AskDefine | Define balalaika

Dictionary Definition

balalaika n : a stringed instrument that has triangular body and three strings

User Contributed Dictionary




  1. A Russian musical instrument, similar to a guitar, with a triangular body.


Extensive Definition

The balalaika (, ) (also Balabaika, балаба́йка) - is a stringed instrument of Russian origin, with a characteristic triangular body and 3 strings (or sometimes 6, in 3 pairs).


The modern balalaika is found in the following sizes:
  • piccolo (rare)
  • prima
  • secunda
  • alto
  • bass
  • contrabass
  • sub-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.
Six string balalaikas are also in use. These have double courses (two strings for each one on a regular, three-stringed instrument), similar to the stringing of the mandolin, and are popular in Ukraine. Four string alto balalaikas are also to be found and are used in the orchestra of the Piatnistky Folk Choir.
The piccolo, prima, and secunda balalaikas used to be strung with gut strings on the lower pegs and a wire string on the top peg. 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 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).
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. The first written reference to a balalaika was on an arrest slip for two serfs in 1688, accused of being drunk and disorderly outside the Kremlin in Moscow, playing the balalaika.
A popular notion is that the three sides and 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 The Great, 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 3 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 3-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 th balalaika first started after Andryevs tour of North America in the early XXth 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.

Rise of the 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.
In addition to orchestra, a cabaret style of playing existed in Soviet times, and the balalaika was also played by some Russian Gypsies. The cabaret/gypsy tradition was brought over to the United States by Russian immigrants in the early 20th Century. One notable U.S. cabaret-style player was New York's Sasha Polinoff. In Paris a notable exponent was Mark De Louchek - a former concertmaster of Ivan Rebroff's orchestral entourage.

References in pop culture

The 1968 self-titled album by the Beatles, commonly referred to as the "White Album", contains the song Back in the USSR, which includes the following lyrics:
Also the Song Winds of Change from the band Scorpions has a reference to the instrument:
The tongue-in-cheek song gives mention to the instrument and undoubtedly showcased it to the world. (The line "Let me hear your balalaikas ringing out" was later used as the title of a sixth-season episode of Gilmore Girls.) spazticated gitar
In addition, some Russian Orthodox churches in larger U.S. cities sponsored smaller balalaika orchestras where village-style and Andreyev-style playing coexisted side by side.
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.



  • Blok, V. - Orkestr russkikh narodnykh instrumentov - Moscow, 1986
  • Imkhatsky, M. - V. V. Andreyev - Materialy i dokumenty - Moscow, 1986
  • Imkhatsky, M. - U istokov russkoj narodnoj orkestrovoj kultury - Moscow 1987
  • Imkhatsky, M. - Istoriya ispolnitelstva na russkikh narodnykh instrumentax - Moscow 2002
  • Peresada, A. - Balalaika - Moscow, 1990
  • Poponov, V. - Orkestr khora imeni Piatnitskogo - Moscow, 1979
  • Poponov, V. - Russkaya narodnaya instrumentalnaya muzyka - Moscow, 1984
  • Vetkov, K. - Russkie narodnye muzykalnye instrumenty - Muzyka, Leningrad, 1975

External links

balalaika in Czech: Balalajka
balalaika in Danish: Balalajka
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balalaika in Estonian: Balalaika
balalaika in Modern Greek (1453-): Μπαλαλάικα
balalaika in Spanish: Balalaica
balalaika in Persian: بالالایکا
balalaika in French: Balalaïka
balalaika in Croatian: Balalajka
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balalaika in Georgian: ბალალაიკა
balalaika in Lithuanian: Balalaika
balalaika in Hungarian: Balalajka
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balalaika in Japanese: バラライカ
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balalaika in Polish: Bałałajka
balalaika in Portuguese: Balalaica
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balalaika in Simple English: Balalaika
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balalaika in Serbian: Балалајка
balalaika in Finnish: Balalaikka
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balalaika in Ukrainian: Балалайка
balalaika in Walloon: Balalayca
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