Gypsy jazz genius in 25 licks
One of the most extraordinary musicians of all time, he influenced many greats who came after him. Learn his stunning style through 25 licks.
Django Reinhardt is the complete guitarist’s guitarist. George Benson, Brian May, Jeff Beck, Hank Marvin, Peter Frampton, Les Paul, Yngwie Malmsteen, Allan Holdsworth, Chet Atkins and millions of guitarists worldwide, famous and not so famous, have been captivated by the self-taught gypsy genius who knew nothing of music theory and could barely read and write. What’s more, he only had two functioning fingers on his fretting hand!
I was around 14 years of age and was being told off by my dad yet again. “Turn that racket down, and anyway; that music’s terrible. You should listen to this guitarist. He’s by far the best around!” Certain that a recommendation from my dad was bound to be rubbish and that my pointy-headstocked-wielding, spandex-wearing, uber-shredding hero could not possibly be topped (it was the 80s, after all), I begrudgingly checked him out, mainly so that I could point out how unbelievably misguided and out of touch the old man was. Such is the impetuousness of youth.
How wrong could I be! Django’s playing had it all: technical dexterity beyond anything I’d ever heard before (or since for that matter), filled with sense of joy and playfulness. There was the feeling of no restrictions whatsoever, with such a complete expressive and dynamic delivery, and all executed with total ease. I literally couldn’t believe that the guitar could sound that beautiful, and when I then learnt that he was executing all of this with mostly two fretting fingers, I became a fan for life. So where did this musical genius come from?
Django was born in in 1910 in Liberchies, Belgium, into a family of Manouche gypsies. Prodigiously talented, by age 13 he was performing with the street entertainers of Paris but in 1928 he survived a fire that left him with a severely disfigured left hand. He only had full use of the first and second fingers, but with great determination he evolved a completely new method for fingering, using two fingers for single notes and making limited use of the crippled third and fourth fingers for playing certain chords.
Inspired by the radical new art form of jazz, and the trumpet style of Louis Armstrong in particular, Django was performing again and in 1934 he formed the Quintette du Hot Club de France with Stephane Grappelli. This was the first all-string jazz group, an unusual line-up of two rhythm guitars, violin, double bass and with Django on acoustic lead.
In 1946 he visited America as the guest of Duke Ellington, and on his return he switched to electric guitar and began incorporating the influence of ‘be-bop’ into his playing. Sadly he suffered a fatal stroke in 1953. But each year in June thousands of music fans visit the Jazz Manouche festival in Samois to celebrate the legacy of this gypsy jazz maestro.
I’ve presented 25 examples that work in a variety of harmonic settings, followed by a longer 12-bar study against a blues in G minor. This is literally the tip of the iceberg, as I could easily present another 25 new ideas each month for the next 10 years. The aim is encourage some research of your own, as this is where the real learning will begin, but for now grab your acoustic and dive in.
There’s no need to play the examples using Reinhardt’s fingerings (although it’s always fun discovering how they work). In a performance situation anything goes, so I’d advise that you play them whichever way works for you. I hope you enjoy play these ideas as much as I did putting this article together. So, à bientôt et bon chance!
DJANGO STRETCHED THE GUITAR IMAGINATION TO ITS LIMIT. HE WAS THE FASTEST, THE MOST CREATIVE, HE HAD GREAT RHYTHM, AND HE WAS A GOOD COMPOSER TOO GEORGE BENSON