Handpolished stainless-steel neck screws and matching threaded
inserts. Grooves for the inserts are precision cut into the neck cavity.
The Tesla and Niwa have very wide, flat knobs. What’s the
design philosophy behind those?
I use the Tesla volume pot for swell sounds in the opposite direction.
So the swell direction of movement goes down with the stroke
of the playing hand. The larger diameter makes the swell sound
more scalable. The Niwa selector knob continues the design of the
volume and tone knob.
Your pickups tend to have a hot and somewhat hi-fi sound to
them. What sounds were you going for when you designed them?
Most of the players who write reviews of my guitars describe their
tone as quite vintage, but I know it is always difficult to get the
same opinion on the same guitars. My sound vision is more a
Fender tone than a Gibson tone—quick attack with a warm pop.
In order to get this—and keeping in my mind that my guitar bodies
are mostly from red alder—I design my pickups in a way that
they achieve the Strat-like tone but with more volume.
My major pickup type for the Tesla and Niwa is a split coil that
has one bobbin with three magnets for the treble strings, and one
bobbin with three magnets for the bass strings—similar to the
Precision bass pickup. No pickup can exactly paint the sound of a
vintage single-coil except a vintage single-coil, but this is not my
ambition. I evolved the split-coil design for the particular tonal
needs of my guitars. The Tesla has to have a Hendrix-like neck
sound, but louder and without hum—and sharper, too, because
it’s a noise-cancelling single-coil. The split coil is perfect for this
demand. The Niwa’s pickups use another type of split coil—different
magnets, different wires, and a different number of windings.
The guitar should sound like a fat, full Strat, with a hotter, Teletype
bridge sound. The Tesla bridge pickup is a humbucker made
in a more standard way. Since 2009, I’ve used the same configuration
I made for [Metallica’s] Kirk Hammet.
Of course, I also make custom pickups for my clients. The
Birdfish has three different humbuckers—from a very hot, PAF-like
version to a P-90-like version, and two real single-coils that have
more of a vintage tone. I haven’t built active pickups or circuits
Teuffel made approximately 20 John F. Kennedy
series basses, most of which were
maple neck-through designs with rosewood
or ebony fretboards, Bartolini pickups, and
a passive 2-band or parametric 3-band EQ.
Three were 36"-scale 5-strings like this one
from 1991, but most were 34"-scale 4-strings.
Watch Editor in Chief Shawn Hammond demonstrate the Tesla, Niwa, and Birdfish:
Most pickup aficionados are familiar with alnico 5 and alnico 3
magnets, but you use both alnico 5 and alnico 8 in the Tesla and
Niwa pickups. Why?
I use the alnico 8 magnets for the inner magnets of the split-coil
pickups, where the north pole and the south pole are facing the D
and G strings. Alnico 8 has a stronger field power, and this compensates
for the partial elimination of the field. When I work with
alnico 8, I don’t load the magnets up to the full saturation. I usually
go up to 85 percent of the magnetic saturation. To do that, I use an
adjustable impulse magnetizer. After that, I measure the magnetic
field strength of each magnet. This is very important, in my opinion,
because it plays a major role in the harmonics of the tone.
I also have other magnet types—alnico 2, 3, 5, 6, and 8—but
I only use alnico 2 and 3 for custom pickups. My job is not to
rebuild classic vintage guitars. I believe the fact that everyone is
looking for vintage pickups isn’t based on the fact that they are the
best-sounding pickups—people are looking for very early pickups
that were designed before instruments and players evolved [to
where they are today]. But of course, these pickups and guitars were
big parts of [some of ] the most important [guitar] recordings. In
the ’50s, you had to play a ’50s guitar—there were no ’60s guitars
yet. In the meantime, I try to stay away from all the tautological
phenomenon of perception and try to find out about and improve
what is in the system—from magnets to wire. Because the look of
my guitars is so different, I don’t have to copy the look of old pickups.
This gives me the freedom to work on my own sound nuances.
In the ’90s, Teuffel built a few modern
Strat-style guitars with set necks, fl amed-maple or alder
bodies with a maple top, and open tremolo-spring cavities.
“To me, open trem routing is a business card for good
workmanship,” he says, “but you have to sand, paint, and
polish the cavity, too.”
The Birdfish is named after two aluminum tone bars that support
the main components. Your website says you used aluminum
because it transfers vibrations without adding tonal coloration.
Is it really possible for a part to have no effect on tone?
I just realized the translator of my website didn’t translate that part
correctly. You are absolutely right. Of course each single element and
material has an influence on the tone—the pick, the string, bridge,
timber, etc. Aluminum transduces the vibrations almost without a
filter influence. When I made the first prototypes, I experimented
with brass, steel, and different sorts of aluminum and hardwood. The
sound of the aluminum joint came extremely close to hardwood.
Since 1995, you’ve overhauled the Birdfish in four stages.
What are those stages?
This 1993 single-cut is one of very few
Teuffel-made Les Paul clones. The
cedro body features an alpine maple
top, and the pickups are Häussels.
The first Birdfishes had conventional pickups from Seymour
Duncan and DiMarzio that I molded into my own pickup shape.
The aluminum parts were sand-casted then, too. The next stage had
custom pickups, but I didn’t make them. In the next stage, I wound
my own pickups, and the aluminum parts were made in lost-wax
casting and were chrome plated. In the latest step, I cut the aluminum
parts from aircraft grade aluminum. Also, the new adjustable
locking nut replaced the former Schaller/Steinberger string clamp.
How do those different aluminum-shaping methods affect the
The fretboard on this version features yin-yang
All of the previous casting processes had a problem with a lack of
homogeneity in the material after it cooled. But when I started with
the Birdfish, it was too expensive to cut them from a solid block of
aluminum. Now I have a CNC machine that I use to cut them.
You even make your own screws sometimes. Why?
The screws for the locking nut are small but rigid. Regular stainlesssteel
screws aren’t durable enough for that purpose, so I had to use
a stainless-steel alloy that can be hardened. But they have to be custom
made, because you can’t buy screws made of that material.
Do you ever plan to unveil new designs—and, if so, when? Or
do you find yourself spending most of your time building the
existing ones and thinking of ways to improve them?
I am very busy with building the current models, but I am working
on a new model for next year.
What can you tell us about the new model?
The new model is my journey back into guitar history. It will be an
electric guitar, but it will deal with elements from classical guitars
and elements of my own work history. The project name is Antonio,
and it will be finished for the 2012 Montreal Guitar Show.
What do you say to traditionalists and naysayers who think your
designs are inspired more by a desire to be unique and artistic
than to address practical musical needs?
I once had a talk with David Torn exactly about that, and he said
some people say his music isn’t music. Some people say my guitars
are not guitars. And some people visit museums of modern art and
say “This is not art.” I have a deep respect for traditional guitars,
and I have spent many years building them and learning from
them. My newer models are founded on this tradition. But guitar
playing now seems to mean something akin to taking part in a kind
of reenactment—as if you are role-playing the battle of Gettysburg.
You could call this the Stradivarization of the electric guitar. But if
you don’t see yourself as the role-playing type of guitar player, you
might be attracted by the freedom that my guitars will give you—
because they don’t lock you into the scenery of a reenactment.