By JP Holesworth
Editors note: Some of the information in this interview is out of date as it took place in 2012
The first time I read about Teuffel guitars was a few years ago in a Boutique gear oriented magazine; I saw the picture of someone holding a strange guitar.
I read a brief comment under the picture, and words like “tone bars” and “movable pickups” caught my attention. After reading, watching, and listening as much as possible about Teuffel’s “Birdfish” guitar, I started to think that this particular instrument can be the most exciting innovation in the world of electric guitars since the days of Leo Fender. If the tone is what you look for, you will get it here, along with a good dose of versatility, design, and ergonomics. Listen, play, don’t assume things by the look unless you fear getting fired from your classic rock band. The reverend of tone, Billy Gibbons, didn’t worry about it.
I strongly recommend paying some attention to Teuffel’s vision. You may find a more classic vibe than you think– especially with the Birdfish. Being “avant-garde” is not the sole purpose here. Everything has been re-thought and designed with purpose, the design serving the craft. You can get “twang,” “crank,” “oomph,” and bells from a single guitar with an aluminum body (remember those 80’s Kramer guitars with aluminum necks? Perhaps they put the metal in the wrong place, but Ulrich doesn’t). There are no “next century, area 51” materials here either. Aluminum, maple, alder, alnico is what you will find. Not much more than in your standard Strat or LP. As someone said, “more colors on the canvas don’t make better paintings.” But Teuffel’s work is not only the Birdfish. The Tesla, the Niwa, and the new Antonio are more focused guitars visually but designed with the same intention.
Ulrich Teuffel was kind enough to share his thoughts with us and ways about his craft and creations.
GC: You have built guitars based on traditional concepts. What made you start to go differently in terms of design and create the Birdfish?
UT: At the beginning of the 90’s I started to study industrial design. I did this after I had built more traditional instruments in the ’80s. I wanted to bring both elements together: my experience as a luthier and my new approach as a designer. The result has been the Birdfish.
GC: The Birdfish seems to be a definitive and most versatile tool for a player to find his favorite flavor, without the need to go through a collection of guitars and one to evolve with as a musician. Did you make this ingenious design as an answer for players who are always in search of a guitar that suits their tone tastes?
UT: The design idea of the Birdfish has been to make a very versatile guitar concerning the tonal variability. Simultaneously, the guitarist starts to experiment with the basics of how an electric guitar’s tone is defined. The potential variations are infinite, and some players don’t come to an end even after years. The Birdfish is not the first guitar with slideable pickups – Dan Armstrong made a guitar with that feature in the late ’60s. And interchangeable body parts are the basic concept of Leo Fender’s Broadcaster. Yet, the strength of the Birdfish lies in its straightforward design approach; form follows function. One’s perception of the guitar as a robust stand-alone unit. Unlike the attempt just to cut out space for moveable pickups in a standard guitar body.
GC: What materials are you using for the neck, body frame, and tone bars?
What are the most noticeable differences in tonal characteristics between the wood options you offer for the tone bars?
UT: I use American birdseye maple for the neck. The tone bars are made from Michigan maple and American red alder. As a custom option, I offer tone bars from French walnut and Honduran mahogany. The red alder tone bars give the warmest tone. Mahogany and walnut have fewer basses and a bit of a “bell” character, while Michigan maple is “rocky” with many upper midranges. The two connecting elements, the bird and the fish sculpture is made from air grade aluminum.
GC: How do you choose neck material?
UT: I treat the neck blanks with heat and steam over about two weeks. This releases the tension, which is still in the wood even if it is quite old. The neck material has to be very “quiet” without any tension. Then I select the neck after the birdseye grain and cut them apart right in the middle with a very thin band saw blade. After that, I plane the cutting surface and cut the truss rod’s cavities into both neck halves. Then I mount the two-way truss rod and reconnect both sides by gluing.
GC: Is this the same process as the “Thermo treatment” that builders such as Ruokangas are using?
UT: No, it is a different process. The Thermo treatment that Juha uses works at much higher temperatures in a dry atmosphere. I treat the timber less than 100°centigrade with steam.
GC: How is the neck attached to the body? What kind of frets do you use? And fingerboard radius?
UT: Where standard guitar necks are flat where they are attached to the body, I go for a cylindrical surface and three metric screws. Unlike a flat connection, the cylindrical surface doesn’t allow the neck to move, not even the fraction of a millimeter. The surface of the neck is CNC cut to allow a proper fit. The fingerboard radius is 13.7″. The Birdfish necks have stainless steel frets, which are high but narrow. The fret wire is made by the German company Wagner.
GC: How is the body frame done? Do you use your own designed hardware, or are you using aftermarket parts? What material is used, and for what reason?
UT: Except (for) the tune-o-Matic bridge, all of the hardware parts of the Birdfish are made by myself. The bird and fish elements are made from air grade aluminum, such as (also) the control box and the headless tuners. For the pickup retainers and the headless locking nut, I use brass. The weight aspect is one reason to use aluminum, such as the control box and the control knobs where tonal elements aren’t in the foreground. But aluminum has excellent qualities in transferring vibrations. Brass is used in situations where aluminum isn’t robust enough. I cut all the metal parts on my CNC machines. I polish each component by hand before I bring it to my electroplater. The pieces get covered with nickel, copper, nickel, and finally with chrome.
GC: How do you build your pickups? Do you use standard materials? Are your Humbuckers stacked coils?
UT: For my pickups, I use wire from Electrisola in the gauges 42 up to 44. I use a wire type with a bit thicker lacquer insulation to lower the windings’ capacities (capacitance). The magnets I use are Alnico types from Alnico 2 to Alnico 8, depending on the need. For some pickups (like my new Antonio neck pickup), I tune the magnetic field by weakening after loading it up until the saturation. This adds a bit more mellowness to the tone.
My single-coil pickups (e.g., birdfish) are made in the traditional style except for the magnets’ length. The split-coils have three magnets for each bobbin. My humbuckers are mostly made with blades. For this blade, I use an iron material, which is alloyed and custom-rolled after my definitions. The blades give you the possibility to have your wire very close to the magnetic field’s inner dense core. So it would be best if you had fewer windings to achieve enough output. The magnetic field gets weaker by its diameter. After my experience, the inner field is where the action is. The outer windings add on capacities but also mellowness by the resistance of the wire. Some of my pickups are wound with 44 gauge wire in the inner windings and 42 gauge for the last windings.
GC: How and why did you come up with the idea for the Tesla model?
UT: The Tesla model is named after Nikola Tesla, Serbian-American inventor. The unit for the power of magnetic fields is named after him. The idea for this guitar started with this name first. I designed an instrument that deals with the very basic sound effects of a guitar. Amplified pickups (magnetic pickup with a microphone underneath), feedback, hum, and tone break. All these elements are located on three momentary buttons beneath the pickups.
GC: What do the Tesla and the Birdfish have in common?
UT: Both guitars are a headless construction with a 650 mm scale length. I use the same headless tuners and locking nut system. The timbers are similar too, but the long upper bout of the Tesla gives the tone more volume in the basses.
GC: Can you give us some comments about your finish materials and techniques?
UT: The finish I use is a paint which I spray on. It consists of soft Epoxy, Polyurethane, color pigments, and metal flakes.
GC: What are your thoughts on the feedback you get from players that are using your instruments?
UT: First, most of my players who have more than one Teuffel instrument say that despite the difference in the guitar concepts, there is a special tonal relatedness between all models. Most of them say that it’s very Fenderish but with another aura; a throaty tone with a natural wooden distortion, especially on the Niwa model. My players’ feedback resulted in the models’ designs and modifications, such as pickup design, timber selections, midi-solutions, the glow-in-the-dark side markers, etc.
GC: What is up for you in the near future? Are you working on any new ideas?
UT: This summer, I launched my new model “Antonio.” This guitar is my approach to the guitar history of the 19th century. The name Antonio refers to Torres and Stradivari.
I used Honduran mahogany and ciricote with visible and invisible sound chambers. It’s a 24.75″ scale and a fingerboard radius of 12″.
To learn more about Teuffel Guitars, please visit: teuffel.com