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Home First Posted June 25, 2010
Aug 3, 2010

Balalaika also Balabaika

The balalaika (also Balabaika) is a stringed instrument of Russian origin, with a characteristic triangular body and three strings (or sometimes six, in three courses). The balalaika family of instruments includes, from the highest-pitched to the lowest, the prima balalaika, sekunda balalaika, alto balalaika, bass balalaika and contrabass balalaika. All have three-sided bodies, spruce or fir tops and backs made of from three to nine wooden sections, and usually have three strings. The prima balalaika is played with the fingers, the sekunda and alto either with the fingers or a plectrum depending on the music being played, and the basses and contrabasses (equipped with extension legs which rest on the floor) are played with leather plectra.


The earliest mention of balalaika is found in a 1688 Russian document. The term became widely used the Ukrainian language documents in the 18th century in documents from 1717-1732. According to one theory, it is thought that the term was borrowed into Russian where, in literary language, it first appeared a poem by V. Maikov "Elysei" in 1771. The instrument was developed from a 2-stringed chordophone originally used by Jews living in the Pale in Little Russia where it was known as a "balabaika."


The modern balalaika is found in the following sizes: piccolo (rare), prima, sekunda, alto, bass contrabass. The most common solo instrument is the prima, tuned E-E-A (the two lower strings being tuned to the same pitch). Sometimes the balalaika is tuned "guitar style" to G-B-D (mimicking the three highest strings of the Russian guitar), making it easier to play for Russian guitar players, although balalaika purists frown on this tuning. It can also be tuned to E-A-D, like its cousin, the domra, to make it easier for domra soloists to play the instrument, and still have a balalaika sound. The folk (pre-Andreev) tuning is D-F#-A, making it easier to play certain riffs.

Factory made six string prima-balalaikas with three sets of double courses are also common and popular, particularly in Ukraine. These instruments have three double courses similar to the stringing of the mandolin and use a "guitar" tuning. Four string alto balalaikas are also encountered and are used in the orchestra of the Piatnistky Folk Choir.

The piccolo, prima, and secunda balalaikas were originally strung with gut with the thinnest melody string wire string made of stainless steel. Today, nylon strings are usually used in place of gut.


An important part of balalaika technique is the use of the left thumb to fret notes on the lower string, particularly on the prima, where it is used to form chords. The side of the index finger of the right hand is used to sound notes on the prima, while a plectrum is used on the larger sizes. One can play the prima with a plectrum, but it is considered rather heterodox to do so.

Due to the gigantic size of the contrabass's strings, it is not uncommon for the plectrum to be made of a leather shoe or boot heel. The bass and contrabass balalaika rest on the ground on a wooden or metal pin drilled into one of its corners.

The pre-Andreyev period

Early representations of the balalaika show it with anywhere from two to six strings, which resembles certain Central Asian instruments. Similarly, frets on earlier balalaikas were made of animal gut and tied to the neck so that they could be moved around by the player at will (as is the case with the modern saz, which allows for the microtonal playing distinctive to Turkish and Central Asian music).

The term first appeared in the Ukrainian documents in the 18th century in documents from 1717-1732. It is thought that the term was borrowed into Russian where it first appeared a poem by V. Maikov "Elysei" in 1771. In the 19th century the balalaika evolved into a triangular instrument with a neck substantially shorter than its Asian counterparts. It was popular as a village instrument for centuries, particularly with the skomorokhs, sort of free-lance musical jesters whose tunes ridiculed the Tsar, the Russian Orthodox Church, and Russian society in general.

A popular notion is that the three sides and the strings of the balalaika are supposed to represent the Holy Trinity. This idea, while whimsical, is quite difficult to reconcile when one is confronted with the fact that at various times in Russian history, the playing of the balalaika was banned because of its use by the skomorokhi, who were generally highly irritating to both Church and State. Musical instruments are not allowed in Russian Orthodox liturgy. A likelier reason for the triangular shape is given by the writer and historian Nikolai Gogol in his unfinished novel Dead Souls. He states that a balalaika was made by peasants out of a pumpkin. If you quarter a pumpkin, you are left with a balalaika shape. Another theory is: Before Tsar Peter I, instruments were not allowed in Russia. When Peter allowed them, only the boat builders knew how to work with wood. The balalaika looks a little like the front of a boat, if held horizontally. Another theory comes from a Russian tale: during the Mongol invasion of Rus, a Russian man from Nizhny Novgorod was captured by Mongols, but the Mongol Khan liked him because of his musical talent, released him and gave him a guitar. When the Russian man returned home, he took three of the strings out of the guitar, so that he would be able to repair his guitar if he breaks one of the strings, and that way he was left with a three-string guitar.

The Andreyev Period

In the 1880s Vassily Vassilievich Andreyev developed a standardized balalaika made with the assistance of violin maker V. Ivanov. A few years later St. Petersburg craftsman Paserbsky made a balalika with a chromatic set of frets and also a number of balalaikas in orchestral sizes with the same tunings found in modern instruments. Andreyev arranged many traditional Russian folk songs and melodies for the orchestra and also composed many tunes of his own.

The Balalaika Outside of Russia

Interest in Russian folk instruments has grown outside of Russia. Orchestras of Russian folk instruments exist in many countries of western Europe, Scandinavia, USA, Canada, Australia and Japan. Some of the groups include ethnic Russians, however in recent times the growth in interest in the Balalaika by non-ethnic Russians has been considerable.

Interests in the balalaika first started after Andreyev's tour of North America in the early 20th century. A number of Andreyev's students also toured the west in 1909-12. In 1957 the Scandinavian Balalaika Association was formed. In 1977 a similar organization was formed in the USA. Oleg Bernov of the Russian-American rock band the Red Elvises plays a red electrified contrabass balalaika during the band's North American tours. Australian band, Vulgargrad, fronted by actor jacek koman, which plays songs of the Russian criminal underground, uses a contrabass balalaika. Norwegian all-girl pop band Katzenjammer uses two conrabass balalaikas, both of which have cat faces painted on the front. They are named BØrge and AkerØ.

Balalaika Orchestra

The end result of Andreyev's labours was the development of a strong orchestral tradition in Tsarist Russia, and, later, the Soviet Union. The balalaika orchestra in its full form-balalaikas, domras, gusli, bayan, kugiklas, Vladimir Shepherd's Horns, garmoshkas and several types of percussion instruments -- has a distinctive sound: strangely familiar to the ear, yet decidedly not entirely Western.

Russian folk music had its roots in the village. With the establishment of the Soviet system Proletarian culture - the culture of the working classes - was supported by the Soviet establishment. Folk music and folk musical instruments was considered the music of the working classes and as a result it was heavily supported by the Soviet establishment. Not surprisingly, the concept of the balalaika orchestra was adopted wholeheartedly by the Soviet government as something distinctively proletarian (that is, from the working classes). Enormous amounts of energy and time were devoted by the Soviet government to foster conservatory study of the balalaika, from which highly skilled ensemble groups such as the Osipov State Balalaika Orchestra emerged. Balalaika virtuosi such as Boris Feoktistov and Pavel Necheporenko became stars both inside and outside the Soviet Union. The world-famous Red Army Choir used a normal orchestra, except that the violins, violas and violoncellos were replaced with orchestral balalaikas and domras.

Use of the Name

In 1989 Kramer Guitars released an "Electric Balalaika:" the Kramer Gorky Park. This was just before the fall of the Berlin wall and the Soviet Union. Actually was just an electric guitar with a triangular shape based on the original instrument. The MiG-21 is nicknamed Balalaika because of the shape of its wings.

For More Information:

Russian Folk Dancing