Okay, try to wrap your head around this scenario: You’re growing up during the height of the rock ’n’ roll era. Legendary bands like the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Who, and the Kinks are at their creative pinnacles—and because of this, the electric guitar is the most popular musical instrument in the world. Yet, not only are you unable to purchase any of these records—or any type of Western music—but you also can’t listen to it on the radio or television because it’s banned by the government. If you’re lucky, you’ve scrounged up a lo-fi copy of a copy of some sort of rock music, but to avoid dire consequences you only listen to it in the privacy of your home.
Meanwhile, thousands of fine guitars are being produced and sold around the globe, but there are virtually none in your country. You’ve heard whispers of a few people playing rock music with electric instruments, but seeing no evidence of it yourself, you figure it’s either an incredibly underground phenomenon or just a rumor. And on the off chance you do somehow manage to find an electric guitar, it will cost you extravagant sums to purchase. Even then, you’ll still have to contend with the fact that widespread, government-sanctioned slogans warning against the evils of rock and jazz will almost certainly cause family, friends, and audiences to see you as traitorous to your country if you play any music resembling those American styles.
But then something very strange happens. After banning all this for so long that the electric-guitar boom has actually begun its decline, the powers that be suddenly and rather mind-bogglingly decide electric-guitar music should be encouraged. Better late than never, right?
But here’s the catch: The government will oversee design and manufacture of the electric guitars you’ll have access to. And to make sure aspiring players retain a unique national identity, the instruments won’t really be like the popular models selling throughout the world in any substantive way. Oh, and by the way, no one in your country really knows how to build an electric guitar, but don’t worry—the government will just repurpose current factories, employees, and engineers!
All of this may be hard to fathom for those who grew up in a place where electric guitars not only symbolized creative freedom, even rebellion, in the abstract, but also offered an extremely diverse concrete means of artistic self-expression—a place where you could either rally around the unique looks, features, feel, and tones of a single iconic brand, or save up your money and cherry-pick a variety of instruments to create a formidable arsenal of specialized guitars. But it was in just such a climate that the first electric guitars in the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics were born.
Space Race Tools for the People
The first Soviet model, eventually named the Tonika, was made in the late 1960s. And for a few years this was the only choice. Rock music was mostly banned in the U.S.S.R. during these early days of guitar making, so the question is often asked, “Why produce electric guitars in the first place?” Apparently there was a feeling among those in power that the country should compete or catch up with the West in all areas related to technology. But amplified music was also becoming more and more popular, even if it wasn’t so much in the frowned-upon genres. Thus began the collective efforts of Soviet engineers and industrialists.
The Tonika was a guitar “for the people”—and it was some kind of guitar! The rationale for the original design is still somewhat of a mystery, because it is such an odd-looking instrument. I’ve heard many players proclaim it the ugliest guitar ever produced. But in at least a couple of ways, the Tonika sort of became the blueprint for all Soviet guitars: Its build clearly prioritizes durability, and its looks and features exhibit a radically futuristic, Space Race-era bent. It really is a crazy guitar—overengineered in some ways, seriously lacking in others. I’m only half-joking when I say the instrument’s designers and buyers probably saw it as a bonus that the guitars could do double-duty as sledgehammers and/or be burnt for heat after they’d outlived their musical usefulness.
The Tonika’s seemingly strange approach to guitar making was emblematic of the times and culture. Other than a few enthusiasts, luthiers did not really exist in the Soviet Union. And the ones who did worked in virtual isolation. As a Soviet stringed-instrument enthusiast, you were more likely to either make your own electric guitar (often called a samopal, or “machine gun”) or play the balalaika. There was some guitar-making knowledge to be found at the Musima factory and a few other factories spread far and wide in former East Germany (which was under Soviet control from 1949 to 1990), but for reasons unexplained, Tonika designers often looked to Japan and Italy for creative inspiration instead. As for functionality, it seems that was either overlooked or, more likely, simply not understood by the designers—remember, they had no experience with the instrument or the musical genres typically played on an electric.
During the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s, several more Soviet guitar models were designed and produced, and the builders did get better at their craft—but only in small degrees. Prominent models included the Aelita, Ural, Formanta, Stella, Krunk, Elgava, Maria, Accord, and Tonic. All were produced by the state, and many of them were simply named after the factories where they were built. The designs were sometimes cool and sometimes bizarre, but the real problem was how they were assembled: The individual guitar parts often featured acceptable workmanship, but the overall assembly process allowed for little to no quality control, ostensibly because they were viewed as tools rather than a conduit for self-expression. Without finer instruments to serve as a standard, Soviet-era guitars seemed to be out of date even as they were rolling off the production line. Isolationism combined with political leaders making production decisions led to rather crude-playing guitars. The wood came from the furniture factory, the electronics came from the radio factory, and after everything was assembled it was never really tested or properly set up—and don’t complain about it!