The Orchestra is made up of two groups of authentic Russian stringed instruments: balalaikas and domras. Most of them have three strings (domras sometimes have 4) but are tuned differently. Domras are oval shape instruments and come in 4 sizes: piccolo, prima, alto, and bass; balalaikas are triangular shape instruments and come in 5 sizes: prima, secunda, alto, bass, and contrabass. Most are played with plectrums. The Orchestra also uses accordions, bayans (button accordions), as well as various woodwind and percussion instruments.
The Balalaika probably has its origins in the Oriental dombra, a two-stringed, oval-faced instrument brought to Russia by the Mongols in the 14th Century. Over the centuries, the design of the instrument evolved to a triangular shape, probably to simplify its construction. For centuries the balalaika was an instrument of the peasant class, and was also used by minstrels and court musicians to accompany singing. Two-, three-, four- and six-stringed versions appear in various writings. Frets were originally made of animal gut, tied around the neck, and tuning was at the discretion of the player.
At various times during its history the playing of the balalaika was banned by both the Orthodox Church and the state, for as often as not the irreverent street musicians, or "skomorokhi" (скоморохи), in their ballads poked fun at both of these institutions.
In the late 1800s, a Russian nobleman and musician named Vasilii Vasilievich Andreev (Василий Васильевич Андреев), so the story goes, heard one of the peasants on his estate playing the balalaika and was so taken with the beauty of the sound it produced that he undertook to have a set of balalaika instruments made by a qualified luthier so that they could be played on the concert stage. At first unsuccessful in persuading any of the local violin makers to undertake so plebian a task, he ultimately prevailed and performed a public concert in 1886. So positive was the response to his early efforts that he was able to form a chamber ensemble which presented its first public concert in the Spring of 1888, to great critical acclaim.
Andreev and his luthiers standardized the sizes and tunings of the family of instruments produced for his use, and used fixed metal frets in place of the tradtional movable ones. The instuments produced included the prima, sekunda, alto, bass and contrabass -- providing a full spectrum of sound from soprano to low bass in a manner similar to the viol family of the symphony orchestra.
Andreev's Society of Balalaika Players gained favor with concertgoers and with the Court, and soon his growing ensemble was renamed The Great Russian Imperial Balalaika Orchestra. Continuing to experiment with the possibilities he saw in other Russian folk instruments, Andreev added the important domra family of instruments (small domra, alto, tenor and bass) to his orchestra, along with the gusli, a table autoharp of the psaltery family.
The Orchestra's overseas tours, including one triumphal tour to America in the Fall of 1911, led to the formation of many ensembles and orchestras outside Russia as hobbyists and professionals alike indulged their fascination with this unique art form. Later, as war overtook the Russian people, thousands fled the country, many taking their instruments with them and forming still other groups in their new communities. Capitalizing on this widespread infatuation, the music publishing-houses in Leipzig, Paris, London and New York brought hundreds of songs to market in the form of sheet music. Some of this "Russian folk music" had legitimate roots in old songs; much more was simply composed in Russian or gypsy style and became a part of cabaret repertoire which endures to this day.
Over the years, and particularly during the Soviet period, non-folk instruments such as the flute and oboe came into use in the balalaika orchestras, along with the bayan, the traditional Russian accordion, with rows of buttons under the right hand rather than the Western-style piano keyboard.