What’s a Balalaika?

While many also call it a Russian 3-string guitar, a balalaika is a traditional Russian musical instrument. In terms of how one plays it, this is very similar to a banjo, except its wooden body is triangular and it usually has only three strings; 4 or 6-string versions are quite rare. Another difference is people play with their bare fingers, as opposed to using finger and thumb picks, or guitar picks. A popular folk musical instrument in villages, many cultural stories have animals that play the balalaika. It is a fun and easy string instrument to play.


Balalaikas come in 6 sizes. Soprano or prime balalaikas are approximately 60 to 70 centimetres long, while the contrabass balalaika is almost 2 metres long. Typically comprising 3, 6, or 9 sections, the necks of balalaikas are often beautifully ornate. Collectors may prefer handmade balalaikas, which have just as wide a distribution as factory-made instruments.


Balalaikas produce resonant soft and even tones and pair well with autoharps and zithers, other guitar-like string instruments and accordions. The different lengths produce different pitches, from soprano to bass. People usually play large stringed bass and contrabass with leather plectra, and have legs to rest the instrument on the floor. Other balalaikas have much thinner strings, and you pluck them with your fingers or a plectrum.

Playing Balalaikas

Although it is very similar to a guitar and you can tune them similarly, balalaika purists usually reject guitar tuning in favour of a more traditional, vintage folk sound. The side of the right index finger is for sounding notes on smaller balalaikas, and using the left thumb to fret the lower string is a common technique when playing this instrument, especially on the prima. This method forms chords.


At some point in a string instrument’s life, you will need replacement strings. Nylon strings are common, as are steel strings, but there are also durable titanium strings available. Pickups, bags and cases, tuning pegs, and plectra are other items that will enhance your balalaika playing.