1964 Russian Contrabass Balalaika

A few months ago, my buddy Phil sent a picture of this thing in his living room. He said something to the effect of, "hey Jake, look what I got for you!" Yeah, of course he knew I'd want this and he brought it up last week and left with some greenbacks and a Univox amp-head in trade. I still think I got the better deal: I love crazy basses!

This is officially a contrabass balalaika. There are a number of balalaika sizes (just like in the mandolin family) and a "bass balalaika" plays the same notes but is quite a bit smaller. The contra part of its title is thus important if you're telling someone what you've been playing. It has a maker's name (illegible) and a 1964 date in the soundhole.

I always daydreamed about these in the back of my mind when I was working on banjo-bass and mando-bass projects, but to come into possession of one is pretty awesome as they're scarce over here. It does exactly what you think it does and more: it's more portable, lighter, and easier to play than a double bass and it's louder and punchier than your average upright, too. I fit this in the back of our Volvo wagon without having to put the back seats down. That's a win for me: two kids, my lady, and a big balalaika!

Its fretted, piano-wire setup means it doesn't have that same double-bass bloom and mwah with the almost-subsonic fatty character, but the almost "P-Bass" kerrangy attack of this monster more than makes up for the difference. I did some background music for a theater production last week with it and I only needed to pick this thing "half-strength" to fill a big auditorium with sound. There's no way you're going to not hear this instrument.

At any rate, it arrived with some "customizations" and "fun old repairs." The worst of it are a number of sort-of repaired cracks on the back and top and the absolute worst is the terrible patch job on the treble side of the top near the bridge. Ew, right? After filling and gluing some back cracks, however, the body became stable. The "customization" comes into the picture in the form of a neck that was pulled out of its dovetail joint and then modified to serve as a bolt-on neck. I gather this was to make it easy to break-down for travel.

Work included: a neck reset (made easy via the bolt-on conversion plus a shim), a fret level/dress, install of a new taller bridge saddle (bone), general cleaning, and a setup. Action height is 1/8" at the 12th fret and the neck is straight. Any lower on the action and those strings zip all over the frets, but it's still comfortable to play as the crazy-long scale length and string wire gives it some flex.

Scale length: 44 3/4" (longer than your average 3/4 upright bass)
Nut width: 1 5/8"
String spacing at nut: 1 1/4"
String spacing at bridge: 1 11/16"
Body length: 31"
Body width: 42"
Body depth: 13"
Top wood: solid spruce
Back/sides wood: solid maple
Neck wood: unknown, maple-like?
Bracing type: ladder
Fretboard: unknown
Bridge: replacement tropical hardwood, bone saddle
Neck feel: deep U+soft V shape, flat board

Condition notes: a plethora of scratches, scrapes, scuffs, dings, and many old cruddy crack repairs in the past. The neck is converted to bolt-on and the bridge is unoriginal (but a nice replacement). The tuners and tuner plate are original but the mounting screws are not.

How do you like that zero fret?

See the "endpin" on the treble-corner of the top? That extends about 18" or so and makes a perfect standing-aid for the instrument while playing standing-up. One can leave it all the way in for sitting-down.


Seonachan said…
I had an idea once of opening a store that specialized in small, portable instruments (ukes, travel guitars, etc.) but with a contrabass balalaika parked in the corner.
Rob Gardner said…
The arrival of this astonishing instrument just emphasizes the bizarre instrument wonderland you live in, with every arrival of the UPS truck another pair of aces. The photo of you playing this looks like a Photoshop joke, except that is real. Somewhere in Russia is a band without a bass...
Ivan said…
Wow!!!! Can you share the backstory of its acquisition (his) ?
Jake Wildwood said…
Phil? You reading?

I think it was in storage somewhere and he found it on FB Marketplace down near NYC.
Phillips said…
Yes Jake is be very happy to tell the story.i saw this beauty on marketplace and immediately knew I had to secure for my friend who LOVES funky cool old stuff and I said to myself it don't get more funnier than this,so the guy who was selling this was helping out a friend who's father owned a big warehouse in NJ but wanted to trade for a black harmony cutaway archtop plus some cash 😉😉Jake..
So I knew I didn't have time to lose, I gathered up some cash and the harmony and rushed to see this bometh, not fully realizing how huge it was going there in my wife's Kia..lol..it was for real.
I squared the deal somehow stuffed this in the Kia.and the rest is history..im so glad I was able to get this to my good friend Jake who helped me with so many things that this way a SMALL token of my appreciation...wink wink..$250 dollars...haha got you Jake..
Jake Wildwood said…
Have you tried out the Univox head on your cab yet?!?! Also: swapped the Mullards out for something else? ;)
Phillips said…
Hey Jake I did and was a little scratchy poppy occasionally..hmmm
Otherwise very nice.i like...may need a once going over..
Jake Wildwood said…
Yeah, that was my problem with swapping tubes. I put the Mullards back because they were the only ones that it didn't scratch/pop on. It's possible the power tubes need swapping, too. Especially position 3 and NEEDED the Mullards in it. I tried all the other 12AX7s I had and they sounded junky in that pos.
Phillips said…
Got ya Jake.position 3 you mean channel 3...its all good I love it
Vic said…
Jake, I've got an identical behemoth--fyi, they were made by the comrades at the Lunacharsky factory in the former Leningrad. I wanted an acoustic bass, and soon learned that the guitars are inaudible unamplified. I could have gone with an upright, but frets greatly diminished the learning curve, and I couldn't resist the huge triangle aspect. And inaudible it ain't; it vibrates the walls. I looked a good long while before I found one; $350 on Ebay plus shipping from Siberia to Alaska. I just noodle around on it; it needs work. The action is too high, and the tuners were replaced with really crappy (as in typical of an old low end Harmony or Kay) guitar tuners, which have amazingly held on, but barely. I searched for years for new tuners and ended up buying some for a bass guitar that would need modification, but just recently I found the proper ones on Ebay and bought a set. The top on mine is intact, but has opened up at the seams, and the back is painted a hideous dung brown and is pretty dinged up cosmetically. But the thing has great tone and I love showing it to people. The biggest issue is that the action is so high it throws the intonation way off, as well as making it difficult to play. I found the traditional leather picks online in a Russian store, and a friend of mine over there is going to score them for me since the cart has no foreign shipping option. I read someplace online that workers from the Lunacharsky factory went into business and continued selling instruments branded Doff; there's a new one for sale right now on Ebay, and you can see the close resemblance: https://www.ebay.com/itm/New-Balalaika-Contrabass-Master-Doff-BCM/303138151373 . Would these things require a specialist, or could a competent guitar luthier be expected to set one right?