Eastern European Folk Instruments

 

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

 


Balalaika

The balalaika is the most well-known string instrument of the region, 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

The domra is the lesser-known (but equally-loved!) 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 & Gusli

The bayan is a chromatic button accordion unique to the Slavic countries. 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 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, bagpipes known as volynka, and folk trumpets called rozhok. Percussion instruments include the treshchotka, wooden spoons (lozhki), buben, tambourines, and many others.

Zhaleika

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

 

Treshchotka

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