Russian Folk Instruments

 

The folk instruments unique to Russia and Eastern Europe include the balalaika, domra, bayan, gusli, and traditional wind & percussion instruments.

 


Balalaika (Балалайка)

The balalaika (балалайка) is the most well-known Russian string instrument with its characteristic triangular shape. It has a wooden hollow body, a fretted neck and three strings. Two strings are usually tuned to the same note and it is tuned in fourths. Some are played with fingers, while others are played with picks. Balalaikas can play melody, chords, or accompaniment and come in a range of sizes from the highest-pitched prima balalaika to the lowest-pitched contrabass balalaika.

Prima Balalaika

  • Smallest, high-pitched, most common
  • Played with fingers
  • Plays melody / lead notes

 

Secunda & Alto Balalaika

  • Medium-sized, mid-range pitch
  • Uses fingers or pick
  • Plays accompaniment parts

Bass Balalaika

  • Larger, deep pitch
  • Played sitting
  • Played with leather pick

Contrabass Balalaika

  • Largest, deepest pitch
  • Played standing
  • Played with leather pick


Domra (Домра)

The domra (домра) is the lesser-known (but equally-loved!) Russian string instrument with a distinctive round shape. It also has a wooden hollow body, a fretted neck and 3 (Russian version) or 4 (Ukrainian version) strings that are tuned in fourths or fifths, respectively. Domras are similar to mandolins and are all played with picks. Domras mostly play melody, but also can play harmony and accompaniment. Domras come in a range of sizes from the highest-pitched prima domra to the lowest-pitched contrabass domra.

Prima Domra

  • Small, high-pitched, most common
  • Similar to violin in an orchestra
  • Plays melody notes

 

Alto & Tenor Domra

  • Medium-sized, mid-range pitch
  • Similar to viola in an orchestra
  • Plays harmony parts

Bass Balalaika

  • Larger, deeper pitch
  • Similar to cello in an orchestra

Contrabass Balalaika

  • Largest
  • Played sitting
  • Exceptionally rare


Bayan & Gusliаян & Гусли)

The bayan (баян) is a chromatic button accordion unique to Russia. Although it is similar to an accordion, the piano keys are replaced by buttons and the tone is quite different, with a fuller bass sound and a larger overall range. Gusli (гусли) most closely resembles a table version of the auto harp. It is played with a pick and uses a set of piano keys to form chords.

Bayan

  • Reed instrument similar to accordion
  • Buttons, not piano keys

 

Gusli

  • Table-top auto harp
  • Played sitting with a pick
  • Part of the zither family


Traditional Wind & Percussion

The Slavic countries have a wide breadth of traditional wind and percussion instruments. Wind instruments include the folk clarinet called zhaleika (жалейка), bagpipes known as volynka (волынка), and folk trumpets called rozhok (рожок). Percussion instruments include the treshchotka (трещотка), wooden spoons (lozhki / ложки), buben (бубен) tambourines, and many others.

Zhaleika (жалейка)

  • Folk clarinet / hornpipe
  • Single reed with wooden pipe and finger holes
  • Piercing kazoo sound

 

Treshchotka (трещотка)

  • Percussion “clapper”
  • Small boards on a string that hit each other
  • Held together like a fan