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The Teuffel Birdfish (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
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.”
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 aluminum body.
“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.
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 Steve’s design.
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.
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 industrial design.
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.