VINTAGE GUITARS BEHIND THE IRON CURTAIN

Rock'n'Roll came to Russia relatively late. While the Western world was busy dancing to Bill Haley, Little Richard and Elvis Presley, Russian people were just beginning to put post-war destruction and Stalin's death behind them. Russia had their own brand of beatniks called the stilyagi ("style chasers"), often scorned as a negative element by the more straight-laced masses, but these youths were too happy to finally be allowed to openly listen to their beloved jazz to notice later developments in Western pop music. Dixieland and swing thrived in Russia in the 1920's and early 1930's, but as Stalin's repressions became progressively more all-encompassing, playing "unofficial" music became a crime against the State. The government decided which music was suitable for Soviet citizens. Listening to smuggled jazz records was tantamount to political rebellion and many talented musicians perished.

When Stalin died in 1953, Nikita Kruschev came to power. As part of Kruschev's "thaw", the ban was lifted. Trumpeter and bandleader Eddie Rosner, among others, was released from Siberian prison and the first international jazz festival was staged in Moscow in 1957. And a few Western jazz musicians who attended the Moscow festival brought with them what were probably the first electric guitars to come to public attention in Russia. Perhaps there were a handful of them in the country before the 1957 festival, but nobody seems to recall seeing one.

Which is doubly unfortunate, as an early Russian electric guitar is known to have existed. This guitar was invented by a certain Comrade Kuznetzov, who was a professor at the Leningrad Research Institute, while working with electromagnetic waves. Kuznetsov's "electromagnetic" guitar was displayed at the Exposition of National Economy Achievements in Moscow in 1935. This was a regular acoustic instrument fitted with a primitive pickup, similar to the earliest experiments of LloydLoar at Vivi-Tone and perhaps only a couple of steps behind Adolph Rickenbacker's first Electro-Spanish and Frying Pan models. While a year or two behind the American inventors, Kuznetzov came to his discovery independently and had the idea been given sufficient development, there might well have been electric guitars manufactured and played in Russia before World War II. Today, one can only speculate what would have happened had an electric guitar been available to such accomplished jazz musicians as Ivan "John" Danker, the master of Hawaiian guitar who recorded with Yakov Skomorovsky's jazz orchestra in the early 1930's. But unfortunately, there were no possible musical applications for such an instrument at the height of Stalin's terror, when jazz itself was outlawed. The "electromagnetic" guitar was forgotten as a minor scientific curiosity.


Pic 1. Russian guitar: the 1800's. A typical nineteenth-century parlor guitar, Russian style (note seven strings). Quite a fancy lyre-shaped headstock on this one, with banjo-style tuning pegs. The sheet music in the background is of course a Gypsy "romance". (Antique lithograph.)

The guitar has a long history in Russia that dates back at least three centuries. The earliest guitars were probably introduced to Russia by traveling Gypsy musicians in the late 1700's. Gypsy "romances" are still tremendously popular and remain the backbone of modern Russian pop music in much the same way as the blues permeates modern American pop. There's even an equivalent slang expression "to sing romances", meaning to be sad, down, broke, well… blue. The Gypsy romances were traditionally sung to the accompaniment of the seven-string guitar and often mention the guitar in the lyrics even when there is no trace of the instrument itself in a modern orchestral or synth-pop arrangement.

Perhaps the best known classic Gypsy romance outside Russia is Ochi Chornye ("Dark Eyes"), which has become a real cliche among hack lounge and restaurant musicians striving for the traditional atmosphere. In 1978, Julio Iglesias "borrowed" the melody for his worldwide hit "Nathalie". Another popular romance is Dorogoi Dlinnoyu ("Long Road"), which was badly translated into English and became popular in the West under the title "Those Were The Days", as recorded by Mary Hopkin. The melodies are timeless. In their purest form, with just the voice and the three-chord guitar accompaniment, the Russian-Gypsy romances are as elemental a force as the Delta blues. And just like the blues, the music is utterly simple and easily attainable by the most incompetent bungler, yet becomes a vehicle for the most fantastic instrumental virtuosity in the hands of a master. Just ask Django Reinhardt, who had adapted and jazzed up some of this music.

By the early 1800's the guitar had moved up the social scale, from being a working tool for itinerant street musicians to a well-respected possession of the middle classes and the aristocracy. Several Russian composers wrote classical guitar pieces. Whether imported from Europe or built in Russia, the instrument was everywhere, one hanging on the wall in every parlor. Traditionally, these guitars were hung from a nail or hook by a fancy ribbon and bow, which also served as decoration and sometimes a strap. Since these guitars never left the parlor, there was no need for cases. These were narrow-bodied, gut-string instruments, comparable to European parlor guitars of the same period. The early Stauffer-influenced Martins familiar to guitar historians here in the U.S. had a similar design, with the neck attaching to the body with one bolt through the heel and the fretboard raised off the body, like a violin. It is possible that Stauffer himself had in turn adapted this feature from earlier Russian guitars. Some of these were simple folk instruments, others ornate, heavily decorated and lavishly inlaid by skilled luthiers.

The one crucial difference was the number of strings. Apparently, the seven-string guitar developed in the late 1700's as some sort of hybrid instrument with Spanish body dimensions and English chordal tuning. It became popular in Russia and remained dominant there while the rest of the world stayed with the earlier six-string Spanish design. The exact origin is, however, a mystery. Not until the music of the Beatles penetrated the Iron Curtain did the six-string guitar become firmly established in Russia. One sometimes finds these antique guitars badly modified, with a poorly re-drilled bridge and a home-made pickup screwed into the top, as countless frustrated teenage Lennons and Harrisons, unable to obtain a legitimate six-string electric in the mid-Sixties, attempted to make do with grandpa's old seven-string parlor guitar.


Pic 2. Russian guitar: the 1930's. Popular singer Peter Leschenko was also an accomplished guitarist, songwriter and bandleader. While not a jazz musician, his music does contain elements of swing. Leschenko escaped from Russia after the 1917 Revolution and settled in Paris. His records were banned by Stalin, but fans smuggled them into the country. They were not officially released in Russia until the late 1980's, even though all of Russia has been singing these songs for over fifty years! (Archive print.)

The seven-string "Gypsy" guitar is tuned D-G-B-D-G-B-D, low to high, which produces an open G chord. Many Russian guitarists of an older generation who were not smitten by the Beatles in the 1960's still play the "old-style" seven-string guitars today. In the West, where seven-string guitars are far less common, a twelve-string instrument is often adapted for this kind of playing, with the first ten strings doubled up into five courses of two and the two lowest bass strings each treated as a single, separate course. Some classical guitarists have re-discovered the Russian seven-string classical guitar repertoire from the early 1800's. While modern seven-string electric guitars have become something of a fad recently, they are nothing really new.

Between 1957 and 1964, while electrified archtops (often older, used Hofners, Kliras and Hoyers brought over from Germany at a horrendous expense) became a familiar sight among professional jazz musicians, almost everybody else still played the traditional seven-string acoustics. In smaller provincial villages, people who had never seen one had often thought that an electric guitar was just like a regular one, except that it was louder because it was plugged into the wall like a radio.

By the early '60's, Russian youth were voraciously devouring every tidbit of Western pop culture they could get their hands on. Russia had caught up to the worldwide twist craze and the name Elvis Presley was already familiar in certain hip circles, but this forbidden fruit was too remote, too alien to truly take root as part of a mass culture of the Soviet Union at the time. The retro-twist fad, rockabilly and 1950's stilyagi fashions enjoyed a big revival in the '80's.

Pic 3. Russian guitar: the 1960's. Vladimir Vysotsky, the universally beloved Moscow bard who walked the edge and dared to tell it like it is. Officially, a theater and sometime movie actor. Unofficially, a songwriter whose songs have inspired an entire generation. Only one LP of his most innocuous film soundtrack songs was officially released during his lifetime, but hundreds of Vysotsky's other songs were familiar to everyone via countless underground reel-to-reels. Vysotsky, like most of the pre-Beatles generation, played the seven-string guitar. Note the traditional ribbon and bow on the headstock. (Still from the film Khozyain Taigi)

The most popular music movement of the day was the "bards" or "guitar poetry". The image of a solitary bard armed with an acoustic guitar remains a powerful one. There isn't a Russian-speaking person on the planet who doesn't remember the greatest of the bards, Vladimir Vysotsky, and anybody who came of age in the Sixties and Seventies is familiar with the songs of many others. These bards were poet intellectuals who sang their compositions to their own simple, unadorned guitar accompaniment. One can draw a cautious parallel between the Russian bards of the Sixties and such contemporary Western songwriters such as Phil Ochs, Joan Baez and the early, acoustic Bob Dylan (who is, incidentally, of Russian descent).

Some of their songs were funny and irreverent, some topical and political, some personal and intimate, some that glorified thieves, pirates, cowboys, alcoholics, life in the gutter and other such romantic lore. All were dangerous because these bards dared to speak their minds, no trifle in a totalitarian society. The music was underground, "unofficial", unrecorded through normal channels but soon accessible through countless home-recorded reel-to-reels and later, cassettes, copied and circulated by devoted fans who were willing to take the risk. As Alexander Galich sang, "…Got no stage, no rows of seats, no balconies/ just a 'Yauza' tape recorder / not much, but it's enough…" This quiet acoustic rebellion, while remaining a separate movement, paved the way for the electric rock'n'roll wave that followed.

The guitar has always been a popular instrument, but now everybody was learning to play guitar in order to emulate bards like Vysotsky, Galich and Bulat Okudjava. Horrendous, nameless Russian factory-made acoustic guitars began to appear in stores to meet the increased demand. In the Fifties there had been only two major guitar factories in the Soviet Union, in Leningrad and in Moscow. Now, by a decree from Central Planning, factories all over the country started producing guitars. These guitars were only identified as "Article No. XXX" and although built in several factories in various cities - Lvov, Samara, Ivanovo, Sverdlovsk, etc. - they were all based on the same centrally approved designs, all alike in appearance and all equally unplayable. These were short scale (610mm) instruments with small, narrow and shallow bodies. There were some variations in body sizes and finish colors, though this was merely incidental, not a deliberate effort at different models. While six string guitars were available, the vast majority were the "standard" seven-string instruments, since the Soviet government officials in charge of music manufacturing had no clue as to what the public really wanted. From the mid-Sixties onwards, most purchasers simply took off the extra string and re-tuned.
While comparable in musical quality to the worst early Korean student-grade plywood instruments, these atrocities actually had solid spruce tops, which often consisted of several pieces instead of a normal book-matched pair and were thick enough to require virtually no bracing. Though the design specified good solid wood, this wasn't necessarily a plus. The resulting instruments had all the sonic qualities of a log. Fretboards were often left unfinished, the machine heads slipped and bent during attempts at normal tuning and the bridge saddles consisted of a thin piece of fret wire hammered into the bridge. The bridge itself was the same rounded semi-classical chunk of beech, whether the guitar came from the factory strung with steel or nylon.

Pic. 4. This 7-string acoustic ("Article No. 365: Guitar") was made by the Ivanovo factory in 1979. A typical example of a Soviet factory guitar, as cranked out by the thousand during the Sixties and Seventies. This one has a beech neck with an unfinished fretboard, a seven-piece spruce top and a one-piece rosewood back. The Chrysler-like star on the headstock was the Soviet badge of quality, applied because this 22 ruble instrument was top of the production line, not counting the often truly superb custom orders. Imagine what the 7.50 ruble guitar looked and played like! (Photo by author.)

The thick, un-reinforced necks were attached to the body by a single bolt through the heel, an outdated design left over from the old Russian parlor guitars. While theoretically this made the neck angle adjustable, in practice the neck wobbled up and down as well as sideways. So the strings ended up running off the fretboard and the "self-variable" action that resulted ranged randomly from fret-slapping buzz to three-inch egg slicer. Periodically, the guitarist would have to stop playing and adjust the neck with a key. Staying in tune for over two minutes was virtually impossible. One photo of the famous underground street-song performer Arkadi Severny shows him with such a guitar, a large comb jammed under the bottom of the fretboard in a vain attempt to stabilize it.

Pic. 5. Underground star Arkady Severny performing with one such guitar in the early Seventies. Note comb jammed under fretboard, holding the "adjustable" neck in place. (Archive photo by unknown photographer.)

The factory workers who built the guitars were often carpenters and furniture makers who knew little about musical instruments and cared even less, wasting much valuable fine wood on these cheap, inferior instruments. One could go through two dozen of these guitars at the store before finding one even remotely serviceable, though perhaps only a dozen if the shipment came from Leningrad. Since Leningrad's Lunacharsky factory was the oldest, they had a bit more experience to fall back on. They even managed to build a few prized 12-string guitars that are justly regarded as the best Soviet-era acoustics ever, despite cranking out something like 20,000 guitars a month at the height of the boom. Incidentally, guitar makers worldwide were experiencing a similar boom in the early Sixties.

The guitars came primarily in three grades and price ranges, 7.50, 12 and 22 rubles, although in practice a higher price did not guarantee a better instrument. As with all consumer goods produced in the Soviet Union, these were set official prices, usually stamped on the label. And as with all consumer goods produced in the Soviet Union, the best ones were cherry-picked by the salespeople and sold on the side for a few rubles more.

There are still literally millions of these guitars in homes throughout Russia and other republics of the former Soviet Union. Whatever their deficiencies as musical instruments, as manufactured objects they are very sturdy and practically indestructible. I have known one to fall out of a third story window without suffering any serious damage. An entire generation learned to play on them and the same basic models are available to this day for those who cannot afford anything better. Since the breakup of the Soviet Union, some of these factories closed, some conduct business as usual and some have learned to copy the Chinese methods of guitar manufacture, bypassing quality control completely and using plywood extensively to cut costs even further.

It seemed that by the early '60's every Russian kid was strumming a cheap acoustic of some sort, whether an old parlor seven-string, a Czechoslovakian Lingatone, a Bulgarian Cremona, an East German Resonata, the odd Spanish Admira or Swedish Egmond, a third-hand Framus (if lucky and relatively well-connected) or one of the ubiquitous Russian factory guitars (if not). The stage was set for an explosion.

The explosion came in 1964. The Beatles changed everything. For all intents and purposes, there was no electric rock'n'roll music in Russia before the Beatles. A few Moscow and St. Petersburg hipsters may have had their treasured "records on ribs" and a jazz combo would occasionally dare to play a fast, hard-hitting jitterbug boogie at dances (from "Chattanooga Choo Choo" to "See You Later, Alligator" wasn't such a major step), but these pioneers were few and far between. The Beatles affected everybody. No matter how much the government attacked and ridiculed them, no matter how little information there was to be had, no matter that the suppressed music was not sold in stores or played on the radio. The Beatles' message came through regardless.

Made by underground enthusiasts on discarded X-ray plates, using converted Victrola-type phonographs, those early "records on ribs" were the only way to hear rock'n'roll in Russia before reel-to-reel tape recorders became widely available. People took enormous risks in the late Fifties to bring to their fellow fans those static-ridden, barely audible flexi-discs of "Rock Around The Clock" dubbed from a distant West German or British radio broadcast. Thanks to these enterprising heroes, the first copies of "Love Me Do" and "She Loves You" also appeared on somebody's broken bones. But it was no longer enough to just listen to those thin grooves etched onto an old X-ray plate. It was no longer enough to sing quiet, acoustic protest songs to a small circle of friends. One had to do something, express something, make some electric beat music of their own. The first Moscow rock group, The Brothers, formed in 1964 and others soon followed. Groups such as Sokol ("The Falcons") were playing gigs at the Youth Cafe on Gorky Street by 1966.

But there were no electric guitars available. None were produced in Russia as yet and none were officially imported into the country from abroad. Professional musicians acquired their instruments and equipment from East European musicians who toured Russia. Some of the established older radio and orchestra musicians had their precious German electric jazz archtops that raised eyebrows in the Fifties, some working pros who played "official" music had decent equipment provided by the State, but these were beyond the reach of most people. There was an incredible shortage of affordable electric guitars for beginners and professional musicians alike. In fact, the very concept "reasonably affordable electric guitar" would have been at best an oxymoron, at worst a cruel joke. Since the instruments were so prohibitively expensive, one would often see the new VIA bands on television, record covers and in concert with the cheapest, most primitive guitars. And these were professional musicians, not your average amateurs.


Pic. 6. Golubye Gitary ("The Blue Guitars"), a typical 1970's VIA band. Proudly displayed are three Musima guitars, two top-of-the-line Eternas and a hollow-body Musima bass. In those days, most Russian guitarists could only dream about instruments of such quality. (Scan from record cover).

The Soviet acronym stood for "Vocal - Instrumental Ensemble", there being no such thing officially as a "rock group". Those willing to tone it down to the level of the Searchers or the Tremoloes, accept patriotic Soviet songs as part of their repertoire and put up with strict censorship could possibly get a chance at television, records and a permission to tour and earn money playing music. Those who made any attempts at artistic freedom were strictly underground, considered by the authorities to be either dangerous subversives or misguided fools who slavishly imitated foreign degenerates. A rock musician could be either true to his principles but persecuted and hungry, or have a shot at a career as a tame sell-out. Some managed both, holding official jobs in VIA bands while persevering with underground rock activity. This duplicity, necessary for survival, was a common feature of Soviet life, with lip service in public and your own thing only in private, among trusted friends. While no longer executed or sent to Siberian exile as in the 1930's, "unofficial" musicians could still expect harassment, searches with periodic confiscation of their precious instruments and occasional arrests for "hooliganism, parasitism, profiteering and inciting riots". Never mind a decent guitar.

Well into the early Eighties, even professional musicians had to make do with Kents, Teiscos, Grecos and their slightly better European equivalents, the various Hungarian, Yugoslavian, and Czechoslovakian instruments. Japanese guitars were more common in the Eastern part of the country, as they filtered in from Japan via Siberia, brought in by sailors through ports such as Vladivostok. Otherwise, most of the instruments came from Eastern Europe. Some of these were actually reasonably decent instruments, but the vast majority were pretty bad.

Musima and Jolana guitars were among the better ones. Jolana especially accounted for a large percentage of electric guitars in Russia and elsewhere in Eastern Europe. These were made in Czechoslovakia since 1954. Jolana hollowbody models popular in Russia in the Sixties were the Special and the Tornado, both ES335-style instruments with bolt-on necks and six-in-line headstocks, which could be had in any color as long as it was sunburst. The Tornado had three pickups and a Bigsby-like vibrato. The rare twelve-string version was called the Alexandra. There was also a line of Czech solidbody models called Star and Grazioso. The Star series were basically beginner models while the Grazioso were a deluxe version with more pushbutton switches and a top-mounted vibrato. These were available in white, red and two-tone sunburst and were exported to Western Europe under the name "Futurama", a British house brand that was also applied to early Hagstroms at one point. The earliest Grazioso models had a 3+3 headstock. In the mid-Sixties, all models switched to a Strat-inspired six-in-line. There was also an 6-string bass model called Pedro. In the late Sixties, Jolana experimented with bizarre body shapes, including one model that resembled a five-cornered wedge. But soon after Japan's Shiro Arai inaugurated the copy era with his Aria Les Pauls, Jolana, like many others, followed suit and concentrated on bolt-neck Gibson copies called the Diamant. The company quietly went out of business sometime in the 1980's, plagued by poor quality control and unable to compete with the influx of Asian imports.

Pic. 7. Mashina Vremeni ("Time Machine"), one of the biggest names in Russian rock. Here they are on stage in 1974, playing a Jolana Studio bass and a Jolana Star VII guitar. (Archive photo by unknown photographer).

One of the most popular brands throughout the Sixties and Seventies was the East German Musima. The company produced a range of hollow-body instruments and Jazzmaster-like solids. The earliest ones bore the Eterna logo on the headstock. There's a rare 1966 shot of The Falcons' lead guitarist Yury Yermakov playing one. The later, re-designed lineup had the Musima logo and the new top-of-the-line three pickup model was called the Eterna Deluxe. These were much more common. In 1985 or thereabouts Musima came up with a "new" design called the Lead Star, which was something of a poor man's Stratocaster. The company is still around, although they no longer produce electric instruments.

Framus, Hofner and Hopf instruments, being West German, were much less common. Italian Galanti and Excelsior guitars as well as Swedish Egmonds and Hagstroms were occasionally seen, but each of these would have had their own story to tell about the devious means by which their current owner managed to obtain them. The price? Don't ask, but it involved overpaying several times over and at least one bottle of vodka.

Whether unable to afford even such inexpensive instruments (a Musima, depending on the model, could easily cost several months' salary) or desiring something of better quality than anything available, everybody else built their own. Self-made electric guitars proliferated in Russia well into the Eighties. These ranged from superb, accurate forgeries of Fender, Gibson and even Rickenbacker models made by skilled craftsmen, to abysmal approximations of something briefly glimpsed on an American album cover, made with more enthusiasm than skill and barely playable. Many were unique, one-off instruments that a musician would build for his own use. The earliest such guitars of the Sixties were primitive, as every kid tried to build one without quite knowing how. The later instruments, made by a growing number of experienced luthiers, were much more sophisticated, although quality varied, depending on the individual builder. Some took pride in their work and produced excellent instruments, but many used raw unseasoned wood, unbelievably poor hardware and sloppy workmanship in order to crank out as many guitars as possible and make a fast profit. Almost anything that could be slapped together found an eager buyer who had no basis for comparison, never having played a decent instrument.

By the late Sixties, it was impossible to find a working public phone in all of Moscow. Every receiver was vandalized, harvested for parts that were necessary to build a primitive guitar pickup. Comrade Kuznetsov of 1935 would have been proud. The process was common knowledge among the kids, who would either cut the pickup into the top of an acoustic guitar or build their own solid-body instrument in the woodworking shop at school. Sometimes, necks were broken off an old acoustic guitar, screwed onto a self-made plank body and fitted with two or three telephone pickups. Necks were sometimes made out of old skis, with a fretboard added on top. Many of these necks had no truss rods, as few amateurs knew about such details. Without a truss-rod, the ski was apparently the only thing that would remain straight under string pressure while allowing a reasonably thin neck profile.

For lack of proper potentiometers, switches and other electronics, one would see unlikely combinations of radio parts, appliance knobs, tuners salvaged off acoustic guitars and heavy duty light switches potted in epoxy and used as on/off toggles. Even the most elementary information was unavailable, so everything was done by trial and error. Nevertheless, guitars were built and old tube radios were turned into amplifiers. Some of the more skilled do-it-yourselfers who had paid attention in physics class even managed to build their own mixers, PA's and primitive primochki (effects), such as fuzz boxes and tape-recorder echo delays. These things were either unavailable or unaffordable otherwise.

One well-known example of such a home-made instrument belongs to Konstantine Nikolsky, the guitarist with Moscow's popular rock group Voskresenie ("Sunday"). Nikolsky built his guitar as a teenager in the early '70's and although he can have any guitar he wants these days, he still occasionally plays it on stage. This guitar appears in countless photos and can be heard on all the group's hits. It is a strange looking double-cutaway, single pickup instrument with a large oar-like headstock.A musician friend who had met Nikolsky told me about this legendary guitar's construction. The instrument consists of… several dozen large wooden rulers, laminated together. Every schoolchild in Russia is familiar with these rulers and Nikolsky utilized them as a cheap source of hard wood, in this case beech. Gluing them all together must have taken a phenomenal amount of patience! The bolt-on neck was originally made of the same beech rulers, but despite a proper truss rod, it was unplayable above the fifth fret. Nikolsky soon made a one-piece maple neck to replace it. The pickup and tuners were originally taken from some East German cheapie. These were upgraded several times over the years and the guitar now sports a modern humbucker surrounded by a black plastic pickguard that hides the various routs. The bridge was a simple stop-tail bar made by Nikolsky himself. Another, later version of this much modified workhorse had two pickups and a vibrato. The controls are equally basic - a metal plate in the top of the guitar contains an input jack and a single volume control. Nikolsky went on to form an influential group and achieve stardom with this instrument, which he has played almost daily for over twenty years.

Pic 8. Russian guitar: the 1970's. Veteran underground rocker Konstantin Nikolsky with his famed home-made axe, his weapon of choice throughout the Seventies and Eighties. He still takes it out occasionally, though these days you're more likely to catch him gigging with a Valley Arts Stratocaster. (Photo from a late '80's Voskresenie concert by unknown photographer.)

While Nikolsky is about the only veteran rocker who didn't switch over to a new Gibson at the earliest opportunity, most Russian rockers of that era had similarly humble beginnings. Such guitars were the rule then rather than the exception and many of Russia's best guitarists started out with such instruments. In the West, the only comparable phenomenon is Queen's Brian May and his self-made guitar that became the prototype of the Guild Brian May model. Hey, Guild, how about a Konstantine Nikolsky model, rulers and all?

Making a bass guitar required more skill and the shortage of serviceable electric basses was even more acute. The problem stemmed from the fact that a bass neck is longer and has to withstand more string pressure, so adapting an old acoustic guitar was no longer an option. Nevertheless, even this was attempted, by fitting an acoustic guitar with a set of cello strings and - what else? - a telephone pickup. About the only decent bass available was the Orpheus, a violin-shaped hollowbody instrument made in Bulgaria that was the closest Russian bassists could get to Paul McCartney's Hofner. Framus basses were especially prized, but most bassists could only dream of owning a Framus a la Bill Wyman, let alone a real Hofner. Home-made bass guitars were sometimes fitted with acoustic bass strings or even piano wires, for lack of proper strings. Bassists would wear gloves when playing to avoid bruising their fingers.

Strings in general were a sore point, as State music stores were only likely to carry strings for balalaikas with any sort of regularity. Russian-made acoustic guitar strings were sporadically available, but these were of atrocious quality and came in only one gauge. Old strings were routinely boiled in water to prolong their life. One musician recalled having to shave badly worn strings with sandpaper to even out the dead spots and make them last through a few more gigs. Finding a set of German Thomastic strings was the quest of every guitarist and if successful, a cause for celebration.

Hendrix, Clapton and Santana were the distant, legendary heroes of the day. Guitarists spent countless hours rewinding eighteenth generation reel-to-reel tapes, trying to copy the licks. "Marshall" and "Stratocaster" were the magic incantations as "Black Magic Woman" and "Purple Haze" were reproduced note-for-note on a Jolana Tornado thinline plugged into a Speedola transistor radio. Of course, your friend had an Electron-110 amp that you borrowed for gigs. The first guitar amp manufactured in Russia, the Electron-110 was a funny looking little tube combo that sat on three spindly legs and put out ten watts of power.

By the mid-Seventies, the school project guitars with the telephone pickups became a thing of the past. Those groups who managed to make a name for themselves ("Sunday", "Time Machine", "Aquarium", "Myths", etc.) had also managed to acquire some decent instruments and equipment. Some of the Teiscos and Excelsiors trickled down to beginners as the pros moved up to Ibanezes, Yamahas and even the occasional Gibson and Fender. However, acquiring a brand-name American instrument still meant that everyone you knew would want to see and touch this rare wonder. Nobody took a "real" guitar for granted and none of these instruments were within reach of amateurs. One of the most popular groups of the period was Deep Purple and many a Russian rocker's fantasy involved a white Stratocaster a la Ritchie Blackmore. A few lucky souls even managed to obtain one.

The source for these instruments and equipment remained primarily touring Polish, Czechoslovakian or East German groups who sold off their gear at the end of the tour, usually getting more money for their used equipment in Moscow or Tbilisi than new replacements cost in Berlin or Prague. One of the first American performers to tour Russia was, unbelievably… Roy Clark. At the concerts, the front rows were taken up by jaded and disapproving Party officials as every guitarist in the back row strained to see and memorize the Country virtuoso's every lick.

Eastern European instruments finally started to become officially available in music stores, though these were usually sold out within hours of arrival. Czechoslovakian Tesla PA systems and German Vermona combo amps were especially popular. The bass players armed themselves with the new sunburst Musima solidbody models. Recording gear and studio equipment remained the biggest problem. Since the State had a monopoly on recording facilities and wasn't about to let the various underground subversives anywhere near them, all the popular reel-to-reel "albums" of the Seventies and Eighties were recorded with makeshift equipment that would have seemed primitive to Mr. Sam Phillips in 1955. The earliest Russian beat groups of the Sixties and early Seventies, such as The Falcons, Skomorokhi ("The Jesters") and Rubinovaya Ataka ("Ruby Attack"), never managed to record at all and their music is unfortunately lost to us.

But by mid-decade, several Russian factories tooled up to build - gasp! - electric guitars. The earliest examples to hit the State music stores were called "Tonika". This was in about 1971 - 1972, although pinpointing the exact date is difficult. Tonika guitars are usually described as "very heavy", "a waste of good wood" and "at least, better than nothing". Soon after that, the first "Ural" guitars were built in Sverdlovsk. The Ural guitars lasted into the Eighties without getting any better. There were also several solidbody models produced in Leningrad. These were simple, straightforward but functional designs that carried no specific brand name at the time but were simply known as "Leningrad guitars". These were among the better early Russian electrics. For about 200 rubles (about one-and-a-half month's salary for many), one could finally own something that actually resembled a real electric guitar! The slightly later "Admiral" solids also came from Leningrad. And the Rostov-On-Don furniture and balalaika factory built the "Aelita".

Pic. 9. The Aelita, made at the Rostov-On-Don factory, was one of the better Soviet electric guitars. This one is a 1985 model. (Photo by author).

The Aelita was named after Alexei Tolstoi's famous science fiction heroine (Aelita was the queen of Mars in Tolstoi's novel, which was also made into an influential 1928 silent film). Unfortunately, the resulting guitar was less than futuristic. It had a thick, heavy, stubby double cutaway body coated in such thick black polymer lacquer that it made the instrument appear like a lump of solid plastic. The pickguard and headstock overlay were made of orange or yellow sparkle plastic that looked gaudy, old-fashioned and cheap, the four pickups were microphonic and severely underpowered, the control buttons did absolutely nothing to alter the thin, brittle sound and the hardware was at least fifteen years out of date by Western standards. If you can imagine an early Sixties Japanese product made in the late Seventies with high-grade solid wood but even cheaper hardware and electrical components, you'll get the idea. Some of the guitarists who bought the Aelita immediately stripped off the resonance-killing finish, junked the sparkle plastic, sanded the neck, dressed the frets, shaved down the thickness of the body, re-shaped the cutaway horns to vaguely resemble a Gibson SG and upgraded all the hardware and electronics. After that, the thing was playable.

A friend of mine visited the Rostov-On-Don factory in 1983. They were still building Aelitas. Yet he recalled seeing several very good quality guitars in the office, some that the workers had made for themselves and a few intriguing prototypes. Some of these were Strat and Les Paul copies, some decent original designs. He was shown a stack of old American and German catalogs that had provided the inspiration and the specifications. "So how come you're producing such crap?", he asked, incredulously. The foreman explained to him that the bureaucracy involved in having a prototype accepted by the necessary committees and government agencies that regulated the factory was too much to bother with and that there was no incentive to deviate from a design already approved and meeting production quotas. Only in the USSR!

As more and more guitarists became exposed to better quality instruments towards the late Seventies, Russian luthiers, who were forced to absorb in ten years all the Western developments of the past thirty years, had finally learned how to make good quality guitars and basses. American guitars especially became highly prized and some specialized in producing forgeries of Fender, Gibson and Rickenbacker models and later, Kramers, Charvels and Jacksons. The vast majority of such guitars were not exact copies, especially considering the variations in pickups and hardware and the fact that each instrument was entirely hand-made with whatever parts the luthier had managed to obtain. Nevertheless, many of these not-quite-copies would still have the famous logo on the headstock and enough similarities to fool a layman. Some really ridiculous guitars were sold to eager suckers with fake Gibson, Ibanez and even "Sony" logos. I recall seeing one such guitar, a bad Stratocaster knockoff with a really improbable fake "Pearl" logo. Pearl, of course, is a drum company!

Pic. 10. The art of Russian lutherie: the bad. This Gavrilenko ESP knockoff is a typical Russian samopal. It was made by a provincial craftsman in Dniepropetrovsk. While it looks sort of like a modern super-strat, it is very primitive compared to similar instruments made by professional luthiers from Moscow or St. Petersburg. The body, made of raw, unseasoned alder has already split down the middle. Features: East German "Status" neck pickup, cheesy locking vibrato, neck bolted to body without neck plate. Unplayable - even if you can manage to set it up, the fret edges alone will kill you. The label inside control panel says "ESP 380 type. Guaranteed for one year." Presumably, after a year the unfortunate owner would have to move on to something better. Nevertheless, for lack of affordable instruments even such poor examples found buyers. (Photo by author.)

Yet for a price, several luthiers could have made you a high quality, extremely accurate copy that actually could fool a pro. These were expensive, sometimes up to two-thirds the price of a real Gibson or Fender. But for many musicians, this was the only way to finally obtain that long-coveted Les Paul. Sure, a fake Gibson wasn't cheap, but it looked like the real thing, it could be built to your specifications, it was a very good pro quality instrument that still cost less than a real Gibson and it was actually available. These guitars were usually made to order for a specific customer and making such instruments was a labor of love rather than a business proper. Such devoted, detailed forgery is no longer economically feasible today, as the real thing would inevitably cost less and availability is no longer a problem. The best luthiers have long since established their own reputations, came up with their own designs and put their own names on the headstock, and the cheaper run-of-the-mill knockoffs slapped together by greedy opportunists no longer fool anyone. But when you see old pictures of Russian groups in concert, look closely. That white Blackmore Strat may not be a Fender, that SG had probably never seen the inside of the Kalamazoo factory and that Rickenbacker bass may not actually be a Rickenbacker!

Unfortunately, the owners of these forgeries would frequently re-sell the instruments as the genuine article and after that "Fender" or "Gibson" changed hands several times, the provenance would get lost. The easiest way to spot a really good older Russian forgery built by a true master? Look at all the little screws that hold the pickups, the pickguard and the machine heads. Phillips-head screws were much less common in the USSR than in the West and the guitar will most likely have standard, slot-head screws.

Pic. 11. The art of Russian lutherie: the good. A handful of these "Gino Rich" Les Paul and SG-style guitars were made by Moscow builder Gennady "Gene" Bulayev in the late 1980's. This one is a fine, professional set-neck instrument made from aged maple and mahogany. The top is moderately flamed. The guitar nails the Gibson feel, though the hardware and pickups leave something to be desired, as good components were extremely difficult to obtain. Guitarists would sometimes ask the luthier to build a good quality guitar with cheaper components, to be upgraded at a later date when it becomes possible. Bulayev now lives in New York and plans to return to guitar making. (Photo courtesy of Gene Bulayev.)

Moscow luthier Gennady Voroshilov was the earliest proponent of original guitar designs. A friend of Time Machine's leader Andrei Makarevich and other underground rock stars on the scene, Voroshilov developed his own original designs in the mid-Seventies and influenced many younger guitar-makers to get away from mere copying and move towards building world-class guitars in Russia. Voroshilov's guitars resembled but actually pre-dated a modern Paul Reed Smith-style instrument and were crafted from carefully selected wood, often obtained from discarded antique furniture. This gave each instrument a unique character. They were highly prized and always in demand. These guitars had no specific name, but each one had the builder's initials on the headstock, in reverse order: "VG". As in "Voroshilov Guitar". Or "Vintage Guitar".

The Eighties saw the heavy metal explosion and the super-strat craze. This phase hit Russia hard and lasted much longer than it did in the West. It started with total worship of Nazareth, Slade and Black Sabbath in the late Seventies and never really went away. Groups like the Scorpions, Accept and Van Halen presented a new image and new guitar designs. The pointy headstock ruled. The only ones who bucked the trend were Nikolsky, who refused to give up his samopal ("self-built") guitar and Victor Tsoi, the leader of the new wave group Kino, who played a white Yamaha SBG. The complicated Floyd Rose vibrato unit, rack-mount effects processors and synthesizers were seen as a true sign of progress.

Gorbachev came to power and announced the new policies of glasnost and perestroika (openness and re-structuring). After a particularly vicious anti-rock campaign of the early '80's, this had finally eased up the pressure and towards the end of the decade it suddenly became perfectly legal to play anything you wanted and make money doing it. Private enterprise became possible on a small scale and luthiers, among other craftsmen, formed co-ops to produce all the necessary consumer goods that were formerly hard to acquire. In this case, building Flying V and Explorer copies en masse. Multi-track studio recording, long denied to underground rockers, finally became possible. Production and distribution of these reel-to-reel "albums" was no longer a crime and Melodia, the State record label, was no longer a monopoly. In 1986, the first Beatles album to be officially released in Russia on vinyl, a compilation called A Taste Of Honey, sold out within hours. Other rock records followed. Playing styles changed, as everybody gradually threw off their former restraints and exercised their newfound freedom to make lots of noise. The first Charvels were plugged into the new "Red Bear" Marshall clones. If you couldn't dive bomb, finger-tap and blow a few Svetlana tubes, you were hopelessly behind the times.

As instruments and equipment became much more readily available, the name brand on the headstock started to matter. Pretty soon, every self-respecting rock guitarist absolutely had to have a Kramer. The prestige of this brand in Russia was second only to Gibson, which remained as a slightly staid alternative. Every other brand, including Fender, ran a distant third for a while. At one point, it was quite possible to find two "old-fashioned" (possibly pre-CBS!) Strats for the price of one new Kramer. Kramer eventually paid back the compliment by marketing the balalaika-shaped Gorky Park model, named after one of Moscow's best heavy metal groups, although I don't think anyone but Gorky Park had ever actually played them.

In 1989, I was asked to help pick out a guitar to be shipped to somebody's teenage nephew in Moscow. When asked what kind of guitar he wants, the kid couldn't care less about pickups, body styles, construction details, scale, controls, hardware, neck profiles, woods or any other such trifle. He just knew he wanted a "Kraaah-mer" because everybody knew it was the best, although if I couldn't get him a "Kraaah-mer", he was willing to settle for a "Gyp-son". (Considering his uncle's budget, I wound up getting him a used Ibanez.) When the pointy headstock guitars went out of fashion in the West, Kramer went belly up. There had been some talk during the Gorky Park endorsement deal about producing Kramers in Russia, but it wasn't meant to be. Until very recently, several importers made good money snapping up the devalued, passe Kramers and shipping them to Russia, where they still sold like hotcakes.

Fender's stock rose again with the advent of one Yngwie Malmsteen. While Malmsteen found his share of fans in the West, he was regarded with a certain detachment and irony by many musicians who saw him as a one trick pony with a massive ego. Not so in Russia. As far as Russian headbangers were concerned, Malmsteen was God. For some reason, all the semi-classical pretensions have always been accepted at face value in Russia, from the influential rock-opera of Jesus Christ Superstar to Emerson Lake and Palmer's assaults on Mussorgsky to Yngwie's Paganini-on-speed histrionics. Many of those white "Blackmore" Stratocasters were dusted off and converted into "Malmsteen" Stratocasters by scalloping the neck, often ruined by amateurs. And even the most disposable, trite electro-pop hit played on the radio now had to have a massive electric guitar zapil (solo), regardless whether it was appropriate or completely out of place. One would see those laughable video clips in which some dude with a pink Charvel and enough heavy metal regalia for several LA cheese-metal bands falls on his knees and cranks out a diarrhea of note-for-note Malmsteen riffs with his eyes closed in ecstasy. After which the music goes back to a sub-Modern Talking dance-pop drone. As the faceless little girl singer returns into the spotlight and continues to warble something about faded roses and broken hearts, you notice that he wasn't even plugged in.

It has to be said that scenes like the one described above were some clueless hack producer's idea of commercial pop and not true rock at all. The rock musicians knew it was a joke, though enough people in the audience took the stereotype seriously. Perhaps the musicians simply had to survive this virus infection before re-discovering the unhurried soulfulness of the blues. Again, this followed American trends, but in Russia the heavy metal years were an exaggerated caricature. Of course, since then there was also Russian grunge…

Several attempts have been made to mass produce good quality, modern electric guitars in Russia, but so far this has been unsuccessful. Musicians remain suspicious of factory-made Russian instruments with understandable justification, and these guitars were always considered second rate compared to familiar Western brands. After many years of having to play all kinds of junk, nobody wants anything to do with an off-brand instrument anymore if one can help it, much less a Russian one. In the Nineties, Moscow's Russtone has seen some acceptance with their modern Fender, Gibson and Washburn copies and luthier Alexander Shamray continues to operate a popular custom shop. A few latter-day models produced in Leningrad (now again known as St. Petersburg) weren't bad. The former little co-ops are now sizeable businesses producing all kinds of instruments and sound equipment. But as soon as a working musician makes some money, he trades up to a Gibson, Fender, Jackson, Hamer or Paul Reed Smith. While American guitars are naturally more expensive overseas (add shipping, customs duties and the middleman's profit to an already steep list price), above a certain level there seems to be no substitute.

The only alternative seems to be high-quality luthier guitars made to order. A guitarist often has a choice between buying a standard production model and having a similar instrument custom built, for about the same price. Even less, if the instrument is a higher-end American model. Professionally custom-built instruments are easily available and cheaper than a comparable axe built in the States. These, by the way, are all solidbody electrics. The traditional archtop guitar, considered the pinnacle of luthier art among American vintage guitar aficionados, has never developed in Russia. It is an American invention that has never really caught on, being expensive, complicated, a jazz instrument at a time when jazz was outlawed and old-fashioned by the time rock'n'roll hit. The archtop has never lost its "fancy oddball" image in Russia and almost no luthier knows how to build one, though some attempts have been made. Full-depth archtops, as opposed to the more democratic thinlines, are a rare sight in Russia, found only among older players dedicated to traditional jazz. Any such instrument that you may see is invariably imported.

Thankfully, the market is now flooded with inexpensive but reasonably decent Korean and Indonesian imports suitable for amateurs, so these days Ivan Jr. in Odessa or Minsk is learning to play on the same kind of guitar as Johnny Jr. in Brooklyn or Seattle. They both play pretty much the same kind of post-grunge noise on the same exact Squier Affinity Strat (current price in Moscow: $190 US, give or take a few bucks as the exchange rate fluctuates). Somewhere in the closet sits his daddy's old Musima as Ivan Sr. grumbles that kids these days have it too easy and possess no taste in music.

So, do vintage guitars as we know them exist in Russia? Battered old guitars, yes. Recent high-end, expensive guitars, yes. Vintage guitars, probably not. The economic realities being what they are, no collector or speculator from the former Soviet Union would choose to invest in pre-war Martins or sunburst '59 Les Pauls. Certainly no musician would ever own an expensive instrument that he would have to keep behind glass and refrain from playing on stage, not even a star who could now afford it. There's also no market in Russia for D'Angelicos and such, as people simply don't have that kind of disposable income. If any custom color pre-CBS Fender had made it to Russia, it wasn't appreciated for what it was, as its owner felt incredibly lucky to have any kind of Fender at all and had no basis for comparison between the various models. It made no difference whether it was a '62 Strat in Daphne Blue or a '78 three-bolt in sunburst. Neither would have been spared. Such guitars were highly prized by their owners, but as good instruments, not as collectibles. If a musician's one-and-only workhorse needed repairs, it would get fixed with whatever parts he could get. Utility was everything, originality not an issue. Few could afford more than one guitar in the Sixties and Seventies, so the older ones were routinely modified whenever the musician got a chance to upgrade pickups and hardware. Since information about basic maintenance and repairs was as unavailable as the necessary parts, these poor repairs and modifications irretrievably damaged many instruments. (Imagine having to re-fret your own priceless Fender without access to information, necessary tools and proper fret wire!) Too busy fighting for their music, the underground rockers never gave much thought to preserving their instruments.

Since the guitars were so expensive, many of them were low-end, beginner models and as such not of much interest to vintage guitar collectors. If you have a taste for low-end kitsch, perhaps an older, pre-copy era Jolana might make a cool wall-hanger next to your Teisco May Queen. They produced a few interesting models, unique designs with a similar bizarre aesthetic before they started cranking out the those ugly cookie-cutter "Diamant" Les Paul copies in the Seventies. (Want to know how ugly? Try pine bodies and bleached beech fretboards on some examples!)

The early Futurama guitars, better known as "Grazioso" at home in Czechoslovakia, with the pushbutton controls and the 3+3 headstock are becoming slightly collectible due to the Beatles connection. George Harrison was often photographed with one during the group's early days. There's that famous 1960 photo with John, George and Stuart Sutcliffe sitting on top of a truck at the Hamburg fairgrounds, with a much too serious young Harrison clutching his Futurama. But if playability matters to you, you'll be better off with a Korean Squier. Notice that Harrison himself traded in his Futurama for a Rickenbacker as soon as he could afford to.

The Musimas and the later Futuramas with the 6-in-line headstock are a dime a dozen all over Europe. Russian-made guitars from the Soviet era are not especially pleasing aesthetically and only marginal sonically, so there's little reason to collect them. No Russian guitarist would be too upset if all of them ceased to exist tomorrow. There are plenty of late model Gibsons and Paul Reed Smiths in Russia today, but these are all utility instruments. None of them are vintage. But if you ever visit Moscow or St. Petersburg, do look through the local classifieds, like a true lover of old guitars will do anywhere. You never know what you might find.

Recent trends have caught up with Russia. There's no longer any time lapse before a new American album release, a new guitar model or a new effects processor appears on the market. Anything available here is available there too, the only difference being that a smaller percentage of people could afford it. The manufacturers are learning to be competitive on the open market; Svetlana replacement vacuum tubes and Sovtek effects pedals have been successfully marketed abroad. The heavy metal guitars of the Eighties are slowly going out of style as guitarists are beginning to return to traditional values. One is even beginning to hear the new buzzword "vintage", though nobody seems to be sure what exactly that means. Few people are knowledgeable about the history, specifications and relative values of vintage instruments, but everybody has Internet access and knows about the prices old guitars bring on eBay. A brief run through the ads on a web site hosted by a Moscow music store revealed a restored vintage '63 Stratocaster as well as a "vintage" '80's Ibanez Roadstar, both at prices that would make an American dealer go "huh?" At any rate, the classic models are "in" again and even the retro Euro-trash guitars are beginning to enjoy some kind of reverse snob appeal. A player who traded in his first Jolana for a Kramer in 1987 has probably bought it back by now in a flash of nostalgia, though these days he might play a Telecaster. In fact, a reissue butterscotch Tele is currently Andrei Makarevich's weapon of choice, which, considering Time Machine's prestige, may have something to do with the Telecaster's current popularity.

One Aelita surfaced at last year's New York guitar show, although nobody seemed to notice the poor girl or appreciate the ugly duckling for what she was. I had to smile when I saw her. A dodo, as extinct as the country that produced her, she was once upon a time either some teenager's rock'n'roll dream or some professional musician's worst nightmare. Somebody cut their teeth (and their fingers) on that fretboard twenty years ago, struggling to learn the solo to "Hotel California" off a worn-out, smuggled American record. And here she is in New York. An immigrant from the former Soviet Union and now a U.S. citizen, just like me.

 

 

Copyright © 2001 - 2004 JunkGuitars.com. All Rights Reserved. This article originally appeared in two parts as "Guitars of the Cold War" in January 2002 and May 2002 issues of Vintage Guitar Magazine.

 

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