Mutant Bodies & Experimental Electronics: Navigating the Unmapped Territory of Soviet Guitars

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  • June 16, 2017

As guitars become more and more ubiquitous, performers and collectors are constantly striving for individuality in both sound and aesthetic. With growing interest in Japanese vintage models and replicas, the interest for other territories growing is a given. One such territory is the Soviet Union: an interesting example of how the development of guitars and pedals could have gone with subtly different approaches.

Beyond the Iron Curtain in the 60s, reference to the ‘capitalist’ guitars that had taken prominence in our zeitgeist was forbidden. The Soviets had to make their guitars from scratch with barely any Western influence, resulting in a sort of convergent evolution of the instrument – they looked similar, had to fulfil the same purposes, but were an entirely different breed.

This experimental traverse of the guitar world – devoid of a map – was applied to the world of pedals as well. Let’s dive into some interesting Soviet guitar brands, and their take on pedals.

soviet guitars

In the 60s and 70s, Soviet guitar manufacturers were pushing out a range of weird and wonderful guitars, largely devoid of any Western influence.

Tonika

Firstly, Soviet practitioners’ focus on the circuitry over build in many ways imparted a wholly different sound to what we are used to. Soviet guitars mainly used cheap woods or laminates, wacky shapes, experimental forms, and a mess of circuitry.

The Tonika was the earliest form of a Soviet electric guitar. They were handmade, with no real specifications, so production would result in differing body and pickguard shapes from model to unit to factory.

Depending on where you got them from, your Tonika could have a variety of different bindings, headstocks, inlays, neck plates, labels, and wood types. If you are able to get your hands on one, it would certainly be a unique piece.

Though these were made in the guitar golden age of the 60s (where we are given some of the subjectively best sounding models), the quality of sound compared to Japanese and American counterparts was reportedly lack-lustre. I’ve been told Russians call these ‘a circle from a toilet bowl,’ which makes the name of the next guitar interesting…

Tonika

Ural 650/650A

The 650 brought electric guitars to the wider Soviet Union, being distributed in large quantities, cheaper than its predecessor, and offering a sleeker, more refined design – though still kind of wacky in looks, with a thin, trebly sound.

As the guitar was brought into to secondary schools, the sound made its way into basement gigs and onto underground records. For most musicians in the Soviet Union, their first experience with an electric guitar was the 650, so the instrument is key in envisioning the era.

Soviet Guitars

Aelita and Bas

The look of these guitars are a little more streamlined visually – a bit closer to what we are used to seeing. Electronically they are not quite so traditional, with some iterations having four pickups, stereo output, and a range of switches, while the sonic qualities of the instrument left something to be desired.

Still, they reportedly have a nice sound, definitely brighter and more robust than the Ural and Tonika models, and with more tonal options. Some enthusiasts argue that they still don’t sound quite as good as Japanese and American counterparts, but it could be all about perception.

Soviet guitars

Stella

One of the more hi-fi Soviet guitars to be produced, Stellas had range. A lot of range; to the point where you could set pickups to the lower 3 or upper 3 strings, switch between combinations of the four pickups, pan on the fly, utilise a string dampener, and more. With almost more wiring than wood, the Stella sound is definitely unique.

Experimentation and DIY guitars

Beyond these more ubiquitous guitar types, the Soviets also created a myriad of eccentric instruments that took the guitar archetype to the extreme. Multiple necks, a hybrid lap steel/electric guitars, adjustable action, onboard effects, and knobs up into the ‘teens.

Have a little trawl through YouTube where collectors can show you some crazy stuff – it might inspire. The manufacture of the electric guitar in the Soviet Union was certainly an endeavour of electronics-over-playability for most.

Soviet Jolana

Soviet Pedals

While the wild curiosity of the Soviets pushed them through strange combinations of transistors, circuits, diodes, switches, and the like to create strange gear, none of it gained too much traction. They were cheaply made, in masses, and would easily break.

Because of the low quality, they had to be marketed with a warranty in which you could get it fixed, but jacks and switches didn’t last long. Brands like Spektr, LEL, Esko, Electronika all took innovative steps in trying to make unique pedals for very cheap, so there’s a lot of weird sounds out there to explore.

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