How to play like Django Reinhardt

In this series, Christian Miller presents some techniques and licks from iconic Jazz guitarists.

Introduction

I always think of Django as the archetypal guitar hero – decades before rock’n’roll! His life, marked by a free spirit and incredibly virtuosic, infectious, driving, old-timey but often startlingly modern music made him a key inspiration for guitarists as diverse as Jimmy Page, George Harrison and Hank Marvin.

In jazz his playing and compositions inspired everyone from Joe Pass to the Modern Jazz Quartet. However, his lasting cultural legacy can be most keenly be felt in the Sinti and Manouche communities of France and the Low Countries, where ‘gypsy jazz’ has become a form of modern folk music.

Django’s large body of recordings remain keenly studied and appreciated by new generations of jazz guitarists. He has also become a popular culture icon, often referenced in films such as Chocolat and Sweet and Lowdown, something hard to imagine with any other jazz player.

Biography

Jazz guitar

“Django made me very angry. Django would not be there--we could not find him anywhere. He drank every day. He came [to performances] with no guitar. I gave Django my money. I hated him many times. Ooh ... but when he played, I loved Django! Everyone loved Django.” Stephane Grappelli

Born into the Manouche Romani community near the border of France and Belgium in 1910, Jean Reinhardt would be known in life by his nickname ‘Django.’ His immediate family all played music, and aside from the traditional music he played in the encampments, he started to perform Bal Musette and other popular French styles in Paris, starting on six string banjo, but later moving to guitar.

In 1928, near disaster struck when a candle set fire to the highly flammable celluloid that his wife used to make artificial flowers. Expected by Doctors never to play again due to the severe burning of his left hand, Django confounded all predictions by developing a new two fingered melodic technique superior to his earlier playing.

His first contact with jazz came at around the same time. On hearing Louis Armstrong, Django exclaimed ‘my brother’ and before long was improvising on the popular Tin Pan Alley songs of the era with his group ‘the Hot Club of France’, as well as his own, highly creative compositions.

The group became highly celebrated throughout Europe, and the combination of Stephane Grappelli’s hot jazz violin and Django’s virtuosic guitar style became one of the most legendary partnerships in the music.

The war saw Grappelli escape to Britain while Django, at great personal risk, remain in occupied Paris. Despite the threat to his life posed by Nazi rule due to his ethnicity, Django was somehow able to remain in Paris until the end of the war, perhaps protected by his fame as a musician which was second only to the likes of Edith Piaf. His tune ‘Nuages’ became an unofficial anthem of liberation.

The post-war years saw him embark with Duke Ellington on a disastrous tour of the US, where Django was not nearly so well known. However, it did expose the guitarist to the new jazz, bebop, and this became increasingly an influence in Django’s later, electric playing.

Django died in 1951. His influence on the guitar remains as strong as ever.

Technique

Anyone who aims to imitate Django must confront a technique that would be impressive for any guitarist, let alone one who played single note lines with only two fingers of the left hand.

The startling deftness with which snaps out violinistic arpeggios and pristine chromatic runs on an acoustic guitar remain humbling even in today’s hyper-technical guitar environment and can only have been astonishing at the time. Make no mistake – the examples I have curated on the Musicmuse website are hard, and most of these have even been slowed down from the original recordings.

Good luck!

Using only two fingers is a fun way to develop one’s knowledge of the neck. In my TAB I’ve aimed for fingerings that are executable that way, but it’s obviously very hard to know what fingerings the master actually used (there is one extant movie with audio available and students of Django’s music have pored over it in great detail)

No less important is Django’s right-hand technique. This picking style may have originated from banjo technique (Bango was Django’s first instrument), but it’s hard to say for sure.

In any case it’s become a touchstone for gypsy jazz players, allowing strong acoustic projection and precise articulation, especially when combined with a Selmer-Maccaferri style acoustic guitar.

To develop this technique takes a while (it took me around a year of focussed practice) but the basic rules are simple:

Grip the pick between forefinger side and thumb, slightly less tightly than a fist

Bend the right wrist at about 45 degrees

Pick near the bridge of the guitar

Allow the pick tip to point up slightly, so the whole pick is learning into the downstrokes.

Play each new string as a downward rest stroke – aim to play into the guitar and into the next string so after plucking the string the pick ends up caught on the next string. Getting this right is key to the technique.

Play only upstrokes when absolutely necessary and use a rotation of the wrist to bring the pick out of the plane of the strings.

Consecutive downstrokes across the strings can be made in the manner of a ‘rake’ or ‘sweep’ similar to ‘economy picking.

Here is an in-depth video on the technique so you can see it in action.

I’ve indicated the picking directions on the licks on the website. Here is an example arpeggio for you to get practicing with:

Wes Montgomery octave shapes

Improvisational approach

It is understood that Django had little or no formal knowledge of music, and certainly unable to read music. As a result talking about Django’s playing in theoretical terms seems a little odd, but hopefully justifiable in that these musical terms are simply names for music objects we can see and hear on the guitar.

Django’s melodic technique, in common with many classic jazz guitarists, is heavily oriented towards the chord tones, by which I mean quite simply the tones in the chords. A simple chord shape like Am at the 5th fret could be used as a source of melodies, and embellished with nearby notes a fret or two lower or higher (presumably by ear.)

Wes Montgomery octave shapes

If you look at the examples on the Musicmuse website, you will see many examples of this, simple triads turned into vibrant melodies with the addition of swinging rhythms, vibrato and trills. This kind of playing is very natural to the guitar and is a great way into playing changes for any aspiring jazz players.

However, Django was not simply limited to using the same chords as the original song. He would often play so called substitute chords – different chords that can stand in for the originals allowing more unexpected harmony. A well-known example is his use of for example, a Bb triad to stand in for E7 – the ‘tritone substitution.’

He often added extra notes to chords, such as 9ths and 6ths. Sometimes this substitute chord choices could emphasise the more colourful ‘jazz notes’ of the chords such as the 7th and 9th.

Sometimes these choices might simply ‘outside’ – to generate harmonic tension, artfully resolved such as in the case of these chromatic triads resolving to the key chord, Bb.

Wes Montgomery octave shapes

This only scratches the surface, but should give a basic handle on what Django is doing. Django loved all kinds of music, and it’s possible to hear at various points influences from Russian Gypsy music, Bal Musette, American bebop and Claude Debussy in his music. One can also hear Eastern sounding scales, Pentatonic, modes, octaves, open string licks and of course, blues influences in his playing.

Gear and Tone

Emerging in the decade before commonly available electric guitars, Django most often played Selmer-Maccaferri guitars, instruments designed to improve upon the acoustic capabilities of traditional flattop models to better work with the dance orchestras of the era.

These acoustic guitars feature 16” bodies, a longer scale length, a different design bridge featuring a floating bridge and a tailpiece and, uniquely for their era, 24 fret extensions and cutaways. There are two famous models – the large D hole ‘modele jazz’ favoured by rhythm players and the oval hole preferred by lead players. Django played both.

These guitars used specific Savarez ‘Argentine’ strings, with silver plated copper wrapped round core basses, and light steel top gauges – Django reportedly used a .10 set. These strings are both loud and supple to play. His acoustic sound was uniquely singing and nasal, cutting through the two rhythm guitarists and bass of the classic Hot Club de France line up.

Disliking the archtop guitars popular in the US at the time, Django instead amplified his Maccaferri in the late 40s using a removable Stimer pickup. In combination with the small tube amps manufactured by the company this gave him an exceptionally biting, slightly ‘broken up’ electric guitar sound that almost verges on rock and roll.

Time/Feel

The time feel of pre war jazz is markedly different from later styles. An important feature of Django’s music was at least one rhythm guitarist, often Django’s younger brother Joseph, playing a two-step polka style rhythm often referred to as ‘le pompe.’ This style of rhythm guitar is an artform in itself, and aside from Django’s music, a great many jazz records of the per war era featured an acoustic rhythm guitarist or banjoist playing in this style. The bass very often plays in two rather than walking like a modern jazz bass player. This all has the effect of more solidly anchoring the rhythm section in the basic pulse of the music, just right for dancing.

As a result, the rhythmic phrasing of the soloist is much more ‘on the beat’ than with later soloists after Parker, but there are some interesting exceptions. It’s very common to find groupings of three rhythmically displaced such as below.

Wes Montgomery octave shapes

In the examples on Musicmuse you can find other irregular groupings including 5’s. This often has a quirky, chaotic sound in Django’s music. His 1942 composition ‘Place de Broukere’ is one of the first examples of an irregular time signature in jazz.