8/03/2016

1920s Favilla 6-String Balalaika





I'm a fan of balalaikas -- and especially American-made ones. This one has a Favilla label in the soundhole but when I hunted it down on eBay I knew exactly what it was (though the seller didn't) because I'd handled two others over the years -- one of which I put down as unmarked (but I should've shone a bright light in that soundhole).

These New York-made Favilla balalaikas are very interesting because they're built a lot like German-made balalaikas in that their construction follows bowlback mandolin design more closely. The backs are rounded and multi-multi-ribbed and all of the construction materials and details are very American in styling -- this one is spruce over mahogany with a tenor-banjo-esque 2-piece mahogany neck. Comparable Russian instruments from the time (and later) are generally a lot less finely-built.

As a 6-string instrument, there's no doubt that this was intended to be strung with very light steel, but I'm always suspect of the American-make necks which are super thin like the 3-string (gut or nylon-strung) variety and I was never quite happy with the less-rounded tone of the thin-gauge steel on these 6-stringers. So... I strung it with fluorocarbon (basically, nylon) strings and tuned it in a modal GDG tuning (same pitch as mandolin's GDA but altered). The neck is dead straight and the tone is fuller than if I'd strung it with steel (which tends to be jangly on balalaikas) and so it's a nice compromise -- it doesn't just sound like a weirdo mandolin.

The traditional modern tuning for a balalaika of this size (prima, or ~17" scale -- this is 17 1/8" in scale) is EEA around the same range, though the Es are tuned in unison. That tuning is primarily useful for ensemble work, however, rather than "folk" work. An older (and more logical to my playing) tuning was open D at DF#A and another variant is "Russian guitar" or open G at GBD. There's a domra folk tuning that adapts that instrument's EAD tuning, too, with the D a step below mandolin's high E. I mocked that fingering up for an hour this evening by tuning the low G in my modal GDG tuning up to A (4ths running ADG) and enjoyed the interesting guitar-ish 4ths chordal voicings afforded by tuning in that fashion.


Yes -- with all that blabbing aside, we can now appreciate how pretty this is. I love the (rosewood?) rosette and scratchplate inlay.

My work on this one included a fret level/dress, replacement bridge (banjo-style which is close to the original style), cleaning, and setup. It was structurally in great shape when it arrived -- no cracks and seams all in good order.


The headstock is simple and elegant and sports guitar-style tuners with celluloid buttons. The nut is ebony and all the fittings (save the bridge) are original. The headstock has a (mahogany?) veneer.


The fretboard is stained maple and the neck is nice and straight. I added side dots for ease-of-use.

Action is perfect at 1/16" at the 12th fret. I really do like the folksy feel and sound of the nylon/fluoro strings and as a bonus they make fingerpicking an easy possibility, too.


Note the pretty rosewood binding and simple wood purfling.


The tailpiece accepts loop-ends per normal mandolin-style steel stringing but I've managed to make it useful for the nylon/fluorocarbon by balling-up the ends and securing them at the "opening" for the strings to pass from the steel-string hooks. It works great!

There's foam muting material that I've added under the tailpiece "cover," too, to mute the string afterlength.



The mahogany back and sides are very attractive.




No comments: