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Andres Segovia page
Russian guitarmakers
Auguste Clodpolle
Glasnost Correspondence with a Russian Guitarmaker

Yuri Dmitrievsky,          
PO Box 644                                
191180 Leningrad

     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 
right key. 
     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 
those days: 
                   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 
rubles.  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 
stupid modifications. 
     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 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 one of us 
recently said: 

     "Freedom has come just a life late."