The Reverb Guide to Soviet-Era Guitars

It’s 1969. NASA successfully lands on the Moon, The Beatles release Abbey Road, and a small group of luthiers in a cold factory in Leningrad are just putting the finishing touches on the first Soviet solid body electric guitar.

In its early days, the USSR severely resisted the spread of rock music from the West and demand for electric guitars was limited. Domestic production of guitars had already been shuttered under Stalin, and with rock music officially recognized as a western influence, there was no impetus for manufacturing to begin again.

Orfeus Cremona

But the people of the Soviet Union still had their ears to the ground. By the 1960s, an increasing number of records were smuggled through the Iron Curtain’s many holes as the veil between East and West grew thinner. Rock music helped create a rebel subculture throughout the USSR’s satellite countries, and many people began smuggling in blue jeans and various items considered Western extravagances by the government.

But the USSR did not see the electric guitar itself as a threat, and after a long period of dormancy, domestic guitar production began once again.

It began as an extremely misguided venture. For the most part, Russian luthiers had only previously been experienced in building more traditional instruments. Electric guitars were brand new territory for Soviet craftsmen who had to play catch-up straight off the block. When their first solid body electric guitar was manufactured in 1969, it was both a landmark and a miserable failure.

The First Attempt

The first botched electric guitar effort in the Soviet Union was the infamous Tonika model. This guitar remains a notoriously awful instrument, and while many regard it as one of the worst guitars ever built, its significance as historical artifact has made it a highly sought-after model in recent years.

Tonika

Versions of this guitar were manufactured in various regions across the Soviet Union, with the original Leningrad Tonika having the worst reputation of all. Essentially, the luthiers got nothing right; high action, terrible intonation, brass frets that easily wore away, an alien body shape, unbalanced weight, unreliable electronics, and non-serviceable hardware can be counted as some of the reasons for this guitar's dismal performance.

But with prices starting at 130 rubles (about two months’ salary), the Tonika guitars were quite popular. They were derided and despised by guitarists in the Soviet Union, but the prices for Japanese and American models purchased on the black market were extremely expensive, so most were left with no other choice.

Yuriy Shishkov, a Belarusian luthier who went on to work for Fender, describes the frustration of acquiring a decent guitar in the USSR:

"Since buying a Soviet-made electric guitar was not an option I was willing to consider, I was left with only one possible solution: the black market. Everything from keyboards, amplifiers, and electric guitars could be purchased from the underground dealers. The only problem was the astronomical price on these items, rendering them impossible for me to afford. To pick up a Japanese or American guitar through these sources was also not so easy, as there were few options to choose from and limited availability." – If Guitars Could Talk (pg. 286)

Note: take a look at this interview with Yuriy for more on his work and experiences.

You could possibly forgive the Tonika’s dreadful design since the luthiers were so inexperienced and had little access to Western instrument templates, but Mr. Shushkov wasn’t only speaking about the early Tonikas.

A Steady Ascent

The lack of experience in designing electric instruments is just one of a few factors that contributed to the poor quality of Soviet-era craftsmanship. The communist government’s involvement in the factories also hampered the building process by limiting the availability of materials.

Ural 650

There was no private guitar enterprise, and the USSR was not heavily invested in sponsoring the production of electric guitars when the Cold War was at its height. They made use of domestic components that could easily be recognized in many other applications such as plastic pickguard material and knobs that were standard fittings on home appliances and other items.

There was very little variety and if the parts weren’t suitable, they’d be left to their own devices to find a way to make things work. In a way, it’s a testament to the ingenuity of the luthiers charged with designing these instruments with limited resources and expertise.

Many of the early designs are experimental. Some featured plastic tops, onboard effects like flangers, fuzz, and phasers, extraordinary bridge designs that attempted to mimic the Bigsby vibrato, and uncommon material choices. Some of it worked, some of it didn’t.

Ural 510 Bass

One such oddity was the standard Soviet five-pin output that resembled a MIDI jack. It allowed for phantom power and stereo output, but most of the Soviet-era guitars did not take advantage of these features. They were eventually phased out after the USSR’s breakup, but represent some degree of foresight given the potential utility of this type of connection for modern electronic music gear.

In spite of these questionable beginnings, the guitars started to get better through the '70s and '80s. Frank Meyers, a long-time Soviet guitar enthusiast and proprietor of Drowning in Guitars, likens many of the designs to Japanese models, suggesting that luthiers relied heavily on them for influence. By the time the Union collapsed, there had been twenty factories each manufacturing their own brand of instruments in varying degrees and each with its own unique stamp.

There was also very little consistency between production runs, with many models ceasing production in one factory and starting up again in an entirely different region. This is one of the many reasons why documenting their history has proven difficult, and why there remains so little conclusive information about this era of guitar manufacturing history.

Appreciating the Past — Novelty & Nostalgia for Soviet Guitars

Virtually everything that we know about Soviet-era guitars is through the effort of a small community of people on a Russian website dedicated to the instruments: SovietGuitars.com. They grew up in the Soviet Union, watched it fall, and played these crazy guitars all along the way. In fact, members of this community are responsible for practically all the information you can find on the subject online and much of the research for this this article was done with their help.

Borisov

On their website, you can find a database of every known Soviet-era guitar, the factory it was built in, the years it was available, price, and number of models produced - the result of over 10 years of research. In Russian, the database is called the АТЛАС ЭЛЕКТРОГИТАР СССР which translates to something like USSR ELECTROGITAR ATLAS.

It remains the sole effort to document the entire history of Soviet electric guitar manufacturing, and the guide we've built at the bottom of this article represents a graphical, English-language compilation of this data.

Even though some of the information is still missing, the amount of data they’ve compiled is impressive, especially considering the utter lack of documentation from the original factories. Vladislav Selivanov, a respected collector at SovietGuitars.com who has contributed to the Atlas, explains why documenting these instruments has been such a tedious process:

"It is hard to find info on guitars and models because the factories (there were around twenty of them) ceased to exist in the early '90s. No one needed their archives and they were often discarded by the new owners. Only in the course of the last 10 years or so there has been a rise of interest towards those instruments, and a group of enthusiasts have been restoring their history. Almost all guitar models have been discovered, and their model range [production quantities] has been researched."

Even though public opinion regarding these guitars at the time was extremely low, and their written history discarded and forgotten, the guitars of the USSR have become increasingly popular among collectors. There's a growing market for these instruments online, and you can find dedicated Soviet guitar vendors located in various parts of Russia and former Soviet satellite countries, most of who are active participants in the forum community.

The instruments aren’t usually collected for their playability so much as their novelty and historical intrigue. They are a truly unique branch of electric guitar history and one that was almost entirely forgotten.

For those who lived in the Soviet Union before it fell, these guitars have a nostalgic value and serve as humorous reminders of some of the peculiarities and shortcomings of life in the communist era. To Westerners, they are fascinating oddities that give a glimpse into a foreign world and historical trajectory. For guitarists all over the world, they are an extraordinary addition to the family tree.

Appendix: Known Soviet Guitar Factories, Locations, Models, and Production Numbers

In the charts you see below, we've brought together a bulk of the data compiled by the online Soviet guitar community from Sovietgutiars.com into one place. Naturally, this information is not complete and in many cases represents just the best estimates of the enthusiast community. If you possess a Soviet gutiar or are interested in buying one, we hope this compiled information can be of some utility.

Moscow Experimental Music Factory

Moscow, Russia

  Price Years Quantity
Hawaiian Lapsteel Guitar 55 rubles 1956-1970 2000
7-String Classical Guitar 40 rubles 1962-1972 2200
AELITA - 1971 -
ALGINA - 1972 -
ELGAWA Unique-2 130 rubles 1972-1981 10000
ELGVA-In 131 rubles 1974-1981 15000
RODEN 130 rubles 1974-1981 15000

Hawaiian Lapsteel Guitar

7-String Classical Guitar

AELITA

ALGINA


Lunacharski Factory of Folk Musical Instruments

Leningrad (St. Petersburg), Russia

  Price Years Quantity
Classical Style 1 (6 & 7 strings) 23 rubles 1962-1972 -
Classical Style 2 (6 & 7 strings) 35 rubles 1964-1976 -
Leningrad TONIKA (Rhythm Solo) 130 rubles 1969-1974 2000
Leningrad TONIKA Bass 130 rubles 1969-1974 1000
Electric-Acoustic Archtop Guitar 190 rubles 1970-1975 7000
Classical Style 3 (6 & 7 strings) 27.75 rubles 1972-1976 -
Classical Style 4 (6 & 7 strings) 33 rubles 1975-1982 -
Electric-Acoustic Plastic Archtop Guitar 85 rubles 1975-1976 5000
MARIA (Lead Guitar) 110 rubles 1976-1984 11000
MARIA (Rhythm Guitar) 114 rubles 1976-1984 11000
MARIA (Bass) 125 rubles 1976-1984 11000
Admiral Set (3 Guitars) - 1980 -

Classical Style 1

Classical Style 2

Leningrad TONIKA

Electric-Acoustic Archtop Guitar

Classical Style 3

Classical Style 4

Electric-Acoustic Plastic Archtop Guitar

MARIA (Lead Guitar)


Leningrad Production Association for the Production of Musical Instruments

Leningrad (St. Petersburg), Russia

  Price Years Quantity
MARIA (Lead Guitar) 110 rubles 1984-1993 15000
MARIA (Rhythm Guitar) 114 rubles 1984-1993 15000
MARIA (Bass Guitar) 125 rubles 1984-1993 15000
MARIA - Upgraded Set (3 Guitars) - 1983 -
AK Admiral Guitar - 1985 5
AK Admiral Bass - 1985 5
Lead Guitar - 1987 10
Bass Guitar 250 rubles 1987 10
Rhythm Guitar 1987 10

MARIA (Rhythm Guitar)

AK Admiral Guitar

Bass Guitar

Rhythm Guitar


Akkord Factory

Leningrad (St. Petersburg), Russia

  Price Years Quantity
AKKORD Rhythm Guitar 125 rubles 1970-1972 400
AKKORD Bass 125 rubles 1970-1972 400
AKKORD Rhythm ("ES-335") 185 rubles 1972-1975 400
AKKORD Lead ("ES-335") 205 rubles 1972-1975 400
AKKORD Bass ("Hofner" ) 185 rubles 1972-1975 400
AKKORD Bass ("ES-335") 185 rubles 1972-1975 200
AKKORD Violin Guitar 185 rubles 1973-1975 100
AKKORD Violin Bass 185 rubles 1973-1975 300

Rhythm Guitar

Rhythm ("ES-335")

Bass ("Hofner" )

Violin Guitar


Ural Keyboard & Musical Instruments Factory

Sverdlovsk, Ural, Russia

  Price Years Quantity
TONIKA EGS-650 (Ver 1) 220 rubles 1969-1971 10000
TONIKA EGS-650 (Ver 2) 220/180 rubles 1971-1977 65000
TONIKA EGB-805 - Bass 145 rubles 1971-1977 10000
PRIMA EB-445 - 1972-1975 -
URAL 650A 185 rubles 1975-1977 10000
URAL 650 185 rubles 1976-1980 25000
BEREZKA EB-445 - 1976-1980 100
URAL 650 185 rubles 1980-1995 66000
URAL 510G 145 rubles 1977-1980 13000
URAL 510L 130 rubles 1980-1995 42000
WAVE - 1981 -

TONIKA EGS-650 (Ver 1)

TONIKA EGB-805 - Bass

URAL 650A

URAL 650

URAL 650

URAL 510G

URAL 510L

WAVE


Belarusian Production Association of Musical Instruments

Barysaw (Borisov in Russian), Belarus

  Price Years Quantity
Rhythm Solo ("Futurama") 130 rubles 1974-1975 2000
Rhythm Solo ("Futurama 2") 130 rubles 1975-1979 6000
Bass 160 rubles 1975-1982 7000
Rhythm Solo ("Belarusian AELITA") 180 rubles 1975-1982 7000
FORMANTA 230 rubles 1978-1986 6000
SOLO-II - FORMANTA 230 rubles 1985-1992 7000
SOLO-II 230 rubles 1989-1995 7000
Bass-I 180 rubles 1989-1993 5000
Belarus Bass - 1993-1997 3000

Rhythm Solo ("Futurama")

Rhythm Solo ("Futurama 2")

Bass

Rhythm Solo ("Belarusian AELITA")

FORMANTA

SOLO-II - FORMANTA

SOLO-II

Bass-I


Rostov-on-Don Factory (Bayan)

Rostov-on-Don, Russia

  Price Years Quantity
AELITA EGS-650 190 rubles 1974-1980 6500
TONIKA EGS-650 180 rubles 1975-1981 25000
TONIKA EGB-805 143/145 rubles 1975-1981 25000
ELEGY 510-G - 1981 -

AELITA EGS-650

TONIKA EGS-650

TONIKA EGB-805

ELEGY 510-G


Rostov Don Keyboard Factory (Caucasus)

Rostov-on-Don, Russia

  Price Years Quantity
TONIKA EGS-650 180 rubles 1970-1974 12000
AELITA 190 rubles 1971-1986 45000
Caucasus Bass 145 rubles 1975-1987 37000
STELLA 210/242 rubles 1977-1993 35000
AELITA-II 190 rubles 1986-1993 20000
BASS-II 145 rubles 1987-1995 17000
BASS-III - 1992-1993 -

AELITA

Caucasus Bass

STELLA

BASS-III


Terek Factory of Musical Instruments (Caucasus)

Ordzhonikidze (Vladikavkaz), Russia

  Price Years Quantity
TONIKA EGS-650 180 rubles 1973-1978 4500
AELITA 190 rubles 1975-1981 5500
TEREK Bass 145 rubles 1975-1981 3500

TONIKA EGS-650

AELITA

TEREK Bass


Lviv Experimental Factory of Folk Instruments

Lviv, Ukraine

  Price Years Quantity
ESTRADA (6 & 7 strings) 60 rubles 1973 - 1986 -
LVIV Rhythm Guitar 185 rubles 1971 - 1986 -
LVIV Bass 185 rubles 1971 - 1986 -
LVIV Solidbody Guitar - - -

ESTRADA (6 & 7 strings)

LVIV Rhythm Guitar

LVIV Bass

LVIV Solidbody Guitar


Odessa Factory of Musical Instruments

Odessa, Ukraine

  Price Years Quantity
Rhythm Solo Guitar - 1972 - 1986 -
Bass - 1 170 rubles 1973 - 1976 2500
Bass - 2 170 rubles 1972 -

Rhythm Solo Guitar

Bass - 1

Bass - 2


ELTA Factory (Branch of Sverdlovsk Factory)

Voroshilovgrad (Luhansk), Ukraine

  Price Years Quantity
SOLO-RHYTHM EGSR-650 (3 Pickups) 180 rubles 1972 - 1975 1000
SOLO-RHYTHM EGS-650 (2 Pickups) 180 rubles 1975 - 1977 1000
EGB-760 (Bass) 170 rubles 1975 - 1984 2000
SOLO-RHYTHM (3 Pickups) 180 rubles 1977 - 1984 2000

SOLO-RHYTHM EGSR-650 (3 Pickups)

SOLO-RHYTHM EGS-650 (2 Pickups)

EGB-760 (Bass)

SOLO-RHYTHM (3 Pickups)


Chernigov Factory of Musical Instruments

Chernigov (Chernihiv), Ukraine

  Price Years Quantity
RITM-SOLO (with tremolo) - 1973 - 1976 1500
RHYTHM-SOLO - 1973 - 1976 2500
BASS - 1975 - 1976 2000

RITM-SOLO (with tremolo)

RHYTHM-SOLO

BASS


Yerevan Experimental Factory of Musical Instruments

Yerevan, Armenia

  Price Years Quantity
KRUNK "Hurricane" - 1969 -
KRUNK "Ani" - 1970 - 1972 1500
KRUNK - 1971 - 1983 12000
KRUNK-50 180 / 145 rubles 1971 - 1983 12000
ANI - 1972 - 1981 9000
ELECTROMANDOLINE - 1973 - 1983 3000
SMALL - 1973 - 1983 400
KRUNK-75 - 1975 - 1983 9000
KRUNK 12-stringed 200 rubles 1977 - 1983 1200
KRUNK "Aelita" - 1979 - 1980 500
TWO-GRIFF - 1981 - 1983 1200

KRUNK "Hurricane"

KRUNK "Ani"

KRUNK

ELECTROMANDOLINE

SMALL

KRUNK-75

KRUNK 12-stringed

TWO-GRIFF


Novosibirsk Plant of Radio Components OXID

Novosibirsk, Russia

  Price Years Quantity
ELECTRONICS Guitar 220 rubles 1972 200

Ivanovo Musical Instrument Factory

Ivanovo, Russia

  Price Years Quantity
ELECTROGITARA (7 string electric-acoustic) 40 rubles 1976 - 1986 -

Kuibyshev (Samara) Steel Mill

Kuibyshev, Russia

  Price Years Quantity
Electric Guitar - 1972 - 1973 500

Kuibyshev Factory of Plucked Musical Instruments

Kuibyshev, Russia

  Price Years Quantity
SAMARA 41 rubles 1970-1982 10000
SAMARA - Rhythm-Solo 240 rubles 1974 - 1980 -
SAMARA - Solo 280 rubles 1974 - 1980 -
SAMARA - Bass 240 rubles 1974 - 1980 -

SAMARA

SAMARA - Rhythm-Solo

SAMARA - Solo

SAMARA - Bass


Minsk Transistor Factory

Minsk, Belarus

  Price Years Quantity
TOURIST-1 85 rubles 1974-1976 -

Riga Plant of Sound Equipment

Riga, Latvia

  Price Years Quantity
GONG - 1978-1982 -
GONG Bass - 1978-1982 -
GONG "Star-VII" - 1978-1982 -
GONG Bass "Jaguar" - 1978-1982 -

GONG

GONG Bass

GONG "Star-VII"

GONG Bass "Jaguar"

Sources

  • SovietGuitars.com - The USSR Guitar Atlas | Link
  • Yuriy Shishkov - If Guitars Could Talk | Link
  • Anne E. Gorsuch, Diane P. Koenker- The Socialist Sixties: Crossing Borders in the Second World | Link
  • Frank Meyers - Beasts from the East | Link
  • Vladislav Selivanov - 2017 Interview

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