Here are three of Russia's more unusual designs (left to right): Formanta, Aelita, and Tonika.
Labors of Love and Patience
Despite all these shortcomings, players in the former Soviet republics were thrilled to have access to these new guitars. At least they had something that looked and at least somewhat played the part, even if each one cost around 180 rubles (about two-months’ salary). That said, playing them must have been a lesson in diligence. Because the instruments were basically designed and made from scratch by people with no previous guitar-lutherie expertise, the playing experience could be straight up dreadful: String action was often very high, intonation was off, and there was minimal ability to make any sort of adjustments to alleviate these concerns.
Bodies and necks were typically made of birch and beech, and the bodies were often painted in a thick lacquer that made the guitars not just tough and durable, but also less resonant. And in an ultimate irony of resource allocation, early fretboards often featured fine ebony wood, but the frets (which were simply hammered in without any glue) were usually made of rough brass—which wears down much, much faster than fretwire alloys used elsewhere.
In addition, Soviet guitars on the whole have developed a reputation for being very heavy, though in reality they tend to fall in the 6–8-pound range. So it’s not so much that they weigh a lot, it’s more that they often feel unbalanced and clunky due to their heavy necks and oddly sculpted bodies.
Then there’s the electronics, which were often very good in terms of build and component quality, but weren’t very practical for use in guitars. Many of the people working on this aspect of the guitars’ design were radio engineers who might have been making military equipment only a short time before being tasked with pickup production. This meant the electronics were often weak sounding and featured unnecessary filtering that didn’t do any favors for the instruments’ plugged-in tones.
Given all this, it probably goes without saying that maintaining and optimizing Soviet-era guitars is a true labor of love and patience. Repairing and setting them up was and is a baptism by fire. The real trouble areas are the necks and frets. Fretboard radius is usually all over the place, and the frets always seem to be either in need of replacement or tamping down. And finally, the truss rods are usually too underpowered—even drastic adjustments barely budge the necks’ thick wood. Purportedly, Soviet build methods did change a little as the years wore on, but many players argue that the quality of the guitars got worse, not better.
Today players in former Soviet republics or Soviet Bloc countries look upon these guitars with either fondness or disdain—or perhaps a bit of both. Thousands of them were made over the years, so they’re ubiquitous. Their history and designs (or at least aspects of them) are appreciated by many, though most probably prefer the more playable and diverse instruments now available from outside the country.
On the flip side, over the past 10 years there’s been a marked increase in interest in Soviet-era guitars outside their homeland. As with vintage motorcycles, radios, toys, and cars, guitarists the world over have begun to appreciate the artistic sense and design aspects of these quirky axes from the East. They regularly appear in online auctions all over the world, and as with popular Western guitars of yesteryear, there are online and offline appreciation groups where people reminisce about the old days and attempt to catalog the various models for posterity. One of these enthusiasts, Dmitrii Feklinov, was a wonderful source of information for this article. (Thanks, Dmitrii!)
As a longtime collector of strange, wonderful old guitar gear (check out my site, DrowningInGuitars.com), I have always found it interesting how design can represent the artistic sensibilities of a culture and time. If you view early guitar design as an art form, then it becomes easy to see where creative inspiration is cultivated. Let’s take a closer look at a handful of my favorite Soviet-era models that, for better or worse, offer a glimpse into a musical time and space that has all but disappeared with the Berlin Wall.