Friday, 2 May 2014

Todd Tomlin - The Heart Behind The Bass

Y’all remember the Todd Tomlin bass we featured in Skin DEEP back in February of this year. When she was introduced and went up against the Guild Bass, which had won the previous week’s round, the Tomlin defeated the beautiful Guild with a final vote of 6-4.

In her second week of competition, the Tomlin then faced the Ibanez SR Portamento Bass, but lost the round with a final vote of 8-7.

As most of our Skin DEEP regular voters know, I pick basses for the competition because I LOVE the way they look. If a bass makes my jaw drop or makes my heart pitter-patter a little bit more than its brother, I will slot the beautiful ax for a place in our game. And so it was with the Todd Tomlin Bass.

After the Tomlin was out of the competition, I had the wonderful opportunity to get to know the designer of this real looker of a bass.

Todd Tomlin has been gracious enough to answer some of our questions - about being featured in our game, and about his dedication to the creation of his instruments.

TR: First of all, about the looks. The Tomlin 5-string bass is gorgeous! You can see she was designed with love and a lot of personal attention! I found her on the website and knew right away it had to be featured in our weekly game. How did you feel when you found out it was in our competition?

TT: Thanks so much for the compliment and for wanting to do this interview with me. I was very honored and surprised to be in the competition. To be considered worthy to compete against such established and popular brands as Guild and Ibanez was a great compliment. Not to mention all of the great and beautiful models that were featured in the competition before and after my bass was a part of it.

TR: There were comments in the contest, some for and some against the back-painted pick guard. I love it the way it is, but would you consider a pick guard of a different material?

TT: I am more than willing to make a pickguard out of any material a customer would like as long as it is relatively easy and safe to work with. I try to avoid toxic material for personal as well as environmental reasons. The pickguard can also be omitted and the electronics rear routed if that is what the customer desires.

TR: Were you disappointed when it lost to the Ibanez Portamento? The game can be so hard on beautiful designs.

TT: It is always good to win, but just the fact I was picked to be a part of the competition was absolutely wonderful. I am just a small one-man shop that focuses on modern retro inspired designs. To be included in the company of such greats that have been featured in the Skin DEEP competition is absolutely mind blowing.

TR: Skin DEEP is a game of looks, but now that we are out of that realm, tell us a bit about the bass in terms of playability and design.

TT: The featured bass was built to my own specifications of what I envisioned the perfect bass would be for my needs. Although I have played bass for almost as long as I have played guitar, I usually find myself playing guitar in bands. Most 5 string basses I would play seemed to have unmanageable necks on them since I am primarily used to playing guitar. Normal size 5 string necks are probably not much of a problem for the full time bassist.

TR: So what did you do?

TT: I set out to design a 5 string bass with a neck no wider than a modern P-Bass with the 5 strings equally spaced across the fretboard. At first I was a little concerned about the spacing between the strings being wide enough to play with my fingers. Although I am a guitar player, I rarely use a pick when I play bass. As it turns out the spacing worked out quite well and is very comfortable for me to play cleanly.

TR: A bass is also weighted differently than a guitar.

TT: Probably the most important factor I addressed when designing this bass was balance. It had to balance well with no neck dive. Neck dive absolutely drives me crazy.

TR: Tell us about the design in general. The modern retro.

TT: Since I am a fan of 1960s music and Motown; I almost always use flatwound strings on my basses and some of my guitars, especially the 12-string models. For the overall appearance I tried to come up with something different, but something that wouldn’t look out of place if it happened to be built during the mid-20th century. I am a huge fan of mid-century modern design and I try to bring this out in my instrument designs.

TR: And the specs?

TT: Concerning the specifications of the featured bass, please keep in mind these were my specifications. If a customer wants something different, I will do my very best to give them what they are looking for. Wider neck? No problem. No pickguard? No problem. Four strings? You bet. You get the idea.

TR: A custom shop?

TT: Although I do not consider Tomlin Guitars a custom shop, many things are customizable at the customer’s request.

TR: She’s designed to impress the most discerning musician. She’s more than a pretty face. The details are evident. What made you choose the gun-stock finish for the neck?

TT: I had always heard very good things about it and it is relatively easy to apply. It is glossy but not sticky. It feels very natural to play, yet gives the wood good protection. I prefer to use polymerized oils over nice looking wood. Maple and Walnut are my favorites. Both species grow abundantly where I am located.

TR: Is this your only bass in production? By now, I’ll bet you've had requests for other designs. A four string?

TT: A four string is a popular request and it is very doable. The templates are made. I am also offering short scale models in both 30” and 32” scale lengths.

TR: Now THAT is very interesting.

TT: The short scales use the 6-string guitar body that is very similar to the full scale bass design. I actually designed the bass first and the guitar body was based off of it. I am also working on something a little more out there in terms of radical design. I attended a 20th Century Vintage Modern Art Show and was inspired to design something a little different. I call it the Atomic Amoeba, and I am just finishing up the guitar design. If it looks like it will make a good bass without becoming too large I may offer that too. I also have a scrapbook full of ideas and rough sketches that may or may not see the light of day in the future.

TR: The entire lineup is gorgeous.

TT: Thank you very much.

TR: Is Tomlin Guitars a family business where everyone is involved, or do you lock everybody out of the shop? Ha, ha.

TT: My immediate family has been very supportive and absolutely wonderful with this venture. However, when it comes to designing, it is much like an artist painting a picture. I am not trying to make it sound like more than what it is, but that is how I kind of look at it. It is a very personal thing for me.

TR: Sure. I understand.

TT: I study mid-century modern art and architecture for inspiration and then put pencil to paper. I design the old fashioned way like they did back in the 1950s and 1960s. Nothing is done on the computer. I have taken some courses in CAD and I do believe it has its place in the guitar building world but I think it is best to design the old fashioned way early in the process. It seems more personal and hands on that way to me. Once the building starts I try to keep the family away just for safety reasons. I am still a bit frightened of power tools and I think that is a good thing. As soon as you are totally comfortable around them, you get lazy and this is when mistakes and accidents can happen. I would really like to keep all of my fingers for the rest of my life.

TR: I heard that! In general, how has the response been to your designs - both bass and guitar?

TT: The bass playing world has been much more receptive to my designs than the guitar playing world. This doesn’t really surprise me though. Bassists have always seemed to be more receptive to new designs and technology. Just look at Alembic and Sadowsky. Both companies make excellent basses as well as guitars, but they are better known for their basses. With a lot of guitarists, if it is not one of the iconic classic designs their guitar heroes played, most want nothing to do with it. While it is true the original manufacturers did get a lot of it right the first time, refusing to give something new a fair chance is pretty close-minded.

TR: How much of that is related to modern construction techniques?

TT: Technology has come a long way since the middle of last century. Many will say they just don’t build them like they used to but I think this is due to large corporations penny pinching and building instruments down to meet a price point and to fatten their bottom line. There are many small builders out there who are more than capable of building instruments that will stand up to the best of them.

Another way to increase response is through artist endorsements and giving away free instruments. If you have to give something away it doesn’t really seem like an endorsement to me. A real endorsement is when an artist pays full price to play one of your instruments because he or she truly loves the way it plays, sounds and looks. I am more likely to work with somebody who really wants one of my instruments but may have trouble affording it, than with somebody who would have no trouble at all paying full price.

TR: I like that very much. Wow.

TT: I aim to give the customer the highest quality instrument at an affordable price. My instruments are priced reasonably. Just because I don’t charge a fortune, does not mean in any way that my instruments are of lesser quality. I just try to be fair and not take advantage of anybody.

TR: Excellent philosophy.

TT: On another note, the 12-string guitar I offer always gets a lot of attention at guitar shows and gigs. It sounds like the popular electric 12 from the 1960s, but it balances better, tuning and string changes are not complicated, and it is much easier to play.

TR: I think your attitude and principles contribute greatly to the beauty of your instruments. It’s a vibe that transfers from the heart of the luthier to the world of the musician.

TT: Thanks again for asking me to do this interview with you. It was a real honor and pleasure.

TR: For me, too, Todd. Thank you very much.

© 2014 CL Seamus for Thunder Row

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