Above left: A finished bird and fish set. Above right: Vises for creating the aluminum “bird” (right) and “fish” (left) portions of the Birdfish’s body anchors.
Although you’ve made a mark with totally unique designs, do you
ever miss making more straight-ahead instruments—and would
you ever go back? And what about basses—will you ever make any?
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 of
my Dr. Mabuse series from the ’80s when I first put my workshop
in order. But there are some things I miss from that period. For
instance, polishing the varnish when you’re doing a glossy finish.
Each of my current models is painted in a soft-feeling matte finish.
I did this to create a design identity, but in the future I will probably
work with glossy finishes again.
Teuffel built this Strat-style guitar in 1989, and it
features a swamp-ash body, a bird’s-eye maple neck,
Häussel pickups, and a heavy-duty Schaller Sure Claw
(inset). “I bought back a few of my older guitars from
clients, because I wanted to have them for my private
collection,” Teuffel says, “and I knew I would never
find the time to build duplicates after 1995.”
For the same reason—to create an identity—I stopped making
basses when I started with the Birdfish series. I was afraid that
basses would dilute my work. In my eyes, there is no way to succeed
in building guitars and basses at the same time unless you’re
Leo Fender or one of the companies building generic guitars or
modernized Fender-based instruments, like all the major companies
now. Honestly, do you really appreciate a PRS bass or an Alembic
guitar? I built about 30 basses in the late ’80s and early ’90s, but I haven’t picked it up since then.
Teuffel came up with his
fi rst from-scratch guitar design,
Dr. Mabuse, in 1988. He made
20, and they featured set mahogany necks
and bodies, sometimes with a flamed maple cap.
They had three pickups, usually with a humbucker
in the neck and bridge positions. “You couldn’t get
Strat-type switches with more than two switching
layers then, so I used rotary switches with six layers.
The scheme was 1) bridge, 2) split bridge and middle,
3) bridge + neck, 4) middle + neck, 5) neck. Positions
1,3, and 5 were passive, while positions 2 and 4 went
through an onboard preamp that boosted the signal
and accentuated bass and upper mids.”
On your website you talk about that transition away from
building traditional instruments. “I was dissatisfied with my
guitar work … I had been looking for a wider challenge, which
I couldn’t find in the realm of traditional guitar building …
[from] my study, I learned to look at my guitar work from a distance.”
What did you mean by that?
If you are concerned with your everyday work, you won’t see the
whole picture. I interrupted my guitar-building work while I studied
design and became concerned with a different approach to
creating things. The common way is to imitate existing things with
some modifications and maybe some improvements. The other way
is to go back where it really starts and to put things together in a
new way. This is what I did after the study.
The front and back of an alder Niwa body.
Note the smooth, fi nely cut cavities and incredible attention
to detail in everything from the fl owing body lines to the
placement of hardware routes.
Can you briefly describe the genesis of each of your three main
The Birdfish is a guitar that follows Leo Fender’s principle of
designing a disassemble-able guitar that enables you to interchange
body timbers and slide-able pickups. The Tesla [Classic] was
intended to emphasize the use of guitar defects [hum, microphonic
feedback, and a killswitch] that are isolated on the three momentary
buttons. The Niwa was intended to be an ergonomic design
with more traditional headstock construction.
Why do you work alone, as opposed to having people who specialize
in, say electronics or metalwork?
If you are really interested in how things work, you will become
better than any specialist. Just ask Ken Parker. I can’t imagine getting
more satisfaction than I do when I’m learning new techniques
and skills. It puts me in the position of being able to paint the
whole picture. In the last few years, I’ve pulled back all of the metal
work that external companies did for me before. I find it harder to
communicate my quality standard to someone else than to do it
myself. So I do all the work—the design, woodwork, pickup construction
and winding, electronics, paint, molding, surface design
on CAD, and five-axis programming for the CNC.
All your guitars are dreams to play. The action is low and there
doesn’t seem to be a sharp corner to annoy one’s hands anywhere—
from the nut to the bridge. However, the Tesla guitar
can be a bit of an adjustment: Although its scale length is 25.6",
the bridge is so close to the butt-end of the guitar that it can
feel like you’re missing a couple of inches of guitar neck when
you’re reaching for open-position chords. In addition, fretting
higher on the neck can feel awkward for players who like to feel
their thumb wrap around the other side of the neck. What was
the impetus for these pretty radical ergonomics?
The neck access on the higher frets is much different from a normal
neck—you can’t wrap your thumb around—but the tonal benefits
from this supported-neck construction made me decide to go for
this uncompromising solution. I don’t see my guitars as examples
of how guitars should be. Each year, we see maybe six million conventional
electric guitars for traditionalists put on the market—plus
my 25 unconventional guitars for unconventionalists.
A collection of Niwa necks. At left are a pau ferro fretboard and
Teuffel’s proprietary stainless-steel truss rod—which weighs only 1.7 oz.
Considering your engineering background and how radical your
designs are—from the shapes to the finish to the pickups and
their housings to things like the Niwa’s recessed tuners—it’s
somewhat surprising that you mostly use stock bridges and tuners.
When I started with the Birdfish in 1995, I used the Tune-o-matic
bridge as a ready-made part because I wasn’t able to produce my
own bridge at that time. Later, I liked the fact that this bridge kind
of connects my guitar with the traditional heritage. The Tesla first
had an ABM bridge, but I found that the Tune-o-matic sounded
better. It’s interesting that you mention this, though—maybe I
should design my own bridge with the same tonal character. Do
you think the Tune-o-matic undervalues the spirit of my guitars?
No, I wouldn’t say it undervalues it at all. I was just curious if
you’d thought of designing your own—especially since you’ve
designed and made much smaller components such as screws in
your own shop. That said, I would love to see what you’d come
up with if you did design your own bridge.
Thank you! I’m putting that idea in a corner of my brain where I
can retrieve it anytime.