The red-to-green-burst Ural 650 shown here—which was made between ’76 and ’80 in Sverdlovsk, Russia—is something of a time capsule, complete with the original vinyl-and-textile bag, mint-condition plastic strap, and paperwork. It has a thin mahogany veneer covered in about 1 mm of clear polyester varnish, and its brass frets and odd fretboard radius make for a strange feel, though it’s definitely a playable instrument.

Ural 650

Urals are probably the most common vintage guitars in the countries of the former Soviet Union—it seems most guitar-playing youth who grew up during this interesting period owned one at some point. Aesthetically, the guitars were inspired by Yamaha’s SG-5 from the late ’60s, which was considered groundbreaking at the time both because of its radical shape and its high-quality build, components, and sounds. Apparently some of the designers at the Ural factory had access to a few Yamahas, and they decided to pretty much just flip the body shape and fairly closely mimic the headstock, bridge, and vibrato system. Probably the most unique visual element on 650s is the diverse array of pickguard options: You can find versions with green, white, brown, and gray mother-of-bowling-ball, but there are also wonderfully garish red- and gold-sparkle pick plates, too.

The Ural 650 clearly borrows several design elements from Yamaha’s late-’60s SG series. As you can see from this super-clean 1967 SG-5A, the 650 flipped the body outline and copied the headstock shape and vibrato system.

The 650 was manufactured at the Sverdlovsk Ural factory, a woodworking plant that focused on simple furniture during the early 1900s but expanded to include pianos and acoustic guitars in the late ’50s. About 25,000 Ural 650s were made from 1976 to 1980. Again, they primarily featured beech timber, as well as ply construction borrowed from furniture building. About 66,000 slightly different 650s were also made at Sverdlovsk from 1980 to 1995, with the main difference being the pickups. Both styles sound good, but the best-sounding Soviet guitar I ever played was a red-finished, red-sparkle-guard model from this later period. Once you remove the electronic filtering, the pickups in newer Ural 650s come alive. They sound edgy, with a hint of a wonderful, echo-like quality—and when you add some fuzz, you get this fantastically controllable feedback.

Even so, while Urals look like really cool instruments, when you go to play one the warts pop out. Like so many other Soviet guitars, they have all sorts of uneven playability issues. As with the Aelita EGS 650, two sets of buttons yield an awkward means of selecting the single-coils and a trio of even more awkward and muddy-sounding EQ profiles. Meanwhile, the solid-feeling tremolo, which looks almost exactly like the smooth-performing Yamaha unit, appears much nicer than it operates. The arm and socket are fine, but it does not stay in tune well with use.

More expensive than other Soviet guitars, the Formanta Solo II offered built-in fuzz and a superior tremolo system.

Formanta Solo II

The Formanta Solo II is an awesome example of Soviet craftsmanship made at the Belarusian Industrial Association factory in Borisov, Belarus. There were a few variations of the Formanta, and about 7,000 guitars like the one shown here were made from 1985 to 1992. These Formantas were much more expensive than other Soviet guitars, and so had a bit more cachet. You had to have some money to own one of these!

Formanta guitars feature sculpted edges, a smooth feel, and a more reasonable weight. They also came in some ultra-cool color combinations, including pink, blue, and silver. Solo IIs have a built-in fuzz circuit (the Solo I has a phaser) powered by a 9V battery tucked into a cavity under the neck-heel plate.

I’ve only heard the fuzz-circuit [Formanta], and man, it is gnarly!

I’ve only heard the fuzz-circuit Solo II, and man, it is gnarly! It sounds like an old Electro-Harmonix LPB-1 but with more edge and treble. The pickups are a little underwhelming, but they have this interesting zing quality that translates pick attack and dynamics very well, which makes them a close second to the Ural pickups.

Meanwhile, the Solo II’s tremolo is probably the best of all the Soviet guitars I’ve played. The blade-shaped handle is comfortable in the hand, and the whole unit actually works well. As for the neck, it’s chunky and the typical lacquer finish gives it a slightly sticky feel. But the strangest thing is how the profile goes from a smooth C shape starting at the body joint and then morphs to a squared-off feel in the “cowboy-chord” region. And when I say “square,” I mean it—in that area the profile is literally like what you’d see on a lap-steel neck!