Guitars from "Back in the USSR"
Thanks for reading the Guitar Sun, Sunfield Music Store’s weekly take on gear, music history, tone tips, and more.
At Sunfield, we take pride in producing instruments that keep the spirit of the electric guitar alive. For us, that means making high-quality instruments. Our core customers want gig-quality electric guitars. You could call them “cheap electric guitars,” but Sunfields aren’t just beginner’s guitars. They’re simply priced differently—for parts and labor—in a bloated instrument market that caters to prestige and huge marketing budgets (all paid for with musicians’ dollars).
Sunfield believes in the tradition of the electric guitar as the ultimate “working man’s instrument,” a major theme of this blog. And what says working man’s guitar like a guitar from “Back in the USSR”? We’re kidding of course, and not dabbling in politics. But it’s always inspiring to know that people in all sorts of times and places have been trying to find a way to rock.
This week, we’ll look at a few wild guitars from the old Eastern Bloc. Of course, a lot of copies of Western models got produced. But we’re focused on more unique designs.
Comrades in Tone
As one might expect, Soviet authorities weren’t huge on importing Western instruments. Consequently, the USSR became one of the last developed countries in the world to make electric guitars.
Historians don’t really know exactly when or why the government decided to pursue a Soviet-made electric guitar. We just know that some crazy-looking guitars started emerging from a Leningrad factory in 1964. Launched under the Tonika brand, these were the first electric guitars ever made in the USSR. They had almost no standard design features, utilizing whatever parts were available. Around 1967, they started becoming more widely available in stores, and Tonika soon settled on a more standardized model: EGS-65.
We wouldn’t call this a beautiful guitar. But everyone knows owning an electric guitar is better than not owning one.
To be clear, just about every source available thinks the Tonikas were almost unfathomably bad designs. They didn’t even have a truss rod. They had brass frets that wore off with much use, a brutally high and largely un-adjustable action, a poorly balanced body, and electronics that couldn’t be accessed for even the most routine repairs. Oh, and they cost about two months’ salary. That still made them much cheaper than black market Western gear (which definitely circulated heavily in the USSR, especially in later years).
Soon Tonikas were being made across the Union. Since the state owned the design, they would simply send the blueprints that began in Leningrad (that plant was shut down by the 1970’s) to other instrument factories. This left the mangers of each factory to tweak the guitar as they saw fit. You might expect Soviet guitar to be almost mind-numbingly standardized. Instead, they were so haphazardly made that it’s hard to find two alike, even though among guitars that are supposedly the same model. The tone/volume knob configurations aren’t even standard.
While the Tonikas do utilize a Fender scale length, you really cant’ exaggerate how unique the features of these beasts were. They didn’t even use Western-style guitar cables, instead utilizing a 5-pin cable that almost looks like a modern MIDI hookup.
Luckily for aspiring young Soviet guitarists, things did get a bit better. Starting in the mid-1970’s, a new model started to emerge from a factory in the Ural Mountain region. Called, creatively, the Ural 650, these were produced in great quantities and are by far the most common guitar from the Soviet era. They use a strange button system to select between the single-coil pickups. They also employ an active, onboard EQ-filtering system that, by all accounts, makes the guitar sound way worse and is best taken out. But, while still featuring poor playability compared to even 1950’s Western guitars, they were a major upgrade from the old Tonikas.
The 650 was a close copy of a Yamaha guitar from the same era, the SG-5. You can actually hear an old Ural being played in the video below:
Later in Soviet history, a greater variety of guitars was being produced (including in other Eastern Bloc countries like East Germany). There was a ton of experimentation. Like the UK’s Vox in the 1960’s, many companies experimented with jamming the electronics for what we think of as pedal-like effects into the body of the guitar themselves.
The “Formanta Solo,” made in Belarus, is highly representative of that period. Featuring a built-in fuzz circuit, we recommend a quick Google image search to get a sense of the diverse and wild color options that this baby was sold with.
Models from this era were apparently of a much higher quality and were finally beginning to come within earshot of the playability of Western builds. Of course, as the Berlin Wall fell and the Warsaw packed dissolved, we lost a lot of these unique companies as Western designs flooded into the former Soviet Union.
These guitars may not have been amazing. They’re highly collectible, but not exactly because of the tone. But that’s not really the point. This is just another case of the electric guitars spirit surging forth, bringing versatility, volume, and searing tone to anyone who needs to rock.