Locating your bass company “in the middle of nowhere,” as Tomm Stanley puts it, might not be the best idea. Then again, it could provide the perfect setting for an operation founded by a luthier determined to make “the bass you’ve always wanted.”
Stonefield basses are built in Christchurch, New Zealand, more than 6,000 miles across the Pacific from California. Tomm, who grew up in Florida, was introduced to the city when he was working for the U.S. Antarctic program. “It was the last stop before you hit the ice,” he says. Tomm was a supervisor in logistics and materials supply, and during his second contract, he was responsible for the teams supplying building materials to research sites, which gave him access to the McMurdo Station woodworking shop. A bassist since age 19, he thought it would be fun to build an instrument there. “I took apart my bass and looked at how it was done. I came to the realization that about 90 percent of it was just fine woodworking.”
So, in 1993, Tomm put his woodworking skills to work and built a bass. And then he built another one. “The second one was usable,” he says, “and that was the moment when I thought, It would be really cool to do this.” Although he stopped traveling to Antarctica, Tomm’s work as a management contractor in the motor industries kept him busy, with assignments all over the world. In 2009, after returning from Dubai, he decided to get serious about building basses. “I didn’t want to make what everybody else makes, so I wrote out a list of all the things I wanted on a bass.”
At the top of that list was balance. Tomm admired what Ned Steinberger and Philip Kubicki had accomplished by moving the tuners to the body, but he had his own ideas about how to do that. Several years of experiments with tailpiece tuning led to the Tomm Stanley Tuning System. He also wanted a floating wooden bridge and wooden nut. “That was influenced by playing archtop guitars and listening to cellos and violins,” he explains. “Wooden bridges are tonally superior to brass bridges, and wooden nuts complement that beautifully.”
Tomm also wanted passive electronics with a midrange control. Once again, experimentation led to a unique design: a 6-way switch with a push/pull, creating an 11-position notch filter. In a June 2017 BP review of a Stonefield 5-string, Jonathan Herrera noted that the circuit takes some getting used to, but ultimately has “an immediacy, speed, and dare-I-say organic quality that’s a joy of its own.”
For bassists accustomed to alder, ash, and maple, the woods that Tomm uses can be puzzling. He admits that it took time to learn about them, but says that some woods indigenous to New Zealand and the South Pacific are “just spectacular” for instrument building. “The timber I use for body cores comes from Fiji and is kind of a secret weapon. It’s very hard yet quite lightweight, and it has a beautiful ring tone.” Tomm also praises Solomon Islands ebony as a fingerboard material, saying it’s “dense and heavy and pretty, and amazingly stable.”
Stonefield basses are available as M Series instruments, with the full complement of features and hand-rubbed oil finishes, and C Series instruments, with streamlined electronics and lacquer finishes. Coming up are F Series basses, slated for introduction at the 2018 Winter NAMM Show; they incorporate many of the Stonefield design elements into lower-priced instruments. They will be built by an Indian contractor based in Chennai under Tomm’s supervision. “I’m hoping that people will connect with the F Series and get comfortable with the shape of the instrument and other Stonefield features,” Tomm says. “And then they’ll want to step up.”
Tomm is also putting his passive electronics into a footpedal, again hoping to expand his visibility by providing another entry point to Stonefield gear. “I can’t stop,” he says with a laugh. “The whole market is anywhere but where I am, in New Zealand, so I’ve got to keep going.”
For more about Stonefield basses, go to stonefieldmusic.com.
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).