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The balalaika (Russian: балала́йка, Russian pronunciation: [bɐlɐˈlajkɐ]) is a stringed instrument of Russian origin, with a characteristic triangular body and three strings.

The balalaika family of instruments includes, from the highest-pitched to the lowest, the prima balalaika, sekunda balalaika, alto balalaika, bass balalaika and contrabass balalaika. All have three-sided bodies, spruce or fir tops, backs made of 3-9 wooden sections, and usually three strings. The prima balalaika is played with the fingers, the sekunda and alto either with the fingers or a plectrum, depending on the music being played, and the basses and contrabasses (equipped with extension legs which rest on the floor) are played with leather plectrums.[1]



The earliest mention of the term balalaika dates back to a 1688 AD Russian document.[2] The term became widely used in Ukrainian language documents from 1717-1732. According to one theory, it is thought that the term was borrowed into Russian where, in literary language, it first appeared in a poem by V. Maikov "Elysei" in 1771.


The modern balalaika is found in the following sizes:

  • piccolo (rare)
  • prima
  • sekunda
  • alto
  • bass
  • contrabass

The most common solo instrument is the prima, which is 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. It can also be tuned to E-A-D, like its cousin, the domra, to make it easier for domra soloists to play the instrument, and still have a balalaika sound. The folk (pre-Andreev) tuning is D-F#-A, making it easier to play certain riffs.

Factory-made six-string prima balalaikas with three sets of double courses are also common and popular, particularly in Ukraine. These instruments have three double courses similar to the stringing of the mandolin and use a "guitar" tuning. Four string alto balalaikas are also encountered and are used in the orchestra of the Piatnistky Folk Choir.

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