Why Communists Can’t Produce Electric Guitars

As Matt Kibbe likes to say, rock and roll is all about freedom, and what would rock and roll be without that rockingest of all instruments — the electric guitar? If you lived in the Soviet Union for the first several decades of its existence, chances are you could only wonder, as Western goods (including guitars) were largely outlawed. Yet, for anyone who still pines for the days of socialism and roses, the history of the Soviet Union’s first internally produced solid-body electric guitar is as instructive as it is entertaining.

In the early 1970s (the exact year is unknown because of poor recordkeeping) the Party bosses at the Soviet Union decided it was time to get in on this new rock and roll fad that was sweeping the world. Sure, the West had been building electric guitars for nearly 40 years by then, Elvis was fat, and the Beatles had broken up by then, but hey, better late than never, I guess.

Thus was born the Tonika guitar, the Soviets’ eccentric and hilariously inept attempt at rocking out. The main problem was that the guitar makers (luthiers is the technical term) had not only never built electric guitars before, they didn’t really have any examples from which to copy. You couldn’t just go buy a Stratocaster or a Les Paul to tear apart and figure out how it worked. They were evil products of decadent Western capitalism, and therefore forbidden. As a result, the Tonika was basically built from scratch by people who had no idea what they were doing.

To these poor workers’ credit, the thing actually worked. But just barely. The Tonika doesn’t look like any guitar you’ve ever seen before, with a bizarre body shape that appears awkward and uncomfortable. By all accounts, these bodies were insanely heavy, making them a literal pain in the neck to play. Additionally, reports from owners of these now-rare guitars say that the action (the distance from the strings to the fretboard) is far too high, the bridges are in the wrong place, and that the entire thing was more or less a “waste of good wood.” As if that weren’t enough, one of the key features of the electric guitar — the truss rod that runs through the neck to prevent its bending under the tension of the strings — was entirely absent. The neck was solid wood, either because the Soviets didn’t want to pay for the cost of a steel rod, or because they simply didn’t know any better.

Over time, the Soviets got a little better at guitar-making, but later models still featured electronics that were underpowered and more than a decade out of date compared to what Western musicians were using. All in all, the Soviet experiment in rock and roll was a dismal failure.

The lesson here is one that still has resonance today. The advocates of socialist planning could learn a lot from the failures of the Soviet Union. First, the problem of isolation is a severe one. Without the willingness to trade with other nations, the Russians found themselves at a severe disadvantage, unable to benefit from the technology developed by others. The supposed loyalty to their domestic economy actually crippled their ability to produce high-quality goods — the opposite of the intended effect.

Second, the central-planning model — in which producers are directed based on what political leaders think is important rather than responding to the demands of the market — meant that Russian musicians were denied an important instrument for years. A more liberalized market would have produced scores of electric guitars for local bands all throughout the ‘60s, as it did in America and Japan. Instead, the Soviet populace had to wait, and what it ended up getting wasn’t really worth waiting for.

Rock and roll would never have been possible without capitalism, because rock and roll is all about freedom.

This article originally appeared on Conservative Review.

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Free the People publishes opinion-based articles from contributing writers. The opinions and ideas expressed do not always reflect the opinions and ideas that Free the People endorses. We believe in free speech, and in providing a platform for open dialog. Feel free to leave a comment!

Logan Albright

Logan Albright is the Head Writer and Sound Engineer at Free the People. He is the author of Conform or Be Cast Out: The (Literal) Demonization of Nonconformists and Our Servants, Our Masters: How Control Masquerades as Assistance.

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