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Django Reinhardt - Guide to the World's Best Guitarists

Updated on December 6, 2011

Guitar Legend Django Reinhardt

Guitars and gypsies go hand in hand... The original rock'n'roll drifter, he travelled around France with gypsies as a young man, learning to play guitar—as well as banjo—from them. Musicians as diverse as Willie Nelson and Tony Iommi have been influenced by him. But the most amazing thing about Django Reinhardt is that he did it all minus two fingers on the left hand—and it wasn't cause he was playing guitar left-handed, either.

Guitar Lemons To Lemonade

The accident happened when Reinhardt was 18 years old. A fire consumed the caravan he was sleeping in, and as a result the third and fourth fingers on his left hand were badly burned. Told he would never play guitar again and possibly never even walk, Django left the hospital before they could amputate his leg.

His brother, Joseph Reinhardt, gave him a new guitar, and the thing that nearly destroyed him turned out to have been the best thing that could have happened to him. Forced to relearn to play the guitar, Django arguably invented a whole new style of playing, using his injured two fingers only for playing chords, that is today known as "Gypsy Jazz."

Django Reinhardt

Set against the background of the Jazz Age in Paris of the 1920's, Django Reinhardt today is the source of a bit of a cult following.  Though few today had the chance to see or hear him play live, there have been many, many tributes to his unique style of playing. 

The most well-known group he played with was the "Quintette du Hot Club de France," a five-member band with Stephane Grappeli on violin, Joseph Reinhardt and Roger Chaput on guitar, and Louis Vola on bass.  However, over his career he played with many distinguished jazz names, among them Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, and Duke Ellington. 

The Finest Guitars Ever Made

Obviously, playing acoustic guitar in an era of no amplification meant you really had to be somethin' special for people to hear you over the band.  Django was one of the first to play a Selmer Modele Jazz guitar upon its arrival in France in 1935, and fell in love with the sound. 

In fact, the Selmer Maccaferri model was quite possibly the first guitar with a cutaway body, and these guitars are considered by many today to be the finest guitars ever made.  Many of his recordings were presumably made using the Selmer guitar with a magnetic contact pickup screwed onto the body.  The exact brand of the pickup is a matter of some debate, although it was likely either an American Rowe-DeArmond, a Swiss Bale, or an early French Stimer model pickup. 

"Late-model" Django would bring the addition of other guitars to the mix, among them several Gibson archtop L-5s.  However, Reinhardt was never as happy with them as he was with his trusty Selmer acoustic, and his tour to the U.S. in 1946 was something of a flop, partly because he was forced to use a new, amplified model guitar.  True Reinhardt fans know: the quintessential Django Reinhardt sound is achieved with the woody, as-little-as-possible-amplification sound of his earlier years. 

Django Reinhardt - Nuages

Django Reinhardt - Minor Swing

Django Reinhardt - Djangology

A Few Favorite Django Guitar Tunes

Many of Reinhardt's original compositions have become jazz standards today, meaning that anyone who's anyone that wants to play jazz had better get these chord progressions and licks under their belt.

"Nuages," the French word for "Clouds," has become something of a signature Django song, and showcases a little bit of his guitar genius with artificial and natural harmonics.

Another classic Django tune is "Minor Swing," a fast-paced shuffle with a solo that's chock full of string bends, hammer-ons, and pull-offs—standard fare for 60's rock, but a 30's era jazz player? Yup.

And there's plenty more where that came from, like the tribute to his record company Decca, immortalized forever in the madcap "Stomping at Decca."

Would you like some chromatic scales and flashy triplet passages? Help yourself to the highly acclaimed Django original, "Djangology," or the Quintette's version of "Limehouse Blues."

Finish it all of with the classic "Belleville," this time with Hubert Rostaing on clarinet, and you've got yourself a generous helping of Django, to go.

Django Reinhardt - Belleville

Georgia on My Mind - Django Reinhardt

Reinhardt even made up blazing solos to songs he didn't write:  his rendition of "Sweet Georgia Brown," originally written by Ben Bernie and Maceo Pinkard, he breaks out a solo featuring dissonant minor seconds, harmonic substitution, and the usual perfect phrasing at thirty-second-note pace. 

And for a little vocals with your guitar licks, the other Georgia—"Georgia On My Mind,"— features Freddy Taylor on the mike, as well as the Tin Pan Alley hit, "Nagasaki." 

Endorsement Deals…1929 Style

With the recent economic crisis causing people to make comparisons to the Great Depression, perhaps it's a good idea to look at some of the good things that came out of that era. Take Selmer Guitars, for instance. Made of laminated Indian rosewood with a walnut neck and ebony fingerboard, there were only a thousand of these ever made.

Today they are some of the most sought-after guitars on the market, with price tags well into the thousands of dollars. And guess who managed an endorsement deal with Selmer? That's right, decades before MTV, commercials, or even television, Django Reinhardt was signing his name to these unique guitars. Of course, you might say that the difference was that he gave away as many as he sold.

Sign of the times, my friend, a sign of the times…

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    • Wesman Todd Shaw profile image

      Wesman Todd Shaw 6 years ago from Kaufman, Texas

      Thanks for spreading appreciation of one of the world's original flatpickers - without him, it might have taken much longer for the guitar to step out of the shadows, and become something more than a rhythm instrument!

    • J  Rosewater profile image

      J Rosewater 8 years ago from Australia

      My Significant Other is a jazz afficionado, and we have many Django CDs. Some of his music harks back to that 'Paris in the Spring' time, but some is decades ahead of his time. A genius.