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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



a Russian stringed instrument played by plucking. There are two varieties. The first has a wing-shaped (triangular in later models) form and five to 14 strings tuned to the steps of the diatonic scale; the second is helmet-shaped with ten to 30 strings tuned the same way. The wing-shaped (or “ringing”) gusli is usually played by striking all the strings and muffling the unnecessary sounds with the fingers of the left hand; sound on the helmet-shaped (or psaltery-shaped) gusli is produced by plucking the strings with both hands. The gusli was used by singers to accompany themselves, for playing folk songs and dances, and in solo performances and instrumental ensembles. It was one of the most popular instruments in the everyday life of the nation and the performances of the skomorokhi (itinerant performers).

The earliest evidence of the existence of the gusli dates back to the sixth century. The wing-shaped variety was widespread in the northwest regions of Russia that border the Baltic countries, Karelia, and Finland; a kindred instrument, known by national designations, still exists in these countries (Estonian kannel’, Latvian kokle, Lithuanian kankles, and Karelian and Finnish kantele). The helmet-shaped gusli fell out of use among Russians; it is found today only among the peoples of the Volga Region.

In the late 16th and early 17th centuries a third variety of the instrument appeared: the rectangular (or table) gusli. It has an oblong body with 50–60 stretched strings, which originally had been tuned diatonically, but are now tuned chromatically. The instrument is played by plucking the strings with the fingers of both hands. It was used in urban areas and on the estates of the nobility. Adaptations of folk songs and dances, instrumental pieces, and excerpts from operas were played on it.

In the first decade of the 20th century. O. U. Smolenskii and N. I. Privalov perfected the wing-shaped gusli and created the gusli family—the piccolo, soprano, alto, and bass gusli. These instruments are still used in modern gusli ensembles. In 1914, N. P. Fomin created the keyboard gusli, based on the rectangular gusli; it is used (occasionally paired with the standard varieties) in orchestras of Russian folk instruments.

The singer M. K. Severskii (1882–1954) appeared regularly on the concert stage and radio, accompanying himself on the gusli in performances of Russian folk songs and byliny (folk epics).


Famintsyn. A. S. Gusli: Russkii narodnyi muzykal’nyi instrument. St. Petersburg. 1890.
Sokolov, F. V. Gusli zvonchatye. Moscow, 1959.
Tikhomirov. D. P. Istoriia guslei: Ocherki. Tartu, 1962.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.