In comparison with the rest of its family, the Russian guitar has a relatively short history. While the Europe has been enjoying the melodious sounds of the guitar in one form or another since the 14th century, the guitar did not find its way to Mother Russia until the end of the 18th century, nearly 400 years later. However, once it arrived, it found a warm welcome, and the guitar has since become an established facet of Russian culture. Interestingly, its story has been inextricably linked with the politics of the country, and the instrument’s popularity has risen and fallen with the times.
Firstly, the Russian guitar is different from the classical, or Spanish, guitar. The main and most important difference is that the Russian guitar, or semistrunnaya gitara, has seven strings as opposed to the classical instrument’s six. There are also versions with two necks and 11 or 12 strings, but these are less common. The instrument is traditionally played without a pick, using fingers for either strumming or picking. Its invention is attributed to Andrei Sychra, who was born in the late 18th century and wrote over one thousand compositions during his lifetime.
Prior to the revolution of 1917, the Russian guitar was far more common and popular in Russia than the Spanish guitar. Its popularity was at its height during the later half of the 19th century, which may be at least partially attributed to the popularity of “city romance” songs at the time. It was during this period that peasants from the country were flocking to the cities of Moscow and St. Petersburg, and these songs, which were guitar oriented and touched upon the life of the common man, were in keeping with the social movement. However, during the early Soviet eras of Lenin and Stalin, such music was considered bourgeois and fell into disfavor. The old Russian school of guitar, however, continued to be strong and the seven-stringed instrument persisted.
Although the Spanish guitar has gained some popularity in Russia over the past hundred years, especially in genres such as jazz and rock and roll, the Russian guitar continues to be the norm. The emergence of Russian bard music, or music written outside of the Soviet establishment, helped combat the influence of the Spanish instrument. This genre emerged in the 1960s, and its music relied heavily on the same techniques originally used in the “city romance” songs 50 years previously. Such music, and the Russian guitars it required, helped prevent Russian culture from being overrun by Western musical influences like the Beatles and Elvis Presley.
Up until the late 1970s, Soviet guitar factories continued to produce only seven-stringed instruments. Manufacturers began a gradual switchover at that point and today, both types of instrument are available in Russia. The Russian guitar continues to be popular in its homeland, however, probably due to its flexibility, the relative simplicity of some basic chords and the ease of playing alternating bass lines. In fact, the appeal of the Russian guitar is so strong that Russian emigre guitarists living in western countries have been known to modify six string acoustic guitars to seven string instruments.