1/22/2012

c.1915 American-made 6-String Balalaika





Update: After handling a Favilla-made balalaika, I have a feeling that this may have been a Favilla product as well.

Six-string balalaikas (balalaikas are a Russian folk instrument) are much less common than their 3-string counterparts, but an even rarer thing to come across is an early American-made balalaika. I've only seen a very few of these.

Hardware (cut down mandolin tuners and tailpiece) on this is obviously American-origin as are the general fittings and materials -- this has a maple back similar to American-made bowlback mandolin construction and the purfling around the top edge is similar to many Chicago-made instruments from the teens -- so my guess would be that this was a c.1900-1920 build, probably made by someone familiar with the mandolin-building industry in America at the time.


My work on this included a cleaning, fret dress, seam re-glues, hairline crack repair, new bone nut, and installation of this weird adjustable bridge (a parts-bin find that worked perfectly for this instrument, in the end).


Judging from the fretwear and original (damaged) nut on this instrument, it lived most of its life using steel strings on all 3 courses. The neck, though quite skinny and unreinforced, only had a little bit of warp to it, so I figured it was okay to use some really light gauges to string it up again (I think a typical six-string set is 2x12, 2x10, 2x8 in an EEA tuning comparable to the D&A strings in pitch of a mandolin.

I tried that tuning at first and then went a fair bit lower to where it's at now -- DAD tuning in exactly the same pitch as found on trichordio Greek bouzoukis (the 6 string variety) and same pitch as a mountain dulcimer tuned to DAD. Celtic musician Alec Finn is well known for using this tuning to back melody players in Celtic traditional music and it works quite well.


At any rate, with so many frets available (neck join is at the 16th and last fret) and coupled with a capo, this tuning makes a really useful accompaniment instrument for traditional songs if a modal sort of sound is desired. The standard balalaika tuning was perfectly fine but is limited to its own genre and the bigger, more mandola-sized body of the balalaika really likes the lowered pitch.


I had to flip this adjustable bridge topper over and modify it to get enough height for the strings. This needs about a 7/8" tall bridge. As a bonus, the adjustable feature of this bridge is really useful since the top of this instrument has zero bracing, so like a banjo head, in different weather it will either sag or get flatter, though tuned to pitch there's barely any sag at all -- a condition helped by the fact that the soundhole is so tiny.


Typical mandolin tailpiece.



These cut-down mando tuners work just fine.


Good strong neck join with lots of back angle.


...and a pretty maple back.



1 comment:

Anonymous said...

thanks I'm a bass player who grew up in a Russian community and love balaliakas..........I had no idea that any were ever made here ! good work and a great looking instrument Brandt