A slightly different version of this article was first published in "Making Music" magazine (UK) in 1990 (edited by Paul Day).
This article is also located at www.cumpiano.com - edited by William Cumpiano.
pictured - Iouri Dmitrievski, the author, in his workshop in 1986. The article is used by author's permission. Edited by author in 2002
You can check out some soviet - made guitars at our site:
||Tonika: the first soviet electric guitar|
||Ural: one of the best - known soviet axes|
||Solo II: mid'80 soviet electric|
We can only add that there's now a couple of good guitar making companies in Russia, although you can still find Urals and such for attractively low prices. Russian market is currently overflowed with cheap Corean and Indonesian guitars, but you can buy Gibsons as well, although it will cost you much more than you could expect.
Check out one of the contemporary Russian guitarmakers - Russtone
[this is not a sponsor link]
We have been used to hearing a slogan in this country:
"Everything in the name of Man; Everything for Man."
Yet, nobody has cared to provide for decent toilet paper.
So, common people have to make do with strips of official party
newspapers--but only after they tear away the pictures of sacred
Communist gurus. They're not so careful with the pictures of the
many smaller gurus, however. These are the bureaucrats who,
unencumbered by the slightest doubt, are the ones who decide what
is good and what is bad, and what the people need, and what they
don't. They decide what music is approved in Russia, and what
music is disapproved. They teach nightingales to sing in the
Their guide is the rules of Socialist Realism. Socialist
Realism, a monster nobody has actually seen with the naked eye,
has worked to isolate any creative effort from social support. A
handbook of dress-making, published in the fifties and which I
saw with my own eyes, had an introduction that started with the
sentence: "The Soviet art of dressmaking is based on the
Socialist Realism method."
Today, even though the monster is nearly dead, we joke about
it: "Socialist Realism is the magic mirror-on-the-wall for the
Party bosses who ask of it: `Who is the most clever and beautiful
in the world?' and the answer returns consistently: `Why, Party
officials, you are!'"
The father of Socialist Realism, Maxim Gorky, declared in
the thirties that jazz was the "music of fat people." This
disservice has had a profound influence on the development of
jazz and all its forms in Russia. As a result, conservatory
students who took saxophones in hand risked being turned out
without a chance to get back in. There was a popular slogan in
If today it's jazz he plays
Then tomorrow he betrays!
The very first information about the Beatles ever published
in Russia was found in one of the 1965 issues of "Krokodil"
(Crocodile) magazine. It was a wicked and stupid "satire"
describing four bourgeois crazies having nothing to do with True
Music. What effect did the official "dis-approving" of that
music have on the younger generation of the time? Well, I had a
friend then, who played in our school band. Ten years after we
were out of school, he sent his own kid to nursery school for the
first time. When the boy came home from school, he told his
father, "Dad, why didn't you tell me that there are Russian songs
besides the Beatles? We sang them today with the teacher!"
When for the first time in my life I had a chance to listen
to a Beatles record on a top-quality stereo system I was moved to
tears. I discovered the music that had disappeared completely,
having heard it for years reproduced on bad tape recorders from
poor quality copies. Until then, I could never suspect that
there was a back up voice in accompaniment of "I Will."
Before I realized that I could repair, restore, and build
guitars much better than I could play them, I dreamt of becoming
a jazz-rock guitarist. Once, during a rehearsal of my group, a
friend of mine said, "Atmospherics can be heard clearly while you
improvise." He knew perfectly well that the only source I had to
study music from was the unclear, static-filled taped radio shows
from the Voice of America and the BBC. To this day, I consider
disc-jockeys Willis Conover and Peter Clayton to be my major
teachers of English.
It was an early encounter with Stefan Grossman on BBC World
Service, that inspired me to begin seriously to learn about the
history of contemporary guitar-playing styles. During the summer
of 1980, I sat all night long near my radio, waiting for the
fifteen-minute-long "Country Blues Guitar Workshop" to begin.
The end product of this fascination was my book, "Guitar from
Blues to Jazz-Rock," published in 1986 by Muzychna Ukraina.
My career as a succesful craftsman began at the same time as
my career as an unsuccessful musician. I never expected to make
my living as a craftsman: it started because of severe
necessity: In the mid-sixties, electric guitars were absolutely
unavailable in the Soviet Union for teenagers like myself. There
were no Russian-made instruments to be had, only East German
"Musima" guitars which could be bought only if one had money to
overpay several times.
Luckily, I had gained enough experience in woodworking from
building model aircraft for several years, so I began to make
instruments for myself and for my friends. It is hard to
describe the innumerable difficulties I had to encounter in each
and every step. To start with, I had spent hours and hours
crawling on the floor around a piece of paper, trying to recreate
the outline of guitar bodies and headstock shapes from poor
photocopies made from posters: posters of Jimmy Page holding a
Les Paul; Stratocasters in the hands of Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck
and Hendrix. It was, at least, a great school of design.
Years later, when I started to repair some of the finest
professional guitars--genuine Gibsons and Fenders and Ricks, I
still kept dozens of those home-made drawing and plans.
My first handmade solid-body electric guitar looked like a
Stratocaster--or at least as much as an apt cartoon could. My
happily smiling "customer" tried it and played "Apache," exactly
mimicking all of Hank Marvin's chops. Over twenty years later, I
realized that, knowing nothing about what I did, I had invented a
multi-radius neck: just like the more recent innovation.
Not until 1968-69 did the first factory-made Soviet electric
guitars start to appear in music stores. The first one was
called "Tonika." Strange design, super heavy, hardly playable;
yet we teenagers were fascinated. It was a subject of our
dreams! But pretty soon, it was evident that they could hardly
compete with our own home-made axes, although we could just dream
about all the woods spoiled by "Tonika" makers. Those first
Russian electrics had ebony fingerboards!
Later, Tonika was joined by Aelita, Ural, and several other
makes, produced by four or five musical factories in different
cities of the USSR, and usually priced in the range of around 200
Those junky instruments were usually purchased--not by
serious musicians, but by trade unions to waste end-of-the-year
left-over social and cultural funds.
The quality of Russian factory-made guitars became gradually
even worse (though it was hardly imaginable that they could be
worse than those early examples), and much fine wood was wasted.
The same development took place with acoustic instruments: not
only with guitars, but also with all stringed folk instruments.
Twenty years ago, one could buy a balalaika in a store that
was good enough for a beginner to start leaning successfully.
These days, balalaikas that are for sale in the stores are
unuseable for any musical purpose. Acoustic instruments
have, however, one advantage here over electric ones: nearly
every factory has a small group of skilled craftsmen working on
custom orders alongside the regular production line. These
custom instruments are drastically superior--some of them are
even pieces of art. But that is another story.
I used to ask myself the naive question, why does this
happen? Why do they waste wood, time, money? Imagine how I must
have felt observing the following scene: an apparently healthy
and sane person puts broken, but easily fixable, double basses--
made of perfect spruce, maple and ebony woods into a fire until
they turn into ashes.
A nightmare? No, just a common event that any Russian can
explain to you. It is a legal procedure of destroying "common
socialist property" that is decreed to be of no use to its lawful
owners, preventing anyone else from illegal private use. You
were not able to save or buy that wood at any price, be sure of
that. Well, at almost any price. The inspectors, as a rule,
could be bought, and the procedure was described as "internal
Only after years of experience in ethics and aesthetics in
an art college did I come close to some perception of what it was
all about. To quote a young Russian satirist:
"The one who wants to is not able; the one who is able, does
not want to; and the one who wants to AND is able, is not
That is the main rule of our lifestyle. And this is not
surprising given the facts of some of our rather recent history.
One of the first of Stalin's work camps had the following slogan
greeting all who entered:
"With an iron hand we shall lead humankind to happiness."
It took Stalin decades to breed a mentality of internal
slavery into our population. He did this by killing millions who
dared to have any opinion of their own, who dared to develop any
independence. If not killed or banished, one had an agonizingly
hard time trying to survive outside of this obedient herd.
Consequently, there was, and still is much scorn of any
individual who is independent--and most of all, any individual
who is creative.
Another feature of psychology of everyday Soviet life is a
Philistine jealousy, a twisted perception of justice that
overwhelms ordinary consciousness. A letter from a teacher to
the editor of a popular magazine reads: "I don't mind if everyone
starts living better today, but I do not want anyone to live
better than I do." This brings to mind the old folk saying that
it is not as great a pity that my cow died, as it is that my
neighbors cow is still alive.
There has been, however, a change. The Cooperative
Movement has been designed as one of the very first and important
steps of Perestroika (Restructuring).
The idea behind it is very
simple: to give a chance, to give permission to those who want
to... and are able.
This change, however, came after a sad period, spanning from
1983 to 1984; a campaign of persecution against craftsmen,
including musical instrument makers. For creating "non-labor
income" (anything over 300 rubles a month was suspected to be
illicit), many were victimized and some were even imprisoned.
Being specially talented, skilled artisan's services were in
great demand, and thus their income grew. The authorities
considered this to be a crime against equality: Vladmir Kozlov,
a luthier from Kazan, famous throughout the USSR for his superb
Telecasters (perfect replicas made entirely from scratch), was
sentenced and nearly imprisoned. Other luthiers were intimidated
by official inspections.
It is no wonder that when Perestroika allowed the formation
of cooperatives (permitting craftspeople to associate for
their individual and collective benefit as they saw fit) wary
instrumentmakers were not too enthusiastic about them, and even
today many are still extremely skeptical.
Some really strong cooperatives have, nonetheless, appeared
recently in the field of stage equipment, producing loudspeakers,
amplifiers and rack accessories. Middle-quality strings are now
being produced by several other cooperatives. There are some
knowledgeable experts in active and passive pickups working
independently and mostly on custom orders. I expect some of
them to start co-ops of their own in the near future.
As for guitars, still nothing deserving attention is
happening on any significant scale of production. I think,
however, that we are heading towards some changes in the field
pretty soon: I had a chance to evaluate some cooperative-made
headless bass guitars of a quality definitely higher than those
which you could buy in any State store, including those imported
from Eastern Europe. Well-made twelve string acoustic guitars
made by co-ops have also begun to appear in several cities.
The market in the USSR for professional (usually American or
Japanese) guitars is rather peculiar. There are no collectors of
vintage guitars here, and no such thing as a vintage guitar
market--just to have one geniune Gibson or Fender in working
condition is just a dream for many. So most musicians feel
extremely fortunate to have a Charvel, or a Kramer, or a new
Yamahas or Ibanez's. People who are knowledgeable about the
actual value of old vintage instruments are few. A couple years
ago, a friend of mine bought a 1957 vintage Gibson gold-top Les
Paul for 3000 rubles, and then sold his cheap Japanese "Diamond"
Les Paul copy for 3500 rubles, and everone was happy! I know
other musicians who paid twice as much for a Kramer or Charvel as
they did for a fine Pre-CBS Strat.
A desperate lack of information about the true value,
quality and technical characteristics of different guitar brands
provides a fertile ground for unscrupulous underground dealers.
Things become even more complicated because of widespread
ignorance by musicians about such basic set-up and mantainance of
their instrument. In many cases, basic technical sophistication
has begun to penetrate into our musicians' circles too late. As
"Doctor Guitar," I have many times encountered once-priceless
instruments that have been raped to death by do-it-yourself cats
and "craftsmen" who are altogether too daring and brave. Their
most frequent "achievements" are: inferior and unnecesary
refinishing; fretboards and neck damaged badly by slipshod
refretting with Russian fretwire (the poorest and least durable
in existance); hardware spoiled by replating; replacement of
vintage parts made for unexplainable reasons, as many other
On the other hand, there are many good craftsmen as well.
Practically all of them work illegally, making custom-ordered
instruments. Some of them, among the most advanced and skillful,
choose to get involved in the forging of world famous
instruments--which their customers fraudulently resell as the
real thing. I've encountered this kind of bootleg several
times: I was amazed to discover that an apparently authentic Gibson
"Explorer" that I was asked to examine was in fact made
completely in Russia...in a country where you can hardly buy a
screw with the cross centered on it's head. Unfortunately all
these craftsmen have little choice but to make copies of
fashionable axes, since it is hard to find a customer who does
not worship fashionable labels.
The foremost obstacle in the working conditions of a Russian luthier is the lack of information of any kind. The best you can find published in Russia, other than some pre-revolutionary articles and books, is ridiculous in its incompetence and uselessness. Up till recently, those of us who could read English, or German, or French, were unable to buy or obtain information in foreign languages. It is still not possible to get subscriptions for any magazine published in the West. The Musical Society of the String Instrument Craftsmen was formed a couple of years ago, promising official support for luthiers, but from the very start it was just one more new bureaucracy, good only for getting money from luthiers for formal membership.
Electric guitarists have a great hope now, connected with
Kramer Guitar Co. activity in Moscow. Last December, Dennis
Berrardi, Kramer's president, visited Russia for the first time
and had some successful negotiations in starting guitar
production in Russia. I couldn't find any first-hand information,
but is is said that a group of Russian craftsmen apprentices is
to come to the Kramer factories in the States, to be trained by
American specialists for several months while a material base
will be prepared in Moscow.
Perhaps some freedom really has come to creative crafts- people in Russia. To many Russians, however, as the famous Russian film director Eldar Ryazanov has recently said:
"Freedom has come just a lifetime too late."