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|Glasnost Correspondence with a Russian Guitarmaker
Yuri Dmitrievsky, PO Box 644 191180 Leningrad USSR 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 looting." 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 permitted." 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."