Still on a quest for something different?
Test your mettle against this slab of modern art by Ulrich Teuffel, a six-string so radically different it takes a double - no - triple take before you even cop it's a guitar.

We'd seen photos, heard whispers of rumours, but the full impact didn't hit until the inevitable face-to-face encounter. Strolling the stands at the recent Musicmesse in Frankfurt, growing ever wearier perusing endless rows of imitative takes on the three stables of solidbody electric guitar design - all of them pushing 50 years old - the sight of this rare beast lured the TGM T-E-R-T squad (that's Tech Exploration & Reconnaissance Team to you) like the green fronds and water-blue shimmer of a distant oasis after weeks on the buming sand. Shining out amid the plywood Cheapocasters and Far Eastern copies in an aisle tucked toward the side of the cavemous show hall, there it stood, proud, bright, and resolutely weird: the Birdfish.

Whether your initial reaction inspires lust, love or loathing you've got to admit one thing: German builder Ulrich Teuffel has gone way out on that shaky limb of originality in conceiving his Birdfish. A guitar builder since 1984, Teuffel's perspective shifted radically when he undertook fommal product design studies from 1992 to 1997. At this point, says Teuffel, 'I had the opportunity to get to know my work from a standpoint other than that of traditional craftsmanship. The current development that is still going on (among other builders) since the beginning of the '9Os indicates a clear return to the archetypes, the Telecaster and Stratocaster. It is, however, incomprehensible why an instrument that has so significantly left its mark on the big trends of this century is, in its further formal and technical development, so restricted. Admirable inspiration to 'boldly go', then; but as for the results - a quantum leap, or space junk?

Our review sample Birdfish is number 59 of a limited 500 instrument run, the current serial number of which is 97 (meaning, he's sold a fair batch already but you're not too late, yet). The instrument gets its name from the two heavily chromed sculptures which are central to its design: the 'bird'which holds the neck mounting, and the 'fish' which carries the bridge and control block. Each is manufactured from aluminium by a'lost wax cast' method before being meticulously hand polished prior to being plated with copper, then nickel, and finally, chrome. Not mere decorative items, in Teuffel's own words these sculptures act as'bridges of vibration transfer'.

While a 15mm-wide metal rail runs between bird and fish to carry the sliding, adjustable, interchangeable pickups, the vast bulk of the body's stability is provided by either of two pairs of interchangeable resonator bars. Deceptively coated in a coloured matt-finish carbon fibre, the resonators in fact carry solid wood cores - the blue, swamp ash; the red, maple - which purportedly alter the inherent tone from 'percussive with clear lows and highs'to 'more powerful and forceful' respectively.

The most conventional and identifiableas-guitarlike ingredient of the whole package (okay, apart from its headless design and wholly original method for nutend string anchoring), the neck is made from birdseye maple, smoothly rounded to a gentle C shape, finished in a light matt satin, and tightly fixed to the 'bird' with three metric hex bolts. In both feel and appearance it's most reminiscent of the current Ernie Ball/Music Man neck, though the Birdfish's birdseye fingerboard seems to have been sawn from a different slab of maple: just as highly figured, its grain and hue are distinctly different, though appealingly complementary. It carries 22 narrow, tall frets with flat tops and smooth, snag-free ends. The neck bears side position dots only- an aesthetic choice which boosts the sleek, modem styling but can throw off your orientation a touch for starters, especially without the usual cul de sac of a headstock there for instant peripheral referencing.

Past the fairly traditional Tusq nut, rather than anchoring double-ball end strings Steinberger style, Teuffel's unique string clamp - employing six single action levers which clamp each string firmly in place - means any standard strings can be used. Down the other end, an original design (though admittedly somewhat more Steinberger-like) block tailpiece carries six narrow, knurled knobs for tuning duties. Sturdy and smooth, they achieve accurate, pinpoint pitch adjustment and hold tight once set. Packed in as tightly as they are, however, fatter fingered players need to pay close attention while twisting to avoid shifting the tuners next door. Bridge duties are carried by a standard tune-o-matic; something of a compromise in the space race, but clearly a nod to function over form.

On the electrics block we find master volume and tone via nifty conehead style chrome knobs, and an entirely standard Strat-style 5-way switch. These route your signal from a selection of five interchangeable pickups: a pair of reversewound, reverse-polarity single coils and three humbuckers designed to range in character from open to discreet midrange to aggressive. All are covered in the same matt blue carbon fibre as the tone bars, and are adjustable for position and angle via finger-screws on their sliding rear mounts.

The Birdfish sits comfortably when played seated, though your playing position is limited by the set angle of the bird's cupped metal tail, which acts as a thigh rest. If you tend to hunch forward over your instrument while stnumming things tum decidedly less comfortable, with the upper strap button placed just behind the bird's beak jabbing you painfully in the stemum. Strapped on, balance is good and those rounded tone bars make for comfortably contoured arm rests.

Finally, it would be remiss to press on without mentioning that the Birdfish comes with quite the plushest hand-sewn nubuck leather padded gig bag I've ever encountered. A work of art in itself. Enquire for the matching trousers and waistcoat..

Strummed acoustically, the first and most surprising impression the Birdfish makes is that it sounds, well, fairly normal. Some of the volume escapes through the backless 'body', but the tone is otherwise rich, snappy and resonant. Plugged in and played clean - with swamp ash tone bars, hot bridge humbucker and two single coils installed - the immediate vibe is 'deluxe contemporary Strat'. Crisp, percussive and bright, the Birdfish's inherent sound is modern and cutting on all pickup settings, but with a hint of woodiness to round out the tone.

There's enough punch in the 'bucker to push the amp into early breakup without treading unmusical extremes of mega-hot territory. Up the amp gain to midway and the Birdfish proves a tad harsh in handling distortion until you really go for it. Unsurprisingly, its forte doesn't lie with vintage-leaning soft cnunch or blues lead; crank your drive levels further, however, and the tight, focussed tone really digs into the added compression and smoothing out of high-gain settings, revealing a virtuoso rock and fusion performer.

The specs of the two further optional humbucking pickups are well judged, and a full three-'bucker set-up proves both powerful and well balanced. Tweaks for pickup height and alignment are easily achieved via the thumb screws on the rear mountings; you're not going to radically alter your tone here, but it's certainly a handy arrangement for fine tuning.

Swapping the blue swamp ash resonators for the red maple-core bars brings a subtle but definite increase in aggression, snap and cut to the basic tonality. It's not as extreme as putting down one guitar and picking up another (in many cases I'm sure the change would take some very careful listening indeed to detect), but proves valid as a design feature and a worthy further avenue for tweakage. So, looks like a Power Ranger's laser gun, sounds mostly like a contemporary electric. The more things change...

Yep, for all the blinding chrome and modern art design, the birdfish still sounds like a guitar. On one hand, that's a result: a very different looking beast that still responds much like a traditional instrument. On the other, it might be a slight disappointment - after all, shouldn't something this radically ourté sound radically different with it? Either way, this is a smooth playing, efficient performing, modern-edged six-string with astounding versatility in its basic tonal components, and perhaps the most eye-catching guitar you can strap on beneath the glint of the stage lights. Looking to attract attention? This'll do it.

written by Dave Hunter

Guitar 07/2000