When you sit down to talk with many guitar luthiers, the story of how they got into building is often uncannily similar: They fell in love with the sounds of some famous guitar god during their teen years and started playing not too long after that. Eventually they took their first foray into DIY by modding their own instrument, followed by a stab at replicating, say, a Tele, a Les Paul, or maybe some sort of “super strat.” The more they played and tweaked, the more they loved it all, but at some point it hit them that they were better at (or more likely to make a living via) the wood-and-wires side of things than the playing side.
Of course, there’s nothing weird or wrong with any of that. How else would you expect someone to get into it? But when Premier Guitar met Adriano Sergio at the Holy Grail Guitar Show in Berlin last spring, we were immediately struck not just by the uniqueness of his guitars and his approach to lutherie, but also by the adventurous life he led prior to devoting himself to the craft full-time in 2016.
As anyone can readily see, Sergio’s instruments are notable strictly on their own merits: They look like magnificent specimens of living timber summoned from the forests of Tolkien’s Rivendell. That’s probably because he began carving up the family furniture when he was just 4 years old, the ever-curious son of a Portuguese immigrant couple struggling to make ends meet in Paris. Within two years, Sergio’s parents had detected enough passion in their young son to buy him his first real tool set—parts of which he still uses today.
Fast-forward 46 years, and the proprietor of Ergon Guitars (ergonguitars.com) is back in his native Lisbon, still making his mark on the world with a knife as his main tool. Each of Sergio’s sumptuous instruments is carved by hand, the exact form coming to him spontaneously as he peels back ribbon after ribbon of mahogany, cedar, or swamp ash. As with the alluded-to magical Elven artifacts, there’s also a lot more to Sergio’s guitars than is immediately apparent. Nearly every Ergon model features an intricate hollow interior whose carefully tuned ports are so lovely as to seem merely cosmetic. But the flowing lines aren’t just an artful rendering of form and function with allusions to abstract nudes—though they are indeed that. Although Sergio takes inspiration from the visual arts, film, architecture, and even literature, his meticulous attention to detail serves both structural and tonal ends. Yes, the elegant joining of woods is so cohesive and expertly rendered that it’s difficult to determine where, for example, one dovetailed neck piece ends and the other begins. But Sergio’s neck joints are also so tight and stable that he can string each guitar to pitch—sans glue—in order to fine-tune the instrument’s resonance.
In our estimation, all this seemed like enough to warrant a lovely little film documentary, and yet there’s much more to Sergio’s captivating story. The more we spoke with Sergio, the more we were intrigued. In fact, it was his life that inspired PG to begin profiling builders again after scaling back for a few years. For starters, who would’ve pegged the builder of such head-turning instruments as a former guitar tech for heavy acts like Ozzy Osborne, Anthrax, and Napalm Death? Especially considering he’s actually a conservatory-trained jazz bassist who walked away from a prolific touring and studio career. Oh, and did we mention that he was also the Portuguese equivalent of a U.S. Navy SEAL?
“With every guitar I do,” says Ergon Guitars’ Adriano Sergio, “I get closer and closer to where I want to go. The last one”—the Porto MS shown here—“is really, really close. It has an almost piano-like sound.”
We recently had a lovely Skype video call with Sergio from his shop in Lisbon, where he happily showed off his nearly half-century-old mallet, his first-ever solidbody, and the philosophy driving a budding career in which the affable builder is taking part in projects with esteemed European luthiers such as Ulrich Teuffel, Claudio Pagelli, Michael Spalt, and Nik Huber, as well as displaying his instruments at prestigious gatherings such as Art Fair Tokyo 2019—the latter of which has reportedly never before included guitars.
What got you into building guitars?
Everything started because I wanted to play guitar when I was a kid. Actually, I wanted to play bass, because I have really fat fingers and everybody told me, “You cannot play guitar—you have fat fingers!” I was studying classical guitar, which was a problem having fat fingers [laughs]. When I was 17, somebody gave me a [Fender] Jazz bass neck from ’74. So I decided to make the body. I didn’t know anything about it, but I started to make the body with the help of an old man. I’d been playing with wood since I was a kid. When I say “a kid,” I’m talking about 6 years old. My parents gave me a toolbox with small but quite good tools. I’m actually still using this mallet. I stopped using one of the pliers, like, two years ago. I remember, before that, my parents left home one day, and I started to cut the edges of a table with a knife. I just found it fascinating, the curling wood when you cut it. So I did all around the kitchen table, and I wasn’t happy with that, so I did any corner of wood furniture in the house.
Watch our video interview and demo with Ergon's Adrian Sergio:
I bet they were happy!
They weren’t happy, and I wasn’t happy when they found out. When they came home I was in a panic, “They’re going to find out!” My father was like, “What the fuck is that?” It was a hard time. I come from a really working class family. My father was always doing everything at home—metalwork, woodwork, everything—and I was always watching him.
Let’s get back to that first bass. Did you try to make the body just like a Fender J?
Yes. It looked like Jaco Pastorius’ bass, actually—the same sunburst and everything.Later on, I turned it into a fretless—well, half the neck was fretless, and half had frets. I started to play in bands with that bass. Of course, to play the bass I needed an amplifier. But I had no money, so I made my first amp also. I didn’t know anything about electronics, so I bought a book and put everything together. The funny thing is, I paid somebody to build me the cabinet, because someone told me, “Oh, the cabinet is acoustic. Everything has to be …” whatever. It was a stereo amp. I remember I had problems with distortion a lot of times. I learned so much with that. After that my father bought me a bass, an Ibanez Blazer—which was worse than the bass I made!