose to set up a workshop making fine quality, hand crafted electric basses when he returned to his home in Florida later in the year.
Life Takes Over
Life has a tendency to take matters into its own hands however and professional opportunities presented themselves that took Tomm on an unintended migration journey to New Zealand. Through a series of national and international management roles, the setting up and operating of a management consulting and training practice and other business management roles with small, medium and large organisations Tomm was gaining a diverse array of business skills that would all come into play when he eventually came back to the pursuit of his goal to set up a workshop to make fine quality, hand crafted electric basses. The catalyst for the decision? While working on a two-year long contract as a regional project manager based in Dubai with General Motors’ Middle East Operations unit, Tomm began to assess what he would do once the contract was completed. Tomm puts it best:
"I wasn’t getting any younger and I had never lost the desire to make basses. If I didn’t do it now, I’d have to put it on the shelf as a nice idea that I chose to let go. Walking away from a successful career was a tough choice but considering the prospect of laying on my deathbed and wishing that I'd done this thing that I'd always wanted to do ... well, there's no chance to rethink it at that point.””
Once the desire had resurfaced it stayed strong but Tomm had decided that he wasn’t going to be another maker producing pretty much the same thing as almost every other maker: an old Fender bass platform but with a different shape, different colours and different electronics. “If I couldn’t create something unique … and I mean unique because it was truly an improvement, not just for the sake of novelty … then I wouldn’t go forward with it. I thought of all the different component arrangements on basses and guitars and other things that I’d wished I could buy on a bass and then, in 2010, I made the bass.”
X3 - The first "Real" Stonefield Bass
The 2010 bass was referred to as X3, for being Tomm's third experimental instrument. It played well and incorporated many of the features found on Stonefield basses today:
• 14 deg back-angle on the headstock
• Straight-through string alignment from bridge to headstock attachment
• 3 deg back angle on the neck • Floating wooden bridge
• Fully shielded electronics
Tomm felt that it was still missing the ‘wow’ factor though. “What could I focus on to make a bass that was truly better than what I could buy?”
Balance was the answer to that question.
Striking a Balance
Like so many bassists Tomm was unhappy with the tendency of an electric bass to pull down on the headstock from the weight of the tuners: neck diving. The common way manufacturers worked around the problem was to incorporate a long upper horn on the body to allow a better fulcrum point. The uncommon way was to shift the balance off of the headstock and to the body of the instrument by using a tailpiece tuning mechanism. Not generally preferring the look of a long upper horn on the body, Tomm decided that if he could design a better tailpiece tuner than the two makes that had been available since the introduction of the concept in the 1980’s, he’d have something worth investing both time and money in.
The path of experimentation with tailpiece tuning lead to some surprising choices and after a freak moment (the ‘eureka’ moment?) while testing one concept on the bridge of a through-body strung P-bass copy, a proof of concept device was fabricated. The device was crude and difficult to operate but it proved that another method for tuning an instrument from the tail end was possible and resulted in the first meeting with a patent attorney.
Legal Fees and Another X
Another year of testing and tuning created a version of the tailpeice tuner that worked easily and also lead to the creation of X4, another experimental bass, which this time incorporated the new tuning system as well as a through-body core neck system, a changed design to the upper and lower body sections and the first attempt at a passive electronics configuration that included a mid-range notch filter.
After and extensive search of patent records revealed that no other tuning mechanism on record operated in a similar manner, the choice was made to seek legal protection. The expenses mounted and friendships were strained when non-disclosure agreement requests became commonplace as Tomm began to circulate the instrument for the opinion of players. After reciviing overwhelmingly positive review from his test players, Tomm set to work making tweaks to things players didn't like so much and then finally moving into a stage of production level prototyping in which engineering shops were engaged to make the metal components and a cnc machine assisted with the preparation of body and neck component blanks.
Still not entirely happy with the electronics in the instrument, Tomm invested in a few books, did a lot of net surfing and bought a new soldering station. The main goal was a passive circuit - no batteries, preamps or buffers - that would provide high, mid and low frequency tone control. High and low control in a passive circuit was not that unusual; creating a truly effective mid-range control was another story.
More Testing, More Tuning, Going Global
It would take three more years of testing, tuning and playing before, in March of 2016, Tomm would introduce the Stonefield M Series (then referred to as the Model One) to the world at the London Bass Guitar show. With critical acclaim for the tuning system, the industry leading electronics as well as the remarkable level of hand craftsmanship, feedback from that show fueled his passion. A request from many players for a more affordable Stonefield bass also came from that show and further development time was devoted to that request. In September of 2016 he completed the C Series instruments and introduced them along with the M Series to the US at the Bass Player Live show in Anaheim California the following month.
The Golden Prize
On November 15th, not even three weeks after Bass Player Live, Tomm's tuning system was granted a US Patent, The system had received a New Zealand patent earlier in the year but the US patent was one of the big milestones. At the time of this writing (Dec 2016) UK and EU patents are still pending.
“My goal now is to continue on this pathway of development, looking for new and better ways to create instruments that allow players to freely express their inner musical voice. It’s not easy but I also can’t really imagine a time when we will run out of ideas. We’re now just looking for the players that will inspire us to keep pushing the limits of electric bass design.”