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I have noticed that many players construct chords on the balalaika using the thumb, however the neck is quite narrow and even a small hand can manage to extend fingers across the fret board. As a new player, should I aim to construct chords with the thumb to 'future-proof' my playing for some really radical stuff I cannot yet imagine, or can I get away with a fingers only approach as I have learned for uke/guitar? ... or is it simply impractical and rude to violate the traditional stylings of any instrument?

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You were absolutely correct in noticing that the thumb is used in fingering for playing the balalaika. Once you get over the initial hesitation in using your thumb, you will realize that it is a huge advantage for playing chords and solo passages. The thumb is typically used for the 2nd and 3rd (E) strings and the other fingers are used to play on the 1st (A) string. In printed music, you will often see a "T" or Russian "б" (big finger) above the note indicating that you should press down on the fret with your thumb. If you see it below the note, it means you should pluck the string with the thumb of your other hand. I don't think anyone will be offended if you don't use your thumb but they will certainly think you don't know what you are doing. Your attitude should not be that you are playing with your thumb in order to fit into some dogmatic tradition but that you are using your thumb to a great advantage over other instruments. On a virtuoso level, players absolutely shred the instrument in a very impressive manner while using thumb pizzicato. You will never develop very far as a balalaika player unless you can get used to playing with your thumb.

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