The Balalaika most likely evolved from the Oriental dombra. The dombra, which is still played in present-day Kazakhstan, has an oval shaped soundboard and two-strings. Knowledge and use of the dombra, was most likely spread to Russia by Mongol trade and conquest. After the dombra’s introduced to Russia in the 14th century it underwent structural changes.
With its new form, the Balalaika was embraced by Russia and took its place in Russian folklore. It is said that the Balalaika embodies the Russian people’s character, with its ability to switch from happiness to sadness with ease. Originally it was a folk and peasant instrument. It was common for the peasant ballads, composed for the Balalaika, to irreverently poked fun at the authority of the times. For this reason there were times when the Balalaika was banned by both the Orthodox Church and the State. The instrument enjoyed its greatest folk popularity in the early 18th century.
In the later 19th century the instrument underwent a number of changes, including the adoption the classic triangular shape. Reportedly, in the late 19th century, the Russian nobleman Vassily Vassilievich Andreyev, was responsible for the transition of the Balalaika from folk instrument to concert stage performances. Andeyev’s chamber ensemble’s first public concert in 1888 was a great success. It was this ensemble that was renamed The Great Russian Imperial Balalaika Orchestra. As this orchestra toured the Balalaika was introduced beyond Russia’s borders, even to The US. The Instrument was also carried by the common people when they fled Russia at times of war.
The Balalaika is a chordophone. The most striking structural component of the Balalaika is the triangular body. The Neck is narrow and terminates in a peg box that is at an acute angle to the neck. It has three strings and metal frets. Balalaikas come in number of sizes. The Piccolo Balalaika is the smallest and is rarely seen. The most common size is the Prima. It is approximately two and one-half feet in length. The next two larger sizes are the Second, and Alto Balalaikas. The Oriental Dombra is still used for the Bass-Baritone range. There is a larger Bass and the very large Contrabass Balalaikas.
Before tuning, the proper bridge position must be located. First find the nut. The nut is the ivory-toned bar at the joint between the neck and the peg box. Measure the distance from the nut to the 12th fret. Repeat this distance from the 12th fret to the bridge location. The nut and the bridge should be equal distance from the 12th fret. Position the bridge at a right angle to the strings.
The Balalaika strings are tuned above middle C to: A, E, E (1st-3rd). The 1st string is the thinnest, and lays over more frets that the 2nd & 3rd strings. Use a piano or electronic tuner as a reference for tuning. To play, the left hand notes the strings while the index finger of the right hand strums high on the soundboard near the neck. The dark rosewood on the soundboard is decorative but also protects the soundboard from the strumming.
There are similarities and differences between the style of playing a balalaika and a guitar. They are similar in the way they are held when played. You may be most comfortable playing the balalaika while seated in a chair. Hold the neck between the thumb and index finger of your left hand. Tuck the body of the balalaika under your right arm and hold it close to your chest. The corner of the instrument should rest between your knees. This is a very similar position to playing the guitar. Unlike playing the guitar you do not strum the balalaika over the center of the soundboard. The soundboard of the balalaika is a relatively soft un-finished wood. Strumming over the center of the soundboard would disfigure the soundboard. The balalaika is strummed high on the soundboard near the neck. Additionally, when you strum the balalaika the motion is from the elbow. The forearm wrist and hand are relaxed, and you strum with the edge of the thumb or tip of the index finger, not the fingernail. The finger techniques of the left hand more closely resemble the style used to play the violin.
An instructional book, the Best Balalaika Method-Yet, is available separately. The book provides music fundamentals, playing techniques, terms, American and Russian melodies and Classical Themes.