The Balalaika

by David Brown

The varied family of Central Asian lutes is a large one, and one of the most popular and best known is the balalaika, with its unique triangular body shape. Developed from unstandardized folk lutes by the nobleman Andreyev in the late 18th century into a whole family of instruments with standard tunings, the balalaika has become one of the most important plucked stringed instruments in Eastern Europe, and the quintessential lute in Russia and the Ukraine. A very intricate, virtuosic repertoire has elevated the balalaika to a level of a classical instrument, and is taught as such, with written music, transcriptions of other works, and its own special music composed for it.

The varied family of Central Asian lutes is a large one, and one of the most popular and best known is the balalaika, with its unique triangular body shape. Developed from unstandardized folk lutes by the nobleman Andreyev by the late 19th century into a whole family of instruments with standard tunings, the balalaika has become one of the most important plucked stringed instruments in Eastern Europe, and the quintessential lute in Russia and the Ukraine. A very intricate, virtuosic repertoire has elevated the balalaika to a level of a classical instrument, and is taught as such, with written music, transcriptions of other works, and its own special music composed for it.

The most common size is the prima balalaika, tuned EEA, played with the fingers with a wide variety of techniques. It is strung with a metal A and 2 nylon E's, and the concert model has a range of 2 and a half chromatic octaves. One feature is the offset 2nd string, closer to the 3rd string than the 1st, facilitating the use of the left hand thumb, a significant part of the playing technique.

The Second balalaika is a bit larger and is tuned AAD; the Alto larger yet and tuned an octave below the prima. Bass balalaikas are tuned EAD and Contrabass EAD an octave lower. These may be played with a leather pick.

Balalaikas are played solo or in ensembles, in particular the balalaika orchestra which in addition to all sizes of balalaika include the domra, a related round-bodied long neck lute tuned in 4ths and played with a pick, the bayan, Russian chromatic button accordion, tambourine, and sometimes various reedpipes and flutes.


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