the great other


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

Well, he doesn’t really tell all—that would take a book (which we’d love to see). At any rate, that techy wizard among guitar wizards, Thomas Nordegg (who we last discussed in 2010) is being profiled at Ultimate Guitar. Aside from insight on the likes of Steve Lukather, Steve Vai, and Guthrie Govan, Nordegg has this to say about his onetime employer, Yngwie Malmsteen:

(H)e’s a big teddy bear and he’s a handful. He’s a bigger than life cartoon in a good way. Yngwie is Yngwie and he does totally what he does. I have stories.

Such a tease.

Read more and see some vintage photos at UG.

Right here.

Geez, what’s going on around here? Mostly, we here are Pointy Guitar have had our heads buried in Jude Gold’s magnificent podcast “No Guitar is Safe.” The longtime Guitar Player scribe has taken to the net to interview tons of fascinating players including Pointy faves like Guthrie Govan, Frank Gambale, Oz Noy, and Steve Vai.

Maybe you should spend a few months listening this afternoon.

Right here.

Sure, everyone’s heard of “junk in the trunk,” but this is ridiculous: An abandoned car discovered in Maryland revealed an unexpected treasure—a D’Angelico Excel archtop. From Guitar World:

(A) salvage company was clearing out the property of deceased man. The final item to remove was a 1963 Cadillac that was rotting away in the back yard. They found roughly $12 in coins under the seat. When they checked the trunk, they found a guitar case. Inside was the D’Angelico.

Just make sure you get your tetanus shots before you go digging around derelict cabins, ok?

Read more of the tale and see the D’Angelico Excel at Guitar World.

Right here.

Now here’s something you don’t see every day (any day). Check out Dave Bunker on his very own contraption, the Duo-Lectar. He seems to be part Stanley Jordan, part Michael Hedges, part WTF. According to Wikipedia (so it may well be accurate), “(Bunker’s) first, patent #2,989,884 issued in 1961, was for the ‘Duo-Lectar’ instrument, later in 1970 known as the Touch Guitar.”

Read more about Dave Bunker right here.

Samuel Clemens’ 1835 Martin is a sight to behold. The instrument, reportedly valued at over $15 million, was a constant companion of the roving author. From Guitarsite:

Mark Twain ‘gigged’ with his 1835 Martin extensively as a singer guitarist, bringing it along to his many travels. Like the main protagonist of his popular novel: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain traveled far and wide, often with only his 1835 Martin, paper and ink to accompany him.

Take a look at this beauty over at Guitarsite.

Right here.

Ahh, what one could buy with $14 million: dozens of perfectly respectable houses, 35 top-of-the-line Ferraris, 14 million scratcher cards, bringing traffic at the convenience store to a halt, or … the ten most expensive guitars ever sold, according to The Telegraph. The UK publication recently profiled ten axes that took astronomical prices at auction, including a Washburn Hawk formerly owned by Bob Marley:

This instrument is classified as a national asset by the Jamaican government and is one of the only seven guitars owned by the reggae icon.

Predictably, half of the high dollar guitars are Eric Clapton related.

Look at them all at The Guardian.

Right here.

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