The balalaika is a plucked and strummed bowl-lute chordophone of Russia. Traditionally played by peasant minstrels to accompany dance, in the late 19th century it was brought into the domain of urban artistic music making and has subsequently become a visual and sonic icon of Russian identity. Since the late 19th century it has been manufactured in a range of sizes (prime, second, alto, bass, and double bass--the instrument pictured here is a prime) mostly for homogeneous ensemble performance. A substantial solo literature exists for the instrument, including original and arranged works. Large balalaika orchestras were organized in Russia before the turn of the 20th century and occasionally toured abroad, an activity that eventually led to the founding of such groups outside of Russia. In the United States alone, for example, there are today active orchestras in a number of cities including Washington D.C., Atlanta, Tucson, and Los Angeles. During the Soviet Era, the balalaika orchestra concept was supported by the government because it was seen as having emerged from the proletariat and thus ideologically proper.
The shallow bowl resonator of the balalaika is made in three sections: an arched back section, a flat baseboard, and a flat soundboard. The fan-shaped, arched back section of thinly shaved maple has six triangular facets (see detail image). The top points of these facets come together around an interior wooden block used to join the resonator to the base of the neck section. The baseboard is a thin but solid piece of maple with one long straight side, which will connect at an acute angle to the bottom edge of the soundboard, and a broad, faceted arch that fits with the open ends of the arched back section. The resulting hollow body is covered with a flat, triangular-shaped soundboard made of several thin slats of straight-grained softwood (spruce or fir) glued together that, near its center, has a small circular soundhole. A thin inlay of dark-stained wood is glued to a section of the soundboard to serve as a pick guard. A pressure bridge, held in place by the downward force of the tensioned strings and with glue, is placed a few inches below the soundhole. The neck and pegblock are carved from a single piece or wood, the two sections divided by an inserted wooden nut (a raised ridge). The flat topside of the neck is laminated with ebony wood and serves as the instrument’s fingerboard, which has sixteen metal frets inserted into grooves cut laterally across it. Bone dots marking the second, fifth, seventh, tenth, and twelfth frets are inlayed into the fingerboard. Glue is used to join the foot of the neck to the upper resonator block. Three wire strings in single courses have nooses at their bottom end that are looped around individual tail buttons made of bone and anchored in the resonator baseboard. After bending over the bottom edge of the soundboard and passing over the bridge, the strings continue in a parallel plain just above the soundboard and the fretted fingerboard until they make contact with the nut. They are then wound around the up-pointing ends of the capstans of the three back-mounted metal machine heads with their laterally situated knobs of bone. All three strings have the same vibrating length of 18.7 inches as measured from the bridge to the nut.
Player - Instrument Interface and Sound Production
The balalaika can be played either by a seated of standing performer and is held horizontally with the soundboard facing outwards. The player both plucks the strings individually with a downward motion of the right hand thumb, and strums the strings with the right hand index finger, stopping the strings against the fretted fingerboard with the fingertips of the left hand. A pick can be but is not always used. The standard tuning for the prime balalaika is: E4 - E4 - A4 (interval pattern of unison - P4), with a range of E4 - C-sharp6. It is a chromatic instrument. The instrument has a modest dynamic range.
Origins/History/EvolutionThe balalaika is believed to have evolved amongst the Russian peasantry in the 18th century from another plucked lute, the central Asian dömbra. This early folk form of the balalaika had fewer frets than the instrument pictured here, and details of its construction varied greatly from instrument to instrument because instruments were often made by their owners from available materials. In the latter half of the 19th century the balalaika was brought into the urban, industrializing segment of Russian society. One V. V. Andreyev is credited with modernizing the instrument and creating balalaikas in a variety of sizes and registers. Manufacture of the balalaika was industrialized during this period, and more frets were added and placed on the fingerboard to produce the chromatic scale.
Kiszko, Martin. 1995. “The Balalaika - A Reappraisal,” The Galpin Society Journal 48: 130-155.
________. n.d. “Balalaika.” Grove Music Online, accessed October 10, 2014: http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/subscriber/article/grove/music/01834?q=balalaika&search=quick&pos=1&_start=1#firsthitn.a. 1984. "Balalaika [balalayka, balabayka]," NGDMI v.1: 113-114.