If Ulrich “Uli” Teuffel had lived during
the Middle Ages—and if guitar nuts
were as passionate about their opinions and
traditions then as they are now—chances
are, the German builder would’ve been
burned at the stake. Heck, even today, if
you happen upon an online discussion
of Teuffel’s guitars, there’s a good chance
you’ll witness a cyber-lynching of the man
and/or his work. Chief amongst the cries
of heresy and blasphemy is the charge
that Teuffel doesn’t even play guitar and is
merely concerned with unique aesthetics.
Of course, the same could be said of Leo
Fender and Ned Steinberger, two of history’s
most innovative guitar designers.
But the fact is, Teuffel does play guitar.
And as you can see in the photos of his
first guitars from the 1980s, he revered
both the Les Paul and the Strat—so much
so that he created gorgeous renditions
that are remarkably similar to the iconic
designs. He also built “super strat”-style
electrics, basses, and an acoustic guitar
based on a Steve Klein flattop.
“I still look back on that early period
with fondness,” Teuffel says, “it was filled
with an intense desire to learn how to
build a perfect guitar … I was working
toward critical evaluation and getting my
guitars accepted as equivalent to or better
than those in the shops.”
The Teuffel Birdfi sh (left) features two handsculpted aluminum body pieces and two
“tonebars”—one of American alder and Michigan maple (other woods are also available)—while
the Tesla Studio (middle) and Niwa are made of alder. Photo by John Parks
After Teuffel achieved that level of
expertise—aided no doubt by his time as
a metalworking apprentice at Mercedes-
Benz—his inner innovator wouldn’t sit
still, wouldn’t be content just trying to
fine-tune other minds’ visions. He enrolled
in industrial design school and found
inspiration in the work of an instructor
by the name of Hartmut Esslinger—
who happened to be the designer of the
original Apple Macintosh computer. Soon
thereafter, Teuffel came up with his futuristic
Birdfish model, a modular homage to
Leo Fender that features interchangeable
wood “tonebars,” sliding pickups that can
be swapped out in seconds, and a twopiece
and his homemade corduroy trousers in his shop in Neu-Ulm, Germany.
“I see my work as an oeuvre to be
completed once. So there are periods to
go through. I’ve left the common guitar
behind me at this point, and I know I will
never turn back. All of my former models
are history—I even threw away all the leftover
bodies and necks.”
As proved by the Birdfish and the
Bavarian luthier’s two other main
designs—the Tesla and the Niwa—Teuffel
isn’t afraid to mess with tradition. Every
year, he builds 25 guitars ranging in price
from $7000-$15,000 in his one-man shop,
and he designs and machines everything
from the bodies to the pickups and even
tiny stainless-steel screws for his proprietary
locking nut. The man is a relentless
and incorrigible tinkerer. When questioned
about why he uses a standard Tune-o-matic
bridge on instruments that flout every
other 6-string tradition, you can practically
hear the gears (precision-machined,
of course) turning in his head. But what
do you expect from a guy who custom-ordered
high-end corduroy and taught
himself to make pants when he couldn’t
find suitable trousers at the store?
How would you say your apprenticeship at Mercedes-Benz
affected your design philosophies as a luthier?
My design approach has actually been guided more by my design
teacher at the university, Hartmut Esslinger, who is the designer
of the Apple Macintosh. The apprenticeship at the car company
affected my execution work and handcrafting skills—I learned
to work with metal as if it was wood. Before that, I used to work
with wood only.
Other than a balalaika that he constructed out of an old desk when he
was 13 years old, this Steve Klein-inspired acoustic from 1985 was the
fi rst instrument Teuffel ever built.
You were later inspired by Steve Klein’s designs. What drew you
I discovered his guitars in Donald Brosnac’s book The Steel String
Guitar: Its Construction, Origin, and Design. I was thrilled by the
look and the layout of his instruments. In Germany, none of his
guitars were available, so I decided to build my first guitar after
Was that first guitar your acoustic?
Yes. In the German issue of Brosnac’s book, there were photos of
three of Steve Klein’s guitars. When I saw the picture, I decided to
build a “cover” version of those guitars.
Who were your musical heroes when you first got into guitar?
And did they affect the path you took as a luthier?
When I started to build electrics in the late ’80s, I was captivated
by the Mark Knopfler tone—that bridge-and-middle-pickup
sound—and I developed a way to achieve this tone with two humbuckers
and a single-coil, too. At the end, though, I realized you
need a Strat with three single-coils to get that tone 100 percent.
From Townes Van Zandt and Mark Ribot, I learned about the
pure tone of a simple instrument. Finally, Johnny Marr from the
Smiths inspired me to build a 12-string electric. Eddie Van Halen
gave me an impression of how a Strat with a humbucker can
challenge a Les Paul. I really like that tone. David Torn appeared
on my radar in the ’90s, and he is one of those rare free spirits.
“I made 10 acoustic guitars while I
worked as a trainee at Daimler-Benz. This is my personal guitar, so it has
a wide neck for fingerpicking. It has survived some campfires and has
many dings from that era.”
How did Torn affect your building approach?
What Means Solid, Traveller? was the first Torn record I bought. At
that time, I had already designed the Birdfish, but David had an
influence when I designed the Tesla. One year after I introduced
the Tesla, he called me and told me he liked it and asked me to
build a custom version with a [Steinberger] TransTrem and another
control for his looper.
What do you remember most about your earliest guitars—the
I still look back on that early period with fondness—it was filled
with an intense desire to learn how to build a perfect guitar. It was
an experimental time—not in the manner of pushing the envelope,
but in achieving a professional building level. I was working toward
critical evaluation and getting my guitars accepted as equivalent to
or better than those in the shops. When I achieved that, my attention
switched to guitar design. That was when I decided to study
Why did you feel that studying industrial design was the next
logical step in taking things to the next level?
I worked really locally, and therefore I couldn’t get a lot of first-hand
feedback from major players. On the other hand, I always came up
with unconventional ideas for my early guitars, but most of those
ideas didn’t resonate with the demands of my local clients—who were
mostly playing in Top 40 bands. So I realized I had to go to a broader
public. Before taking that step, I wanted to have a kind of sabbatical
from guitars and get a profound education in how to bring ideas and
concepts into the stadium of production at the same time.