Brazilian Wood: The Custom Guitars of Sérgio Dias of Os Mutantes

December 9th, 2013

This is an excerpt from the all-new January/February 2014 issue of Guitar Aficionado magazine. For the rest of this story, including 14 pages of photos of Eddie Van Halen’s gear, head to the Guitar Aficionado Online Store.

Brazilian Wood: The Custom Guitars of Sérgio Dias of Os Mutantes

By Alan di Perna | Photos by Kevin Scanlon

Sérgio Dias uses the feminine gender to refer to his custom-made guitars and other musical instruments. “I designed this girl by hand,” he says, picking up an elegant archtop electric that features enough knobs and switches to make a Gibson ES-5 Switchmaster look austere. The instrument is an alluring curiosity that represents his decades of experience as not only a guitar designer but also a musician: Dias is the leader of Os Mutantes, and his custom guitars have continually evolved in tandem with his band’s ever-changing music.

Launched in 1966 in São Paulo, Brazil, Os Mutantes started as an exceptionally weird psychedelic band that embraced Brazil’s artistically ambitious tropicália movement, becoming peers of artists like Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso. They veered off in a prog-rock direction, underwent a dramatic series of lineup changes, split up in 1978, and reunited in 2006. Along the way, they became one of the foremost cult bands of all time, revered by alt-culture icons like David Byrne, Beck, and Kurt Cobain and beloved by indie hipsters. Os Mutantes’ most recent album, Fool Metal Jack, finds the band as unclassifiably delightful as ever, fearlessly fusing everything from reggae and atmospheric balladry to Zepplinesque hard rock and flights of Zappa-like fancy.

The album and Sérgio’s aforementioned guitar are just the latest products of an exceptionally fertile imagination. His manner blends a kind of relaxed, worldly nonchalance with a sense of almost childlike enthusiasm for anything to do with music. This is a guy who has studied sitar with Ravi Shankar, jammed with John McLaughlin, and once spent an evening on a yacht in Boston harbor discussing Brazilian politics with Ted Kennedy.

“I grew up in this totally artistic environment,” he says. “My mother was a great concert pianist—the first woman to write a concerto for piano and orchestra. My father was a poet and opera singer. Every Saturday and Sunday, we would have kind of a soiree at the house. The prima donnas of the opera would come and sing. My father would sing. My mother would play. People would recite poetry. That probably was the main influence for Os Mutantes to get as crazy as we became. We were listening to everything, from bossa nova to the Trashmen.”

In the strange and variegated history of Os Mutantes, Sérgio Dias has remained the one constant—the only band member to play in every single lineup from 1966 to the present day. His main guitars throughout were custom designed and made, first by his elder brother Cláudio and ultimately by Sérgio himself. “Cláudio started building guitars around 1960,” Sérgio recalls. “There were no decent electric guitars in Brazil. Cláudio was always crafty. He used to build telescopes and once built an auto-controlled model plane that got to second place in competitions.”

The first guitar that Cláudio built for Sérgio was a solidbody Fender Jaguar copy. Next was the Guitarra de Ouro—the Golden Guitar—a now somewhat legendary thinline hollowbody laden with onboard electronics, made during a time when such things were a relative rarity. The guitar’s name was inspired by the gold-leaf shielding lining its entire body cavity. “It was shielded inside because back then the only components we could get were very noisy,” Sérgio explains. “Cláudio built a Faraday cage out of gold leaf, which was the best conductor and wasn’t expensive. People think the guitar is worth a million dollars because it has gold in it, but that’s bullshit.”

This is an excerpt from the all-new January/February 2014 issue of Guitar Aficionado magazine. For the rest of this story, including 14 pages of photos of Eddie Van Halen’s gear, head to the Guitar Aficionado Online Store.

Reply

We welcome your comments!