The Axe & The Iron Curtain

We’re very pleased to present this killer guest article written by Joel Bennett of The Electric Herald. Make sure to visit that site when you’re done here, comrade.

The Axe & The Iron Curtain – Guitars of the Soviet Era

They say that music is the universal language, and the instruments that make it may be born in one nation, but each instrument’s evolution has always been a global contribution. The violin may have been perfected in Cremona, but it evolved from instruments of the Byzantine Empire. But what happens when a nation adopts a policy of secrecy and seals their activities off from the rest of the world?

For a period of almost 30 years, the Eastern Bloc was manufacturing electric guitars in various factories without design input from their sworn enemy, the United States. The electric guitar is undoubtedly an American invention (thanks to Rickenbacker and Beauchamp and their Frying Pan guitar), and rock music was a Western staple at the time the USSR began shielding their activities and working in the shadows.

By the 60s, the Beatles were global – and their music managed to slip through the cracks into the hands of Russian youths, who formed a sort of rock & roll counterculture. Western rock recordings were imprinted onto discarded X-ray emulsion plates to make bootleg copies and passed around to fulfill a growing need for modes of escapism.

Of course the electric guitar was the next step.

There was essentially just one guitar to choose from in the beginning – the Tonika. The Tonika’s body looks like it survived a shark attack (and strangely enough, resembles the ultra-ergonomic Strandberg design).

By the 70s, the Tonikas were manufactured at 3 different plants, and had undergone many improvements. By the end of the decade though, they had been discontinued – which freed up the plants to begin producing their own models. This is where the real fun started – lots of interesting, unique looking guitars were being built en masse. By the 80s, there were at least 10 different factories manufacturing different, strictly Soviet electric guitars of varying quality.

The early Tonika models have been called ‘the worst electric guitar in existence.’

Here’s what really makes these guitars interesting though – “[They were] made behind the Iron Curtain with little and, in some cases, no interaction with the western guitar-making philosophies and practices.” They are entirely foreign, in many cases probably designed based on bootleg pictures or videos of Western bands playing Fenders, Gibsons, Airlines, Dominos, Teiscos – and various other American brands floating around in the 60s.

Unfortunately, the manufacturing quality was not up to par.

The early Tonika models have been called “the worst electric guitar in existence,” and their designs were quite aesthetically … interesting.

The whole era is fascinating nonetheless and, as mentioned before, the manufacturing quality improved greatly over the years, so the later models can make some truly beautiful sounds.

Let’s take a look at some of these mysterious contraptions now:

GALLERY 1: Aelita ca. 1973

GALLERY 2: Elta – 1970s

GALLERY 3: Formanta ca. 1978

GALLERY 4: Jolana Diamant

GALLERY 5: Jolana Rubin

GALLERY 6: Jolana Star IX


Soviet guitar technology and designs evolved parallel with America’s, much like their space programs.

GALLERY 7: Orfeus 12-string ca. 1960s

GALLERY 7: Tonika 1, unknown model

GALLERY 8: Tonika 2, EGS-650

GALLERY 8: Ural 650

It might be a difficult thing to imagine for anyone in the West due to the inherent need to document history so meticulously (thank the Romans), but the internal dealings of Russia’s infrastructure are largely unknown to the history books. This is true for their guitar manufacturing plants as well – very little is known, and it only adds to the fascination surrounding these awesome instruments.

Soviet guitar technology and designs evolved parallel with America’s, much like their space programs – and, I thought I hate to say it, the Americans seem to have edged the Russians out in this matter as well. But in spite of all the knocks against their quality, I would never bash anyone for contributing to the evolution of the electric guitar – better late than never. Their contribution was a little late, but it’s certainly getting well-deserved appreciation these days.

Facts About Soviet Era Guitars

  • Electric guitars in the USSR were first manufactured in Leningrad.
  • The first Soviet guitar was the Tonika, which is apparently “the worst electric guitar in existence” .
  • Their designs steadily improved through the 70s, and different models of the Tonika like the Ural and the Kavkaz were being produced in different cities (Sverdlovsk, Rostov, Ordjonikidze).
  • By the end of the 70s, production of the Tonika was discontinued, which allowed manufacturing plants to design their own models.
  • There were over 10 factories producing Soviet electric guitars in the early 80s.

Some Soviet Era Guitar Models

  • Kavkaz – Russia (Rostov-on-don factory)
  • Kavkaz – Russia (Ordjonikidze factory)
  • Borisov – Belorussia
  • Lunacharsky – Russia
  • Moscow – Russia
  • Erevan – Armenia
  • Odessa – Ukraine
  • Ural – Russia
  • Elta – Russia
  • Lvov – Ukraine

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