Four Decades of Guitars from Czechoslovakia.
When I wrote my original article about Eastern European guitars [Guitars of the Cold War, Vintage Guitar Magazine, January 2002], I was still in the process of researching the roots of these instruments. In the first two installments, I had focused on Russia almost exclusively, though I did mention Jolana guitars briefly. Since then, a lot of new information has come to light, enough to dedicate this third installment of "Guitars Of The Cold War" exclusively to guitars built in Czechoslovakia. This is their story.
The Czech Republic has a rich musical instrument building heritage. The Bohemia region is renowned for string instrument manufacture. Some of the world's best violins and cellos come from this part of the world. Petrof pianos have been built in Hradec Kralove since 1864, Hofmann & Czerny in Jihlava since 1871. Amati of Kraslice has been in the instrument-manufacturing business for over 180 years. The company is one of the world's largest brass and woodwind manufacturers and is known especially for the quality of their saxophones. There were over fifty different companies producing musical instruments in Czechoslovakia before World War II.
Czechoslovakia's biggest contribution to American guitar building was of course made by John Dopyera. Dopyera and his family emigrated from Slovakia in 1908 and settled in Los Angeles. In a quest for increased volume during the pre-electric era, Dopyera invented the resophonic (resonator) guitar. In 1928, Dopyera and his brothers formed a company to produce these guitars. The company was called DOBRO for DOpyera BROthers, but the word also means "good" in the Slovak language. Dobro was eventually purchased by National, which in turn became part of the Valco company, which went bust in 1968, but that's a separate story. The Dobro brand is currently owned by Gibson and the Dobro resonator guitar is an American classic. This tradition is alive in the Czech Republic today as well. The Amistar guitar company has been producing fine resophonic guitars in Prague since 1992.
After the war, Czechoslovakia was re-established as a communist state. In 1948 all private companies started to become nationalized. The last independent firms were forcibly nationalized by the early 1950's. Once the collectivization was complete, centralized control was forced on everything and any private venture was strictly forbidden. No until the Velvet Revolution in 1989 were there any new opportunities for private enterprise. All guitar production was likewise centralized. The Ministry of Industry of the Czechoslovak Republic established one big national company called CSHN (Ceskoslovenske Hudebni Nastroje, meaning Czechoslovak Musical Instruments) and set a production plan: so many acoustic guitars from this factory, so many electric guitars from that factory, and so on.
As we will see, Jolana wasn't the only Czech guitar brand. There were others, including Resonet, Neoton, Lignatone and others. But these were all just different brands, produced by various factories in different cities. Technically, there was no such thing as the Jolana or Resonet guitar companies. The names were only labels used on certain guitars by one big mother company, regardless of where they were actually built. Under this centralization, the identities of the original companies became blurred into one faceless mass, and the lack of surviving records only adds to the confusion. That is why some Jolana guitars are marked "Krnov" and others "Horovice", for example, and that is why it is so difficult to reconstruct the history timeline today.
The Selmer Futurama guitar, a.k.a. the Grazioso (original ad from Melody Maker magazine c. 1958).
We do know exactly how the first Czech electric guitar came about. The year was 1953, the city was Blatna, and the company was the Drevokov Cooperative. "Drevokov" means something like "Woodcraft" ("drevo" is "wood" in Czech) and the Drevokov Cooperative was a nationalized furniture company which specialized in producing wall paneling and other wood products. That year, the company got a new manager, a certain Josef Ruzicka. It was Ruzicka's decision to experiment with electric guitars, and by 1954 Ruzicka and the designer Vlcek produced the company's first electric instrument. This was a Hawaiian-style lap steel guitar which had a slotted head with classical-style guitar tuners, and it was the first guitar to bear the Resonet brand. This model was called the Resonet Akord, and with it the manufacture of electric guitars in Czechoslovakia takes its start.
Resonet was a name that Drevokov subsequently used on all their guitars. There was no such thing as the Resonet company, it was just a label. As it says on a 1957 warranty card, "Resonet: the mark of the first Czechoslovak electrophonic instruments". Since the name refers to electronics and electric sound, it is usually found on pickups and pickguard assemblies, not on an instrument's headstock. Unlike the typical American conventions, which favor a strong brand identity, it was in fact a common feature then to have a guitar's model name on the headstock, while the company brand was marked elsewhere, if at all. This makes sense if you consider that only one big national company was responsible for the guitars' production, and the identity of the individual factories wasn't considered to be as important. Soviet guitars were produced under a similar system and had similar labeling.
The Resonet Akord lap steels proved to be very popular, and the following year Drevokov decided to build a solidbody Spanish style instrument, a regular electric guitar. The prototype for this project was a brand new 1955 Fender Stratocaster, specially brought in from the USA. However, the Czechs did not merely copy the American instrument, as they would later do. The Fender guitar was carefully examined and completely redesigned. The Strat's shortcomings were actually improved upon in several respects, in particular the controls and the vibrato tailpiece. The new Resonet guitar had futuristic on/off pushbuttons for each pickup, which allowed every possible pickup combination. This was miles ahead of the Stratocaster, which in 1955 had just a basic 3-way switch. There was a single master tone control that worked on each pickup, while the Strat does not have a tone for the bridge pickup. The vibrato system was totally re-engineered and was actually more advanced than the Fender unit, probably the most precise vibrato design on the market at the time. It pivoted on two posts, as a Floyd Rose would later do, and had a separate, fully adjustable spring for each of the six strings. The pickups had individually adjustable pole pieces, which the Fender also did not have.
Other differences included a 3+3 headstock with straight string pull and a more compact, squared-off body. Similarities taken straight from Fender included a recessed metal jack cup and the two-tone sunburst finish. Solid colors such as black and red were also available, though the vast majority of guitars produced were sunburst. The necks were made from natural finished beech, without a separate fretboard. The bodies were also beech, though sometimes maple was also used. This new model was called the Grazioso, meaning "graceful", and it was a smashing success. At the 1958 Expo, the model won a gold medal. The Czech electric guitar had arrived!
In late 1957, Drevokov signed an agreement with the Selmer company to export the Resonet Grazioso guitars to Great Britain. At the time, most British firms imported guitars from the Continent. Boosey & Hawkes had Egmond guitars, marketed under the Rosetti brand. Rose Morris had Levin and Goya from Sweden. John Dallas & Sons had Framus. Selmer itself had Hofner, but the Resonet guitars were needed as a second line. Selmer renamed the Resonet Grazioso guitar the Futurama and marketed it as "the world's most advanced electric guitar". For once, the marketing hype was true. While the overall construction quality was perhaps no match for Fender, the actual design was in fact very advanced for its day. It was certainly a very modern instrument, compared to anything available in Britain at the time. The new Futurama guitar sold for 55 guineas, including a felt-lined shoulder strap. A case cost 6 guineas extra. This made the Futurama an expensive, high end instrument at the time when a Hofner Club 40 could be had for 32 guineas and a Rosetti Solid Seven for a mere 18 guineas. Subsequent Futurama models were marketed as a lower end line by Selmer, especially towards the late 1960's, but this first Futurama was definitely upscale.
It is often forgotten that Britain had an embargo on American goods at the time, which was not lifted until 1959. Therefore, it was impossible to buy a Fender guitar in Britain, and the Futurama was the closest thing to a Stratocaster that could be bought. With it, Selmer had the next best thing. Many influential guitarists owned one, including Gerry Marsden of Gerry and the Pacemakers, and the young Jimmy Page. But the most famous Futurama owner was, of course, George Harrison. George used his Futurama extensively during the Beatles' early career. It was his main instrument during the group's sojourn in Hamburg and can be heard on "My Bonnie" and other early Beatles recordings.
Of course, once the embargo was lifted and American instruments became available, most British rock stars immediately forgot about their Futuramas. Hank Marvin of the Shadows was soon seen with a special-ordered red Fender Stratocaster, possibly the first one in Britain, and after that everybody had to have one. Suddenly, the Futurama wasn't so futuristic anymore. As the quest for increased stage volume started to gather momentum in the mid 1960's, the Grazioso/Futurama would no longer cut it. The guitar's pickups were not very powerful, measuring only about 3.3K. According to Grazioso collector and historian Dusan Palka, this was actually done on purpose at the factory. In those days before Marshall stacks, most people sought a clean sound without distortion and guitar amps were of much lower wattage. People would often plug their guitars into phono inputs of small tube amps made for hi-fi equipment. Especially in communist Czechoslovakia, where there really weren't any guitar amps on the market, anyway, when this first electric guitar model came out. One must remember to keep these things in their proper historical perspective. It would be unfair to demand modern performance from a vintage instrument, from another time.
Other innovative Resonet models included the improved and much fancier Art Deco style Arioso lap steel and the Arco upright electric bass. The Arioso, introduced in 1955, had an interesting pickup with two reverse wound coils� yes, the Czechs had independently invented the humbucker and did not even notice! For some strange reason, this innovative pickup was never developed further and was never again used on other Resonet guitars.
The Arco solidbody upright bass was another futuristic instrument, many years ahead of Ampeg (which would not introduce the famous "baby bass" until 1962) and other similar electric uprights. It had a distinctive angular shape, an adjustable knee rest and a volume control on the back of the instrument, for easy reach. The Arco was also imported to Britain by Selmer as the Futurama Bass, priced at 52 guineas. "Set the pace with the Futurama Bass!" - ran the original ad copy - "Unbelievable, but here's a bass you can take on a bus, a gigster's dream!"
The Selmer Futurama bass, a.k.a. the Arco (original ad from Melody Maker magazine c. 1958).
1959 marked the beginning of the end for Resonet. Drevokov got a new director, a man who did not much care for music. Ruzicka and his team moved to a new factory in Hradec Kralove. By 1960, the main guitar production gradually shifted to Hradec Kralove and eventually also to Krnov and Horovice factories, all three now under CSHN. It is possible to find guitars from this transition period that don't quite match the specifications. The reason for this is simple: as the Hradec Kralove factory built the new models, leftover stock was still being used up at Drevokov in Blatna. The new 1959-60 models from Hradec Kralove had a rosewood fretboard and the input jack was moved from the top of the guitar to the bottom edge. The vibrato unit was also slightly different. This redesigned Grazioso was called the Futurama III in Britain. A new model was also introduced called the Star I, a much simpler 2-pickup beginner instrument with a 6-in-line headstock. It had a primitive recessed vibrato modeled after the Fender Jazzmaster unit and a wooden floating bridge with small metallic saddles under each string. These guitars were also built in Hradec Kralove and imported to Britain by Selmer as the Futurama II.
It is interesting to compare the chronology of the original Czech models and the British Futuramas, trying to keep them all straight. By 1961, the Futurama III also had a 6-in-line head, and by 1963 it had a different, smaller pickguard, different pickups with metallic inserts, and a slightly different overall shape. These later guitars were no longer direct descendants of the original Grazioso, but rather the various Star series models, very much down-market and a far cry from the first Grazioso/Futurama. Very soon it became obvious that these guitars could not compete with the latest British and continental models, not to mention the newly available Fenders, Gibsons, Gretsches and Rickenbackers imported from the USA. Quite a few of these guitars were sold due to their low price (at 25 guineas, half the cost of the original Futurama) but even as beginner instruments, these 1961-1963 Futuramas left a lot to be desired.
Another interesting instrument from this period was the Pedro six-string bass, also far ahead of its time. It is extremely rare today and remains elusive. Very few were produced, as most bassists then probably had no idea what to do with the extra strings.
Guitars continued to be built in Blatna until 1963, after which Drevokov resumed the production of furniture. A few left-over parts were assembled into guitars as late as 1964, and those were the last of their kind. Some collectors conducted an extensive search in Blatna during the late 1980's for guitars, parts and historical documents, without success. Any remaining parts had been picked clean long ago, while all the paperwork was long since moved to storage and lost among the records of some national archive. In 1964, Selmer discontinued the importation of Czech guitars into Britain, and the Futurama name was applied to an all-new line of guitars built in Sweden by Hagstrom. "The world's most advanced guitar" was history.
Early 1960's Futurama II.
Some of the earliest models built in Hradec Kralove bore the Neoton label. At least one of these was the Cutaway I, which, as the name suggests, was an archtop with a cutaway. Soon, however, a new name was introduced, one that we collectors of cheesy Eastern European vintage guitars know and love: Jolana. Jolana guitars were named after Ruzicka's daughter, Jolana Ruzicka, much like Gottlieb Daimler named his cars after his partner Emil Jellinek's daughter Mercedes. The first model to bear the new name was the Jolana Marina, an archtop electric with two pickups and controls mounted into a triangular metal pod right where a normal archtop would have a pickguard. This guitar, introduced in 1960 or 1961, was a full-depth hollowbody with a cutaway and had Gretsch-like cat's eye soundholes. The guitar came in two-tone red/black sunburst with a silver sparkle headstock overlay and had the same "Brilliant Deluxe" pickups as found on the Star I solidbody. The neck was bound and had diamond-shaped pearloid inlays. The Jolana name was a decal on the upper bout of the body. The equivalent bass version was called the Jolana Basora. From the very beginning, Jolana guitars would come in pairs. Practically every Jolana guitar model had a matching bass.
In 1997, there was an exhibit on the history of the Czech guitar in Prague at the Muzika-97 fair. The collection of Jiri Tutter - probably the largest collection of vintage Czech guitars in the world today - was on display, and the list of guitars from the Tutter collection is probably the closest thing we have to a chronological list of models. According to this list, the next few models produced in the early 1960's included the Diskant, the Basso IV and the Big Beat.
The Diskant was an archtop electric, similar to the earlier Marina but with a more conventional control and pickup layout. It was available in sunburst and cherry, and did not have the silver sparkle accents. The Basso IV was the bass equivalent of the Star I (the Futurama II). Introduced in 1960, this was the first solidbody bass made in Hradec Kralove. It was a simple instrument featuring 2 pickups, a 4-in-line headstock, and an archtop-style floating bridge. It is unclear whether this bass was ever imported by Selmer, as every Basso IV that I have seen is marked Jolana, not Futurama. The extremely rare Big Beat was an experimental model that had a built-in speaker and amplifier in a detachable pod, powered by an onboard battery. Reminiscent of the most bizarre Wandre creations, this oddity was produced very briefly in 1963.
Late 1960's Jolana Tornado.
1963 was also the year that Jolana introduced its most famous model, the Tornado. The Tornado was extremely popular in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union throughout the 1960's and 1970's. It is a large double-cutaway thinline electric with semi-hollow center block construction. It features a 6-in-line headstock with the distinctive Jolana shape, a bolt-on neck, a Melita-type bridge with a flip-up mute attached, and a Bigsby-style vibrato. The unusual construction of these guitars involves a large pickguard covering extensive routs in the body. The guitar is stuffed to the gills with electronics - three single-coil pickups, lots of oversized military-grade wiring and nine different pushbuttons, knobs and roller switches. A Tornado can produce a very wide range of sounds, though the controls are rather idiosyncratic. The overall feel of the guitar is rather clumsy, but given a chance, its little oddities grow on you.
The Tornado, like most subsequent Jolanas, has one neat little feature: the bottom strap button screws out and turns into a handy little screwdriver. Ever needed to adjust pickup height or fiddle with a loose input jack in the middle of a recording session? With a Jolana, there's no need to run around looking for tools. The original gig bag for these guitars is also very unusual. It comes in two pieces; the first piece is a sleeve that fits over the neck, and then the main second piece zippers over it. It looks just like a shopping bag a babushka would take to the market, except that it has a guitar neck sticking out of it!
Like most Jolana models, the Tornado had a matching bass, called the Pampero. Tornado was also the first Jolana model to feature a standard input jack. Prior to that, all Jolanas had a DIN-5 plug receptacle. In those days, European guitarists would need to own both types of cables when they traveled, because one never knew whether the club sound system would be configured to accept the DIN-5 or the newer quarter-inch plug.
The strap button unscrews and becomes a handy little screwdriver - an exclusive Jolana feature!
The late 60's
The late 1960's was arguably Jolana's heyday. Now operating from three different factories in three different cities - Hradec Kralove, Krnov and Horovice, all of course under CHSN - Jolana produced several popular and innovative models. Quality was reasonably high for these inexpensive guitars, and the brand built up a reputation among Eastern European guitarists second only to the Germans. In those days, with most Western guitars being both unavailable and unaffordable, Musima guitars from East Germany were considered top of the line, but Jolana ran a close second. Untold thousands of Jolana guitars were exported to the USSR and other Eastern Bloc nations and often turn up there as used guitars even today.
Besides the Tornado, there were several other thinline models. The Special and the Rubin were similar to the Tornado except for cosmetics and pickup variations. The Special was basically a Tornado with a different headstock shape and slightly different, simplified controls. It only had only one soundhole on top, a squared-off head, four control knobs (Gibson style) and a slightly smaller pickguard. From a few feet away, the two guitars were hard to tell apart. The Rubin, introduced a bit later, in the early 1970's, had replaced both the Tornado and the Special. It had a more conventional layout with two pickups in trapezoidal metallic surrounds, controls mounted in a matching metal strip, Telecaster style, plus a 3+3 headstock and a very cool pickguard made of clear Plexiglas. This model did not have the vibrato, though apparently one was either available as an option or was a popular retrofit. Like the Special, it only had one soundhole. One often finds these guitars trashed and modified, as many had been abused by hard rock groups in the 1980's, when the demand for guitars far outpaced supply and anything a young punk could find was pressed into service. But a clean early example can still be a lot of fun, especially for playing the kind of 60's pop music they were originally designed for.
The respective bass versions were the Studio, the Rubin and the Kolorbas. The Kolorbas, like the Rubin, was often available in various fun colors such as bright red and powder blue. The Kolorbas ("Color Bass") models had controls on a metal plate, like the guitar, and a 4-in-line headstock. The Rubin was an exact bass version of its namesake guitar, complete with the metal pickup surrounds and clear Plexiglas guard. It featured a 2+2 head, a slightly different tailpiece and conventionally mounted controls. The Studio bass was similar, except for different pickups and yet another, pointier 4-in-line headstock shape. In c.1972, the Kolorbas was replaced by the Rubin Bass, The main difference between the Rubin and the Kolorbas was the neck. Besides the headstock difference, the Rubin also had a slightly thicker neck and newer, classic chrome Jolana tuners. The Kolorbas neck had a better feel, but was saddled with dinky little old-style tuners with plastic buttons that tended to crack. The Rubin also lacked the gold crown decal found on the upper horn of the Kolorbas. All three models - the Kolorbas, the Rubin and the Studio - were otherwise very similar.
Slightly more upscale was the Alexandra. This was Jolana's best thinline model. It featured a slightly wider body with more traditional, Gibson-style contours, two pickups, a vibrato, a small archtop-type suspended pickguard, master volume and tone controls, a pickup selector switch mounted in the lower horn and a 3+3 headstock. Basically, it was a very conventional ES335-style guitar with few idiosyncratic features. The Alexandra was also the only one to be available as a 12-string. The bass version was called the Alexis. Another thinline model made in the mid-1960's was the Graziella. The Graziella was a two-pickup model with a switch on the lower horn, a crown decal on the upper horn and a suspended pickguard of white pearloid plastic. Compared to the other Jolana thinlines, the Alexandra and Graziella are fairly rare.
Occasionally, one comes across a Jolana thinline that seems to be a strange mix of parts. Such guitars have common Jolana features but do not match the specification of any specific model. This often happens because many parts were interchangeable and it was easy for a Tornado owner to put an Alexandra neck on their guitar, or for a Rubin owner to retrofit a Tornado vibrato onto a Rubin, and so on. Some examples also show up with a non-vibrato tailpiece and a simpler bridge without the attached mute, when they originally should have had both the mute and the vibrato. Adding to the confusion is the fact that this was also done at the factory! Jolana would occasionally ship batches of "floor sweep" guitars made up of various leftover parts whenever a model was discontinued.
Changes in a model design and specifications would also be made without notice. Sometimes, a very minor difference could mean a new model name. This can be explained by the realities of command economy under communist rule, when a factory's only goal was to meet the production plan, without any concession to the laws of supply and demand. The company's management could easily report having introduced new models if they had to meet the quota, without actually doing anything but altering some cosmetics and giving the instrument a new name. In Russia, "Tornado" practically became a generic name for any hollowbody electric guitar made in Czechoslovakia, because nobody could be bothered to keep up with these changes.
Jolana's solidbody guitars of the 1960's were mostly part of the Star series, each new model given a new Roman numeral. The original Star I was introduced in 1959 as a cheaper alternative to the Grazioso and was exported to Britain under the Futurama brand, as mentioned above. Several subsequent Futurama models were also re-branded Jolana Stars. The early Stars were very simple instruments, but starting with the Star VII, these guitars began to acquire fanciful colors and shapes. The guitars were now available in dark metallic blue, greenburst and silver. Hardware remained primitive, but cosmetics were fun. The last of the line were the Star IX and the Star X, both introduced circa 1968. The Star IX reintroduced the unusual quadrilateral body shape of the old Arco stand-up bass, now as a guitar. In Russia, this model was nicknamed "The Screwdriver" because of its shape, which resembles a more equal-sided, squared-off Vox Phantom. The Star X had a very futuristic "Jetsons"-like double cutaway body and a built-in fuzztone effect. Most of these models also had bass equivalents, many simply called Basso or Star Bass.
The Alfa was another solidbody electric from 1965 with some unusual cosmetics. The headstock, the general body shape and the hardware are all typical of the various mid 1960's Jolana Star series models, but the three piece pickguard is straight out of the Burns design book, and the decorative stripes are pure Hofner. Decorative stripes? Look closer, and you'll find that these are actually two banks of switches! Another, fairly uncommon model was the Hurricane, which was basically a solidbody version of the Tornado, with the same exact wiring and controls. The bass version was called the Typhoon.
While not as popular as the thinline models, Jolana solidbodies of the 1960's were still very well received at the time. Not because they were anything special, but because the demand for guitars was great and nothing better was available. Unlike in the West, the Eastern guitar boom continued into the early 1970's. These guitars sold in large numbers and remain fairly common in Europe and Russia. The Star IX and Star X are the exception; these are rare and very collectible today. The Star IX is easier to find, but everybody loves its crazy shape and it is therefore seldom offered for sale. The Star X is the rarest one, because this model was never exported.
Late 1970's Jolana Diamant. This is the first version with the "Gibson" headstock.
In 1968, Gibson reissued the Les Paul guitar, which had been out of production since the early 1960's. This was noted by Shiro Arai of Aria and subsequently by several other Japanese companies, who started producing their own "reissues" of classic American designs. The copy era had begun.
By the early 1970's, Eastern European guitar companies also began to build copy guitars. Copies were never made in the Soviet Union, where they didn't even build any electric guitars at all until the early 1970's. Soviet guitars were all original designs - and suffered for it - right up to the end. The Czechs, however, kept up with the times. In the 1950's, they took an American guitar, the Fender Stratocaster, and re-designed it. In the 1970's, they merely copied. Innovation, it seemed, was a thing of the past. In 1972 and 1973, Jolana introduced several models that were clearly copies of Gibson, Fender and Rickenbacker.
The biggest hit from Jolana's copy era was the Diamant, the first communist "Gibson". Built in Horovice, this was a direct copy of the Les Paul Custom. The Jolana "Les Paul" had a bolt-on 22-fret neck with a 628mm scale, plus other typical Jolana features such as an aluminum nut, a zero fret, the ubiquitous four-way rotary switch and the bottom strap pin that unscrewed into a handy little screwdriver. The pickguard was permanently screwed to the body, instead of being suspended over it on a bracket. Other than these minor details, the Diamant was a fairly close copy of the Les Paul, right down to the celluloid binding, pearloid block inlays and "open-book" headstock. Most Diamants were black with white binding and therefore reflected the "Black Beauty" vibe quite nicely. The top was moderately arched and had the standard Gibson configuration of two humbuckers, four control knobs, a tune-o-matic bridge and a stop-tail. The feel of the instrument was also very Gibson-like, solid and substantial. The letdown was in the wood. The body was made of alder capped with a beech plywood top, a far cry from the Gibson standard of mahogany and maple. Needless to say, the sound suffered in comparison.
The guitar came equipped with a pair of "Spektrum" humbuckers. The big chromed rotary switch had three marked positions, "1" for the neck pickup, "2" engaging both pickups, and "3" for the bridge pickup. Turning the switch away from the three marked positions shut the guitar off. But in any position, the humbuckers sound more like underpowered singles, thin and brittle. It is something of a shock to plug in such a Gibson-ish instrument and get a totally unexpected sound that is much closer to a slinky thinline warble than a crunchy Les Paul bite. This model's poor reputation today stems mainly from the Diamant's vilification by the punks and headbangers of the 1980's, who were disappointed by its completely un-Gibson-like sound. Despite its businesslike looks, the Diamant is totally unsuited for hard rock unless the pickups are replaced, and even then this poor man's Les Paul would lack sustain because of its construction.
Taken on its own merits, however, the Diamant is not a bad guitar. The 3-piece neck is very comfortable, the oversized Tesla control pots seem to last forever, and overall this is one instance where Jolana has actually left its arch rival, Musima, far behind with their Deluxe 25 Les Paul contender. The Diamant is no match for any Gibson, but it would certainly give any bolt-neck Asian copy a good run for the money, even today. In the 70's, when the classic Les Paul design was at the peak of popularity, it was something of a revelation to many.
The Diamant had remained in production for almost two decades. It remained in the line-up until the very end (1989) and a very large number of them was produced. Its official price in the USSR in 1989 was 435 rubles, including gigbag, strap, cable and a spare set of strings. The cable was coiled like a telephone wire, which was de rigueur in the 1970's. Like the Model T Ford, the Diamant was available in any color as long as it was black. As such, it was the most generic Jolana, but also one of the better models in terms of overall playability. Occasionally, examples do show up in sunburst and other colors, but these are pretty rare.
Early examples have a script "Diamant" logo on a Gibson-style "open book" headstock, as well as a plain neckplate and the rotary switch. Later models from the 1980's have a thicker block logo, with a big solid "Jolana" and a small "Diamant I" underneath. These guitars have a different headstock shape with a center peak instead of a dip, as well as a regular 3-way switch and a fancier neckplate, also stamped with the Jolana logo. The Diamant I was in reality the Diamant II, considering that it was a cosmetic update of an earlier model, but such inconsistencies in model numbering were common. Of course, there was also a matching Diamant bass, which was short-scale and looked just like the guitar, except that it only had two control knobs instead of four.
The Diamant Bass.
The 1970's and 1980's
One of the earliest Jolana copy guitars was the Iris, which was based on the Fender Telecaster and was produced in Krnov. This guitar had either one or two slanted single coil pickups, a slightly elongated pickguard and a single decorative soundhole, like the Tele Thinline. The bridge was the standard Jolana floating bridge, modified to work on a solidbody, and the tailpiece had an "ashtray" cover. The pickup switch was a four-way rotary, also typical of Jolana. The positions were neck, bridge, both and off. The fretboard was beech, stained to look like rosewood. Everything else was very Fender-like. The Iris proved to be quite popular and remained in production well into the 1980's.
There was a matching Iris Bass, also with the soundhole, which was even more popular than the guitar and served as a basic workhorse instrument for an entire generation of bands throughout the 1970's and early 1980's. The Iris was arguably the best solidbody bass available in Eastern Europe during those years. It is also quite an interesting design concept: this is what the single-cutaway Telecaster bass might have looked like, had Fender chosen to really make one in the 1970's, instead of merely reissuing the early double-cutaway Precision as the Telecaster Bass. Early examples had pickups with eight pole pieces and a metallic cover over the bridge pickup. Later models featured blade pickups, same as those found on the guitar, and dispensed with the cover, which was, granted, quite useless.
The Jolana Galaxis of the late 1970's took after the Fender Stratocaster. This model copied the basic Strat outline, but wreaked havoc with the hardware and electronics. The vibrato tailpiece, recessed into the body, was the same primitive Japanese Jazzmaster copy found on the early 1960's Star I, while the bridge was the standard Jolana floating type. The guitar came equipped with two oversized double-blade humbuckers called the "Sapphir", each with its own volume and tone controls. The 6-in-line headstock had a "towel bar" string retainer, as also found on the Star I and some early Japanese guitars. The bass version had the exact same pickups as the guitar, while the bridge, the tailpiece and the "ashtray" cover were the same as those on the Iris bass.
Another similar model was the Disco, which was a copy of the Gibson RD. Other than the body shape, it was exactly the same as the Galaxis, with the exact same pickups and hardware. Very cheesy. The Galaxis and the Disco were probably Jolana's nadir, as these models showed no design innovation whatsoever and featured decades-old technology. Construction quality also suffered during the early to mid-1980's, right at the time when it was becoming easier to buy a used Western guitar behind the Iron Curtain. It is very difficult to find anything in those guitars that has any link, however tenuous, to the original Grazioso, which was as fresh and innovative in its day as these Jolanas were stale and dated.
Other models available included the Vikomt, the Jantar, the Proxima (another stratozoid) and the Onyx (styled after a Gibson Sonex, of all things). In the mid-1980's, the last new models were introduced, including a more exact approximation of the Stratocaster (actually called the "Jolana Strat" on the headstock, trademarks be damned!), and the D-bass, which was modeled after a Rickenbacker. These were worthy replacements for the Galaxis and the Disco, especially the D-bass, which was well-balanced and overall, a good quality instrument. The most luxurious, modern Jolana bass was the Superstar, introduced late in the decade and modeled after the Peavey T-40. But the handwriting was already on the wall. Jolana guitars could not compete on the open market and the brand would not survive the fall of communism in 1989. The last Jolana model was the Syrix in 1992. These were built in cooperation with Kramer, using some Kramer parts.
Early 1970's Jolana Iris Bass.
Common Jolana features
The most interesting and innovative feature found on Jolana guitars is the strap button that unscrews to become a little screwdriver, as described above. As far as I know, this is an exclusive Jolana feature that no other brands have. It is always fun to demonstrate to someone who has never seen it before. Another common Jolana feature is the combination of aluminum nut and zero fret. The nut has two small stalks on the bottom that fit into grooves on the neck.
A neat touch is the Art-Deco style tuners with distinctive grooved buttons. These are heavy, with chrome over solid brass. The early models are open-gear, later ones are enclosed with stamped metal covers. Some of the covers are plain; others have the letter "J" stamped on them. The Art Deco grooved buttons, however, have remained the same throughout the company's history. While no match for modern sealed tuners, these were by far the best tuners on the Eastern European market at the time, far better than anything found on Musima, Orpheus or the various Russian guitars.
Practically all two-pickup Jolanas feature a four-way rotary switch with a chicken-head knob. The positions are neck, bridge, both and off. This "varitone" with the stand-by mode is a very common Jolana feature. Models with more than two pickups usually have pushbutton switches for turning each pickup on and off individually. While somewhat cheesy, this allows for every possible combination and a wide variety of sounds. Jolana pickups were never anything special, but the wiring and electronics are always solid and extremely well-made. The Tesla potentiometers, found inside every Jolana, almost never wear out. These guitars were built to last, even when construction quality suffered. The wiring of those models that have multiple switches, built-in effects or other extra components can be fascinating in its precision, complexity and heavy-duty overkill.
Jolana bridges are also atypical. Most of them are of the floating type, even on the solidbodies. The top part is clearly based on the Gibson Tune-O-Matic bridge, with its individually adjustable saddles. However, instead of the little thumbwheels that adjust height by pushing the two bridge sections apart, Jolana bridges have oversized threaded shafts that work like a clamp, pushing against the top of the guitar. Another unique feature is the Jolana non-vibrato tailpiece, which has six individual stalks (four on the basses) for each string. There is no top cross-bar. While this does not serve any practical purpose, it is a very distinctive design that's unique to Jolana. Some 1970's models feature a more typical trapeze tailpiece with the letter "J" on it, but these are not as much fun visually.
Dating Jolana guitars
Most Jolana guitars do have a serial number, usually pressed into the wood. However, there is no way to accurately use these numbers in dating a guitar. Even if any records were kept at the time, none survive today. The numbers themselves are random and do not have any consistency. For example, an early Tornado can have a four-digit number that's actually higher than the number on a much later Iris, and the difference can be measured in only hundreds, despite a decade-long gap between the manufacture of the two instruments and presumably tens of thousands of guitars produced in between.
It is possible to narrow down a guitar's age by comparing the number to the numbers of other instruments with known years of manufacture. If the serial number is more than four digits, it is also indicative of later manufacture. It also helps a little to know where the number itself is stamped. Most 1960's models were stamped on the back of the headstock, while on most 1970's and 1980's guitars, the serial number can be found on the back of the neck at the bottom, right above the neckplate. However, there are many exceptions, as nothing with these guitars was ever fully consistent.
Other clues would be script versus block logos and plain neckplates versus neckplates stamped with the Jolana logo. The latter features are found on later models. Otherwise, it is necessary to simply learn the chronology of various models and their features. There is no sure-fire way to date a Jolana.
The Jolana logo, as seen through the soundhole of the Iris Bass.
Occasionally, an even more obscure oddity would show up alongside the better known Resonet and Jolana models. AXA, Lignatone and Broyer guitars are instruments that do not fit into the general timeline.
The AXA, appearing briefly in 1962, was nothing but a converted Cremona acoustic fitted with an electric pickup. Cremona, in Luby, was the largest producer of acoustic guitars in Czechoslovakia. It is unclear where these electrified Cremonas were made, but one source mentions the maker being sued by Cremona.
The Lignatone brand appears on cheap acoustics and electrics of similarly obscure origin. The one Lignatone acoustic guitar I have seen, a late 1960's model, was an unplayable student-grade plywood horror from the absolute bottom of the barrel. Lignatone electrics are much rarer, but just as cheesy.
The Broyer was a line of fine archtops from the early days, before the communist takeover. Nothing is known about these guitars, except that they were made by a small company better known for their violins. That part of Europe has always had plenty of violin makers, some of whom would periodically branch out into producing mandolins, banjos and guitars. If a totally obscure and off-the-wall, but good quality archtop shows up from Eastern Europe, it was probably built by one of these numerous small string instrument manufacturers from Bohemia and Sudetenland.
After the fall
After the fall of the communist regime in 1989, the national CHSN company fell apart. Its various, formerly state owned factories have either regained their original identities as smaller private companies, or stopped producing guitars altogether. This was the end of Jolana. The Cremona Luby factory was re-established as a private company, now called Strunal. They still produce inexpensive, low to mid-quality acoustic guitars, as they have done for decades.
The Horovice factory re-emerged under its original name, Delicia, and continues its tradition of string instrument making that dates back to 1920. In the early 1990's, they struggled on for a while under a deal with Kramer. At the time Kramer was courting Russia and Eastern Europe with such instruments as the Gorky Park signature model, but they were having problems of their own and would soon be as extinct as Jolana. Later, Delicia had produced a line of Epiphone guitars for Gibson that were available exclusively on the European market. Today, they build world-class electric guitars and basses under their own brand. They also continue to produce accordions, which has been their main product all along. In fact, under communist rule the factory was known as "Zavod Harmonika Horovice", with the emphasis on "Harmonika", but these days the company is simply "Delicia" again.
A new company emerged called Furch (pronounced "Foorkh") in Velke Nemcice, near Brno. Frantisek Furch started out as an underground luthier, building guitars for fellow musicians during the 1980's, when private enterprise was outlawed and skilled craftsmanship was sorely lacking. Furch developed an excellent reputation by word of mouth and his instruments were in great demand among Czechoslovakia's top guitarists. Today, Furch is a small independent company that builds quality high-end acoustic guitars. Furch guitars feature an innovative bracing system developed by the company and are one of the best values in Europe today.
As far as vintage guitars go, the Czech Republic is no different today than the rest of Europe. Gibsons and Fenders bring a premium, while an old Diamant or Tornado would most likely bring a nostalgic smile.
An interesting and unexpected development came in late 2003, as Delicia reintroduced the classic Jolana brand to the European market. The new Jolana guitars are a world apart from the old communist-era models. While a Tornado is still a hollowbody thinline and a Diamant is still shaped like a Les Paul, these are high-quality modern instruments, not the ugly ducklings of yore. These short-lived "reissue" Jolanas were discontinued in 2005.
Czech guitars are not commonly found in the USA, though occasionally one comes across an old Jolana on eBay or elsewhere. Well, now if you see one, you'll know where it came from.
Sources, links, acknowledgements and special thanks:
Ward Meeker, Dusan Palka, Steve Russell, Studio 1525, Cheesyguitars.com, Efim Fish.
© 2003-2023 JunkGuitars.com. All rights reserved. This article originally appeared in the November 2005 issue of Vintage Guitar Magazine. The above text contains some inaccuracies that have been left for historical reasons. They will be corrected in any future publication.