If you follow the guitar market at all, you’ve likely noticed that Japanese vintage models have seen a serious surge in popularity over the last decade. Knock–off replicas from the ‘60s and totally unique, oddball designs alike have become more and more sought after by guitarists of all stripes thirsting for alternatives to more ubiquitous guitars.
But as with any trend, it’s inevitable that the crowd will move on to something else eventually, and we here at Reverb couldn’t help but make a little prediction as to what that next frontier is going to look like.
Like denim blue jeans and Coca–Cola, mainstream guitars from popular Western brands were another unattainable import for those behind the Iron Curtain. But players still needed instruments, and the lack of access to established models led to a quiet but vibrant DIY culture of guitar building in Eastern Europe.
Pamphlets and building guides that broke down the construction of a guitar circulated more frequently than mass–marketed Soviet models, but a few factories did crop up in the USSR, Bulgaria, East Germany, and Czechoslovakia to provide less project–driven players with out–of–the–box–ready instruments.
While poorly crafted in comparison to the West’s guitars of the same period, these Soviet–era instruments are certainly all unique, creative, and excitingly odd — much like the creative vintage Japanese models players have recently become endeared to, but at an even lower price point.
1960 Tonika EGS–650
Tonika was one of (if not the) first commercial electric guitar brands to pop up in the Soviet Union in the mid–’60s. The earliest batch of Tonika guitars from this time were made without adhering to specifications and come in all sorts of shapes and sizes as a result.
The EGS–650 was one of the first of Tonika’s standard production guitars, hitting the scene sometime around 1969 before the model’s discontinuation around ‘75. These oddly shaped axes feature birch bodies, ebony fingerboards, and a whole lot of character.
The Rostov factory (where some of the Tonikas were being made) began producing two new guitar models in the 1970s: the Aelita and the Bas. Around 1979, each model was upgraded and the Aelita–2 and Bas–2 were released. This 1980 Aelita–2 is a more sophisticated and mainstream–looking Soviet electric, compared to their earlier oddball designs.
A Soviet factory in Borisov got into the electric guitar game starting in the 1980s and produced three models — the Formanta, the Solo–II, and the Bas–I — until 1992. The Borisov factory still exists today, but it produces acoustic guitars exclusively.
These beasts are loaded with onboard effects, giving them the common electrics–ridden aesthetic indicative of mid–century offbeat Euro guitars with the less–than–stellar playability to match. These models are particularly hard to find and this one doesn’t function, but those with a DIY sensibility and an affinity for rare guitars might find this a worthwhile project.
Stella Electric Guitar
The last Rostov factory production guitar was the Stella model. It was one of the most ambitious hi–fi models to come out of the era, featuring four split stereo pickups, tons of electronics, a stereo output, two stereo modes, one mono mode, five knobs, and eight switches. As with most of these instruments, the sonics might not be top notch, but it does look pretty cool — if you’re into that sort of thing.
1970s Roden Bass
This Roden bass was produced in the USSR in the 1970s. Its oddly curved body shape resembles that of a Guild B–301, which was first produced in 1977. Perhaps in this case, it was an American company that took some inspiration from the East.
Ural was another mass–production Soviet brand that began making guitars and basses in the the mid–’70s. They remained the go–to budget beginner brand in the USSR until imports from Korea, China, and Indonesia rolled in and the Russian brands could no longer compete.
With its distinctive cutaways and samurai–style headstock, the Ural 650 closely resembles Yamaha’s own SGV Flying Samurai guitar models from the ‘60s.
1960 Orfeus Plovdiv Bass Guitar
Not all of the oddities from the Soviet era were manufactured and released from modern day Russia. Bulgaria was another country responsible for few oddball basses and guitars, as well. However, not much is known about the Orfeus brand history, and many of the models are unidentifiable when they do crop up.
1960 Orfeus Plovdiv Bass with Silver Pickguard
Finishes and paint jobs are one area in which this particular Eastern European brand differentiated themselves from the rest of the Soviet–era offerings. When Orfeus–branded models do hit the markets, they feature body shapes that are equally as whacky as the rest of the Soviet–era instruments but often with especially distinctive paint jobs. This may be a relatively standard sunburst finish, but the silver pickguard adds another dimension to the look of the bass.
1960s Jolana Star IX
This funky little shortscale guitar was the work of another of the USSR’s eastern neighbors — this time, Czechoslovakia. Though the Jolana brand wasn’t regarded as the best of the USSR’s few imports during this period (East Germany’s Musima brand generally holds that title), it was probably second in line, and demand for Jolana instruments in the USSR far superseded demand for domestic brands.
We also know — based on the band’s official Reverb shop — that Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy is something of a Jolana collector.
The Moscow Experimental Factory of Musical Instruments only produced three electric guitar models, but they were three of the best in the USSR. The Elgava solidbody was made with and without vibrato and was designed as a hybrid lapsteel/Spanish guitar. A special bolt–on neck allows players to raise the strings high enough to convert it into a lapsteel — a feature that, rumor has it, not many people were actually aware of during its production.