The balalaika is the quintessential Russian folk musical instrument, easily identifiable by its hollow, triangular body. The soundboard (top of the instrument) is made of a soft wood, usually spruce or evergreen, while the resonator (back) is built from multiple – three to nine – wooden sections, usually maple.
Members of the balalaika family include the prima balalaika (the most common) as well as the piccolo, secunda, alto, bass and contrabass balalaikas. The prima, secunda and alto balalaikas are generally played by either strumming with the fingers, while the piccolo balalaika is usually played with a pick. As these smaller balalaikas create minimal sustain, they are often played with rapid strumming that sounds not unlike the tremolo technique used on a mandolin. The larger bass and contrabass balalaikas are supported by legs that extend from the instrument’s lowest corner and are generally played with a leather pick (plectrum).
Most balalaikas have three single strings along their fretted necks, although six-string versions with three courses of two strings each are not uncommon. On the prima balalaika, the two lower strings are tuned identically to the E above middle C, while the higher first string is tuned a fourth higher, in this case to A. The secunda is often the same instrument as the prima, but tuned to A3-A3-D4 rather than E4-E4-A4 as is the prima. A common alternate tuning for the prima is G3-B3-D4, which corresponds to the tuning of the highest three strings of the Russian guitar. The bass balalaika is tuned E2-A2-D3, with the contrabass an octave lower.
Today, balalaikas of all sizes are commonly strung with nylon strings, replacing the more traditional gut strings. On the prima balalaika pictured above, the two E strings are nylon while the higher A string is steel.
Playing the Prima Balalaika
The prima balalaika is generally played with the thumb and index finger of the right hand. The thumb strums while the index finger moves rapidly up and down, either on one or multiple strings, to create the tremolo effect. The left hand forms chords or frets individual notes. Fretting the lowest string with the thumb of the left hand to help create chords is a common technique on the prima, made possible by the instrument’s narrow neck.
The balalaika is believed to have evolved at the confluence of Russian and Asian cultures, likely influenced by the Kazakh dombra, the Mongolian topshur, and the Slavic domra.
By the mid 19th century, the balalaika had evolved into its characteristic triangular shape with a neck shorter than those on the above-named predecessors. In the 1880s, Russian violinist Vasily Vasilievich Andreyev and violin builder V. Ivanov teamed up in St. Petersburg to develop what became the standardized balalaika, which was further modified by the luthier F. S. Paserbsky, who created the 12-fret chromatic fretboard in 1886. Paserbsky was also largely responsible for the development of the above-named “family” of variably sized instruments with the tunings they currently use. Since travel and communication in rural Russia in those days were both notoriously difficult, local craftsmen had previously built balalaikas to their own individual specifications with little or no standardization.
Andreyev went a step further, composing original music for balalaika and arranging many Russian folk songs for balalaika orchestras, comprised of the various balalaika family instruments, along with domras and other instruments. This helped establish and solidify the balalaika’s place in traditional Russian folk music during the latter years of the Tsarist era, which ended in 1917. Under the Soviet government, balalaika orchestras were praised and promoted as a decidedly proletarian (“working class”) activity; considerable government resources were devoted towards the formal study of the balalaika.
Alexey Arkhipovsky; Sharmanka: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F6pPP2kfHzU
Balalaika Trio New York (featuring Elina Karokhina); Lara’s Theme (Somewhere My Love from Dr. Zhivago): https://youtube.com/watch?v=bWh3aAodUJk
Ensemble Barynya (featuring Lev Zabeginsky); Lara’s Theme: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DbucKclMjW8
Osipov Russian Folk Orchestra: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PFq-6A3lEsY
Classroom Connect, Balalaika and Domra: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VSLnyAgSXO8