Electric guitar production in USSR

Here's the first attempt to write some sort of history about what had happened in USSR. Untill now we haven't seen anything on this subject, and although this text will definitely clear up many issues, it is incomplete and based on various scraps of information found here and there. It's hard to believe there are no other articles about history of electric guitar production in USSR, and it's possible they do exist. If you have any additional information you're invited to share your knowlege and help us complete the picture.

-Cheesy Guitars

Additional articles:
Russian Vintage guitars
Glasnost Correspondence with a Russian Guitarmaker
Soviet pickups and wiring

1. The beginning
USSR was one of the last countries of the communist block to start electric guitar production. Soviet Union lived in cultural isolation and there was no need for such thing like electric guitar untill someone in the Party decided Soviet people may benefit from such thing.

The first related publication known to exist was "The adapted guitar" (A.A. Korneev, A.N.Korneev, GosEnergoIzdat, 1960). That small brochure was dealing with adaptation of acoustic guitar - making it louder. That question raised in the 1920's in the rest of the world and was apparently solved. Fourty years after Soviet Union started it all again.

The next publication "Adaptation of musical instruments" (E.A. Prochorov, 1966) offered two solutions to "the problem" of acoustic musical instruments (that were not loud enough): one is to add a pickup/microphone and amplify the signal and the other is to create a "silent" non-acoustic electrified instrument of solid wood.

Another book released in 1966 was "New electro-musical instruments" (B.G. Korsunsky, I.D.Simonov, 1966). It contained some information about electric guitars, pickups, effects, synthesizers and amplifiers. Again, everything was shown from a DIY angle - how to make an electric guitar yourself. It contained numerous schematics examples for "radiotechnicians" who were supposed to construct an electric guitar from scratch.

By the middle of the 60's Jolanas and Musimas were brought to USSR by tourists and sold for insane amounts of money mainly to professional musicians. Electric guitars were officially imported, only in the 70's Jolanas and Musimas appeared in the shops. At least one Fender Stratocaster was known to exist in Moscow, and Musima Record was considered the top professional instrument.

Special thanks:
Stanislav Vitchenko
Kirill Zaitsev
Evgeny Lykov (E)
and everyone at SovietGuitars.com.

Electric bass-balalaika:
This is not a production model, but an example of "adaptation" of folk acoustic instruments from "Electromusical picking instruments" book (D.S.Medvedovsky, O.N.Guzevich, Leningrad, "Energy", 1979)

Tonikas EGS-650 from collection of Lordbizarre: (left to right) Sverdlovsk, Rostov, Ordjonikidze.

2. Tonika
Russians could learn from the neighbours (DDR - Musima, Czechoslovakia - Jolana), or even make a secret investigation of a Stratocaster, but they did not (and if they did, they did it wrong). They had it their own way. A couple of primordal electric guitars were produced as early as 1964 in Leningrad (now St.Petersburg). There's no evidence where exactly the first Soviet electric was designed and prototyped. The earliest Tonikas look very rough and apparently had no fixed specifications - the were handmade, the pickguards had differen shapes etc.

The first Soviet electric was definitely unique. It must have been original, any reference to "capitalist" guitars was forbidden, so instead of continuing from where the whole world was, the Soviet guitar was designed from scratch. We don't know the names of Soviet Leo Fenders but they did a serious work. The playability and the sound of the new instrument were the last considerations, the major accent was made on electronics.

The guitar was expensive (180 Roubles), it sounded bad but still people bought it - there was no alternative.

As all the production in USSR was centralized, goods could be produced at different locations since the design was owned by the state. Somewhere around 1969 a new modification of Tonika called Model EGS-650 was developed. Leningrad Tonika was out of production already by the beginning of the 70's. New production lines for Tonika EGS-650 were opened at Sverdlovsk (Ural plant), Rostov and Ordjonikidze. We don't know the exact production dates of the guitars, but seems like Tonika EGS-650 was out of production by 1975. There was also a bass version of Tonika produced at both Rostov, Ordjonikidze and Sverdlovsk plants. Leningrad Tonika bass probably existed but we haven't seen it yet.

Each plant added it's signature touch to the guitar, they all look a bit different, and in addition specifications changed during the years. Leningrad Tonika looks the ugliest, it has a Firebird-style headstock. Rostov Tonika usually had bindings on the headstock and two white lines along the fretborad. Sverdlovsk Tonika had different fretboard inlays (rectangular with rounded corners). The neckplates usually state where the guitar was made, with Ordjonikidze having mostly anonymous neckplates, although some rare Ordjonikidze Tonikas bear a neckplate with all the information, just like Rostov and Sverdlovsk.

3. The 70's - 80's
During the 70-80s, after Tonika was discontinued, each of the factories developed a couple of their own models. After a new design was developed it had to be approved by various authorities and receive it's Articul (APT) number before going into production. It was a long and painfull process, especially considering the authorities had no idea what an electric guitar is and how it should be judged. Not surprisingly, each factory made only a couple of models, noone was interested in developing new guitars.

Leningrad Tonika
Rostov Tonika model EGS-650
Ordjonikidze Tonika model EGS-650
Sverdlovsk Tonika model EGS-650
Bass Tonika (Rostov)

4. Soviet guitar production - sorted by location.
Here's the list of all known Soviet electric guitars and basses sorted by location of the factories. We're sure there were additional places where the guitars were made and additional models, but the majority is here. Actually, there were not too many guitar models designed in USSR - compared to the other countries of the Socialist block - Czechoslovakia, DDR, Poland and Bulgary. Only Hungary produced less guitars than USSR. Still the quantities were fairly large.

RSFSR - Russian Federation

Maria guitars - with sunburst plastic bodies. Maria Rhythm was the only 12-string electric guitar made in USSR.

Lunacharski Factory of Folk Musical Instruments, Leningrad
The factory produced electric guitars since 1964. As mentioned above, the first production model was solidbody Tonika, but the rest of the models were semihollow.

The factory was also famous for their acoustic guitars, with the most famous being the dreadnought 12-string, the best sounding acoustic guitar made in USSR. Please note - that guitar was awfull and unplayable - the "best" title was unofficially given to the 12-string only relatively to the other available Soviet instruments.

Leningrad's electrics were considered among the worst electric guitars made in USSR. The late -70's series "Maria" featured three instruments (6-string, 12-string and bass) with plastic semihollow bodies. Surprisingly, the plastic was finished in sunburst. Acoustic qualities of the plastic were so terrible that Marias were usually the last to disappear from music shops.

After the desintegration of the Soviet Union Lunacharsky factory continued producing musical instruments (acoustic guitars, violins and folk string instruments) under "Alfa" name. The electric guitars were discontinued but who knows, the factory is still there and one day we may see something new.

Tonika bass
Semihollow guitar
Maria lider
Maria rhythm
Maria bass

The old Elgava neckplate

Moscow Experimental Factory of Musical Instruments
Untill the beginning of the 70's the factory name was "Moscow Soviet Army experimental acordion factory" and their first electric guitars had a neckplate with the old name. Around 1972 the name was changed since there was no demand for acordions by that time.

The factory produced only three models of electric guitars and they were among the best in USSR. The Moscow designers also seem to have the wildest imagination. Elgava solidbody guitar was produced in two versions: with and without vibrato. Elgava was also designed as a hybrid lapsteel/spanih guitar. A special bolt in the neck allowed raising the strings high and converting it into a lapsteel - an option nobody was aware of.

In 1972 the Moscow factory received a first grade diploma at BDHX CCCP which was an annual exhibition of the Soviet goods. Other Soviet guitar makers haven't got any diplomas which actually means nothing, but still quality of Moscow instrument was relatively high. The same factory was also famous for making guitar stompboxes and other electronic musical instruments.

Lap steel
Elgava Unika-2

Soviet school bands used Urals.

Ural, Sverdlovsk
Keyboard instruments factory in Sverdlovsk produced several types of organs and synthesizers but was mostly famous for it's guitars. Actually, not guitars, but a guitar. After a couple of years of Tonika production the factory's own model was designed. Although called "Ural", it is not the name of the guitar, it was simply nicknamed after the factory's name on the neckplate. The guitar's real name was 650 or 650A. The difference between 650 and 650A models was in tuners' location and several cosmetical details.

Ural bass was also available, and the real model's name was 510L. Sverdlovsk guitars were not the worst and not the best, but they were produced in large quantities, and were usually available in the shops. They were also distributed in the whole country and while (better) Moscow guitars were sold in mostly Moscow, URALs were everywhere.

Another factor that contributed to the guitar's popularity was the school bands. Many Soviet secondary schools had their bands and the guitars and basses were URALs (or Tonikas - earlier in the 70's). It is possible that the ministry of education decided that school bands should use that particular model but the more realistic option was again the availability of URAL. So the first electric experience of many Soviet teenagers was in a school band with URAL.

Tonika model EGS-650
Tonika bass
Ural model 650
Ural model 650A
Ural model 510L

A 1989 manual for Aelita-2 displays the Rostov line of instruments. Tonika remained on the cover but was not produced by that time already.

Rostov-Don, Rostov na Donu factory of keyboard instruments
Rostov factory was a part of "Kavkaz" musical production union with two factories, one at Rostov na Donu and another at Ordjonikidze. They produced the same instruments but the slight differencies may indicate where each one was made. Generally, Rostov instruments were better than the same models from Ordjonikidze. Rostov factory added several new models in the 80's and turned into a major Soviet guitar maker.

After Tonika, Rostov issued two instruments that were produced during the 70's. The guitar was called Aelita and it's brother was called simply Bas. After 1979 these basic models were upgraded and Aelita-2 amd Bas-2 were added to the production line, while the old Aelita and Bas remained in production. The last development at Rostov was called Stella which is probably the most hi-fi and experimental instrument ever produced in USSR. It had four pickups, stereo output and was stuffed with electronics, while the acoustic qualities of the instrument remained as poor as on the other models.

Stella clearly shows the vision of electric guitar in USSR: it was a radiotechnic adventure, the future was in a more sophisticated schematics, onboard preamps and effects. The guitar itself was a plain simple plank of wood and there was nothing about to improve.

Tonika bass
Aelita 1
Bas (aka "Kavkaz")
Aelita 2
Bas 2

A part of "Kavkaz" musical production union with two factories, one at Rostov na Donu and another at Ordjonikidze, the factory was active since the beginning of guitar production in USSR. The same models were produced at Rostov and at Ordjonikidze approximately untill the end of the 70's.

While Rostov instruments had very nice neckplates, Ordjonikidze had something primordal with only a serial number and sometimes the price stamped on it. We've seen only one example of Tonika with "normal" neckplate from Ordjonikidze, probably the early example. Ordjonikidze guitars looked slightly different and, in general, were of a lower quality than the same models made at Rostov.

Tonika bass
Elta guitars measurements:
Solo guitar Bass
Length: 1003 1150
Height: 30 55
Body width: 280 328
Scale: 650 760
Weight, kg: 3.4 4.0

(taken from "Electromusical picking instruments" book - D.S.Medvedovsky, O.N.Guzevich, Leningrad, "Energy", 1979)

Elta, Eletz
The plant from Eletz produced both electric guitars and basses, with various specifications which seem to be variations of the same design and not different models. There's still no evidence the maker of these guitars is actually Elta since there's no factory name anywhere on these instruments. There's a pinetree logo on the neckplate, and "Eletz" may mean something like "Pine Town".

Produced in the 70's, the guitar had two or three pickups, vibrato and adjustable bridge. The bass had two pickups and both bass and guitar had no trussrod. The quality of these guitars is super low, they're very lightweight and compact.

Elta Solo
Elta bass

Lvov experimental factory of folk musical instruments
Lvov (L'viv) produced semihollow guitars and basses since the 70's. The bass had a long scale - 840mm - which was the longest scale among the Soviet basses (Rostov, Maria = 760mm, Bas and Bas2 = 805mm).


Odessa factory of musical instruments
Another mystical guitar maker with not much information about it. It is said to produce guitars of low quality.

The production line included solidbody guitar and bass. Bodies were made of pine, necks of laminated wood with fretboard for which better woods were used. No information on the model names, but we know that Artikul (APT number) of the bass guitar was 077-20TY and it's scale was 800mm. If you see it - please take pictures and let us know!


Formanta manual

Solo-2 manual

Belorussian factory of musical instruments, Borisov
Factory in Borisov started making electric guitars only in the 80's. Three models - Formanta, Solo-II and Bas-I were produced through the 80's and the last known guitars left the factory in 1992. The Borisov factory still exists, but they make acoustic guitars only.

There's some confusion with the model names. Formanta is also called Solo-II (see the manual), the bass is sometimes nicknamed Solo bass (because of the design resemblance and somewhat useless model name - "Bas-I", imagine having a car model named "Car-I") and Solo-II is often referred to as Solo. Actually, there was no Belorussian Solo-I or Solo model and we have no clue where "II" comes from. It's possible that "Solo" model existed (but we haven't seen it yet) and another possibility is that almost every Soviet guitar producer had "Solo" model so Borisov decided to distinguish their guitar from the rest of the pack.

The guitars feature loads of onboard effects and the same terrible playability as the other Soviet monsters. Solo-II even has a separate metal chassis inside the body with all the electronics which weighs almost as much as the guitar.

Solo II
Bas I
Erevan factory
Some of the most obscure Soviet models were made in Erevan, Armenia. It took some serious research to identify these beasts, because the Erevan factory models almost never have any logos on them. Some originally had small pickguard stencils, but most of these rubbed off and became invisible long ago.
Electric mandoline
Doubleneck guitar/bass

Electric guitar blueprint drawings from "Electromusical picking instruments" (D.S.Medvedovsky, O.N.Guzevich, Leningrad, "Energy", 1979) - there were many articles and books for the home guitar maker with detailed instructions, schematics etc.

5. The local guitar "market" and DIY guitars.
During the 70's and the 80's "foreign" guitars were imported. They were extremely expensive - about twice the price of Soviet guitars - and were out of reach for majority of people. For example, an average engineer earned 130-150 roubles per month, Soviet guitars were in the 130-230 roubles range and imporetd dream axes were 250 and up.

Musima guitars were considered the best and were sold in Moscow at "Leipzig" shop together with other DDR goods. Jolanas were priced a bit lower, but they still were above the prices of Soviet Tonikas. Bulgary (Orfeus, Kremona) and Poland (Defil) also sold guitars to USSR, but their instruments were considered the lower end of imported guitars, although still way above anything made in USSR.

Both Soviet and imported guitars were too expensive and usually not available. Since the instruments sold at the shops were out of reach for an average beginner musician, everyone made guitars for themselves at home. Actually, more than 50% of all electric guitars in USSR were handmade - or at least that's how it looked like. There were several publications in magazines and books that covered the subject and many people constructed guitars for themselves. Most of the DIY guitars were converted acoustics, but the most brave were building guitars from scratch. DIY guitars were usually even worse than Tonika, many were made of acoustic guitars which were relatively cheap but also of a very low quality.

One of the reasons why Soviet guitars were so bad was the general idea behind the electric guitar. It was seen from quite a weird angle. All the books and magazines that covered the subject (they were all radio electronics books and magazines) described it as an electronic innovation, with the major challenge behind it being the electronics, the pickups and the circutry.

The woodwork seemed not that complicated, most of the articles suggested pretty simple construction, no trussrod, laminated woods etc. Actually, it was right to a certain degree because buildnig a pickup or a bridge assembly completely from scratch (no guitar hardware was sold at the shops untill the beginning of the 80's) was a major headache, compared to sawing and filing a wooden plank.

The official guitar builders shared this point of view, saying the future of the electric guitar is in the new sounds, onboard electronics, etc. etc. There was nothing to improve about the guitar itself. Actually, there were some innovations in that direction - for example, the plastic Maria guitars from Leningrad. But when you take a look at the Stella you understand what the progress is about. Four split stereo pickups, five knobs and eight switches, two stereo modes and one mono mode, same old useless tuners.

DIY Soviet guitars:
Handicapped bass
Soviet seven string acoustic conversion to bass
Handmade in USSR, 70's
Handmade doubleneck from Ukraine
Hotrodded Formanta/Solo (made in USSR)

Guitar pedal made by cooperative, USSR, early 90's.

6. Coda
By the end of the 80's USSR started to desintegrate. Thanks to Michael Gorbachev a first form of small commercial structure called "cooperative" appeared. Many cooperatives started producing small quantities of handmade guitars and guitar effects since the demand was high, although 99% of them had no previous experience. The remaining 1% - the experienced luthiers - were finally allowed to legally create what they wanted to. There were very good custom handmade instruments in Russia but for some reason none of those luthiers started a production line, and the best of them left the country.

By the middle of the 90's cheap import guitars appeared and they filled the niche previously occupied by co-operatives. The co-operatives disappeared, with only a couple of small manufacturers (Shamray, Rustone) continuing the "tradition" of semi-professional guitar making, although not even trying to get close to the international standards.

The old guitar factories continued with the same guitars they were making for years, but by the beginning of the 90's there was no demand for their production. The latest examples of Soviet guitars we've seen are dated 1992 (although it's possible there are some guitars produced even later). All the factories closed their production lines - they could not compete with cooperatives and with Korean - Indonesian - Chinese import. Leningrad (Lunacharsky) and Borisov factories continued making acoustic guitars, but not electrics.

The market of old (not yet vintage) guitars continued into the 2000's - URAL was still the most affordable beginners' instrument (around $50 in the 2003), but today even beginners settle for Squier. The Russian tradition says Soviet guitars have no value, but the recent international interest among collectors raised the prices and now those guitars are being bought sold on ebay for $100 and up. 99% of the buyers are not from the former Soviet Union - Russians may still get those guitars for free but they don't need them.

7. The future:
There will be no discovery, noone will find out that Soviet guitars are the holy grail of the new alternative music. They were unplayable and they will remain unplayable, the only interest is from the historical perspective. The collectors will be looking for clean examples of Soviet guitars and the prices will go up. As the majority of USSR guitars were upgraded or modified, it's already hard to find stock guitars, many collectors already trying to bring guitar corpses to original condition. The original parts will become not less valuable than the guitars. There are already dealers from Russia locating old guitars and parts and selling them to European and American customers (mostly via ebay). Several rare guitars were seen on ebay with unreasonably high ($1000 and up) prices, but they remained unsold. Today a fair price for a stock Soviet guitar - if it's not especially rare - is around $100-$200, but wait - in a couple of years it will double.

That's all, folks!

-Cheesy Guitars

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