Selmer and Maccaferri Guitars: The Instruments That Defined Jazz Manouche

Stevie Ray Vaughan's Texas–sized blues licks wouldn't sound the same without a Fender Stratocaster. Joe Perry, Slash, Ace Frehley and others would lack their signature crunch without a Gibson Les Paul in hand. Classic Byrds' recordings such as Turn! Turn! Turn! would be missing their trademark “jangle” without the aid of Roger McGuinn's trusty 12–string Rickenbacker.

The guitars used by legendary players – and the way in which they used them – often define the sound of genres. Artists co-opt an instrument, bend it to their will, and make the sound their own. But much of the original design intent behind early guitar models was driven by a simple necessity: to be heard while playing alongside other instruments.

Gibson's L5 archtop guitar was released in 1922 to help guitarists compete with trumpets, saxophones and instrumentation popular during the big band era. In the ongoing quest for volume, Charlie Christian, Eddie Durham and other jazz guitarists eventually gravitated toward the pickup-equipped Gibson ES–150, establishing the guitar as a lead instrument in the process.

Soon after the introduction of Gibson's L5 in the United States, French instrument manufacturer Henri Selmer Paris released a series of guitars in Europe in the early 1930s that took their own approach to cutting through the mix. With their unusually shaped soundholes, angular body design, and hybrid classical/archtop characteristics, they were unlike anything produced at the time.

It wasn't long before Django Reinhardt and his Quintette du Hot Club de France would forever link those models with the so-called gypsy jazz or jazz manouche style they pioneered.

Today, Selmer-style guitars are the de facto choice for players looking to become a student of Django's style, in the same way bluegrass flatpickers invariably gravitate towards Martin dreadnoughts for the sake of fidelity and authenticity. Here's a primer for those looking to take the plunge.

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Maccaferri's “Grande Bouche” Guitars: 1932 - 1934

Italian luthier Mario Maccaferri designed the first guitar models for Henri Selmer's manufacturing outfit in a partnership that would last a mere 18 months. Just as Lloyd Loar chased volume and projection with his Gibson L5 archtop design, Maccaferri faced the same task.

His original design was meant to accommodate a proprietary internal wooden resonator that he designed (a feature deleted over time), resulting in a large, D-shaped soundhole. Today, this design and its imitations are known as D-hole or "grande bouche" ("big mouth") models.

Modern Maccaferri-style Guitar by Dell'Arte

It featured a wide, squared-off lower bout with an arched European spruce top and a linear cutaway that was perfectly perpendicular with the neck. A floating bridge was flanked by “moustache” markers (to aid in bridge placement), with a unique trapeze-style tailpiece.

Its scale length was close to 25.5” (648 mm) – not unlike its American dreadnought cousin – but it featured a slotted headstock, a wider 1.85” (47 mm) nut, and a 12th-fret neck joint like a classical guitar. The neck profile was a thin D-shape. On some versions the fretboard extended past the body for the treble strings, taking a design cue from mandolins.

Over time, these D-hole Selmer-Maccaferri models would become the standard rhythm instrument in jazz manouche ensembles. While the "grande bouche" design projects more than your standard OM-style acoustic, the true realization of soloing volume would come after Maccaferri left Selmer in 1934.

Selmer's “Petite Bouche” Guitars: 1936 - 1952

By 1936, builders at Selmer had reworked Maccaferri's original design. They kept the general body shape, floating bridge/trapeze tailpiece, and classical-inspired headstock and nut width, but they changed the soundhole to a small oval, moved the neck joint to the 14th fret, and increased the scale length to 26.4" (670 mm). The complicated internal resonator was eliminated.

Selmer Modèle Jazz

This new design, officially marketed as the Modèle Jazz, came to be known as the “petite bouche” (“small mouth”) or oval-hole model. Django Reinhardt immediately embraced its soloing potential, cementing its legacy as a lead instrument in jazz manouche ensembles.

The tight projection of the smaller soundhole and the timbre of the longer scale length sit incredibly well in the mix alongside the genre's typical instrumentation: two rhythm guitarists (typically equipped with D–hole models), stand–up bass, and violin.

While Django would experiment with amplification later in his career, the bulk of his recorded work features him playing an oval-hole Selmer guitar. Today, jazz manouche players continue that tradition, though often with homage builds by boutique luthiers.

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Life After Selmer: Affordable Interpretations

Although Henri Selmer Paris still produces a staggering range of products, the doors closed on its guitar manufacturing operation in the early 1950s. Less than a thousand original Selmer guitars are known to exist today. Original specimens can fetch five figures on the open market all day.

But just as jazz manouche's slow–burning popularity picked up worldwide starting in the early 1980s, new manufacturers began to carry the torch for enthusiasts worldwide.

Gitane D-500

Paris Swing GG-39

Cigano GJ-15

For players looking for affordable entry points, there are a few established options.

Gitane offers a range of "working musician" guitars, from basic starters like the oval-hole DG-255 ($649 USD) and D-hole D–500 models, to signature models like the DG-300 John Jorgenson and DG-340 Stephane Wrembel, both which will run about $1,000 USD.

Paris Swing offers the GG–39 Oval Soundhole and GG–42 D-Hole, using components (such as a spruce top and Maccaferri–style tailpiece) that are similar to Selmer models at an affordable ($700 - $900 USD) price.

And for the student on a budget, Cigano offers made-in-China guitars with a shorter scale length in their GJ–15 and GJ-10 models ($399 USD).

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