Learning to play the balalaika

When I was young,  I went to guitar lessons for a while. When I finally stopped, I didn’t know much more than when I’d started. The trouble was that the guitar teacher and I just detested each other from the beginning, and it never got better. For me, attending those classes was a weekly purgatory – and I don’t imagine they were much fun for the teacher either.

For years afterwards, I remained convinced that I had no musical talent whatsoever and, to be honest, it’s quite possible that this is a justified belief. Still, having taken it into my head that I want to learn the balalaika, I’m starting from absolute scratch, with no prior musical knowledge or skill.

I still haven’t made much progress, simply because of not knowing where or how to get started, and being without a teacher has made it even more frustrating. Unfortunately, I don’t have much time to practice, either. I know that others, inspired like me by Andrey Karimov or other Russian martial arts teachers are getting interested in learning as well, and it could be that you are also looking for ways to get started. So, I though I would share a few things that I had to dig around to learn.

Balalaikas come, like many instruments, in different levels of quality. At the bottom end are the cheapest, kit-made, varieties, often decoratively painted, which are aimed at tourists and intended to be hung on a wall as a decoration rather than actually played. At the high end, you have hand-made concert items made of expensive woods – such as the one owned by the teacher I had for a solitary class. It was so valuable he wouldn’t even put it down. In between… various levels of factory-made pieces.

As you can see from the main photo I now have two balalaikas, of the same design, bought from different stalls at the Udel’nya flea market here in St. Petersburg, for 1,500 roubles each. It’s a Soviet-era mass-market model, and you’ll see identical instruments being played in many YouTube videos. There seem to be a lot of these also available on eBay etc, at quite low prices. They’re pretty much identical, though the backs seem to be different colours – I’m not sure whether that’s just different storage, or different materials.

IMG_20150105_210218_0

Why two? This is one thing to consider if you’re trying to teach yourself off YouTube, as I have been. Modern balaikas have two vinyl strings and one steel string.

IMG_20150105_210135_0

 

On these older, Soviet, models, however, all three strings are steel. It makes a big difference to the sound.

IMG_20150105_210150_0

When I bought the first, I removed these steel strings, and restrung it with a modern set bought from a music shop on Nevskiy Prospekt, just around the corner from my apartment. I later realized that (as far as I can discover) you can’t buy sets of 3 steel strings any more, so the second balalaika was to ensure that I could experiment with the steel strings. As I say, there’s a big difference in the sound.

The second hurdle I had to overcome was the tuning. Wikipedia will tell you that the modern balalaika is tuned E-E-A; the two vinyl strings are both tuned to E, and the steel string to A. I therefore tuned my first Udel’nya balalaika in this way. It turned out that this worked for a couple of the video tutorials on YouTube – but not for others. Also, I couldn’t get this balalaika produce sounds like I heard in Andrey’s videos, even when I imitated the finger positions.

It turns out that Andrey, and others on YouTube, tune their balalaikas to an older, folk, system: D-F#-A. This is how I’ve tuned my second, steel-stringed, balalaika.

So, if you’re trying to teach yourself balalaika, remember these issues:

  • make sure your instrument is actually intended to be played;
  • decide whether you want all-steel or modern strings;
  • decide whether you want to tune E-E-A or D-F#-A.

Below are links to online resources, which I’ll add to as I find new material:

E-E-A online lessons:

D-F#-A online lessons:

This is the first of a series from Andrey Karimov:

I think this belongs in this tuning, but I’m not 100% sure; sometimes I think it’s a third tuning.

6 Comments

  1. Will this be your blog URL when you return to China? Also checkout the Red Elvises, kick ass rock n’ roll from Siberia, except they don’t have as many Russians as before. They feature the the three string base Russian instrument.

    Like

    1. Once (If!) I get back to China, I’ll resurrect the Jianghu blog over on burningpearl. There seems to be a Russian Systema group in Beijing, though, in which case this blog will also keep going.

      Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s