Django Reinhardt's Lasting Impact on Guitarists

Just as visual art has its movements — Bauhaus, Dada, Art Nouveau, Art Deco, Cubism — the guitar has its own stylistic schools. Every player approaches the instrument slightly differently, but every so often there is a player or group of players who deviate far enough from precedent to create their own aesthetic.

When the invention of new technique for the sake of novelty is contrived, it’s obvious. At best, those players are regarded as eccentric outliers. At worst, their playing is dismissed as gimmicky and inauthentic.

But when the approach comes from the musical environment a player grew up in and the way they interpret those influences, it resonates. If it’s compelling and unique enough, imitation follows. An inflection point in the history of the instrument is born.

Django Reinhardt

Merle Travis and later Chet Atkins built a legion of acolytes around their alternating bass, thumb–picked style. Doc Watson and Clarence White paved the way for nearly all lead flatpickers out there. Charlie Christian showed us how the guitar could work as a lead in jazz. The electric blues — or electric guitar playing in general — was never the same after Hendrix.

Those players brought new techniques and vocabulary to the instrument, but it would be hard to make the argument that any of them single-handedly invented an entirely new type of folk music, with its own template of instrumentation and its own canon of songs.

Django Reinhardt did just that.

Some people call it gypsy jazz. Some prefer to call it jazz manouche. Stephane Wrembel, one of the leading contemporary players in the style, simply calls it “Django’s music.” Labels aside, everyone knows it when they hear it: the syncopated rhythm chops on acoustic guitar, the singable, swinging melodies, the fiery solo flourishes and fills.

Plenty has been written about the details of Reinhardt’s life, including the 1928 caravan fire that left his fretting-hand scarred, leaving only two independently articulate fingers. Instead, here’s a look at the specific things that set Django’s music apart and how it still inspires musicians today.

The Instrumentation: An Interpretation of American Jazz Music

In the early 1930s, American jazz music arrived in France.

Discovering the likes of Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong, Reinhardt would devote himself to dissecting their repertoire of jazz standards by ear, striving to replicate Armstrong's trumpet as much as the Romani musicians from whom he learned as a child.

Reinhardt would soon begin to seek out like-minded musicians. He met violinist (and fellow jazz aficionado) Stéphane Grappelli and spearheaded the Quintette du Hot Club de France with his brother, Joseph “Nin–Nin” Reinhardt, along with bassist Louis Vola and additional rhythm guitarist Roger Chaput.

Unlike the jazz acts from across the pond that captured Reinhardt's imagination, the Hot Club's rhythm section lacked a drummer. The band would develop a forceful, percussive rhythmic style known as “la pompe,” best characterized as a syncopated quarter note beat, in order to keep time at increasingly fast tempos.

Django Reinhardt - "J'attendrai Swing" (Live, 1939)

Also lacking a horn section, the all-string quintet would rely on Grappelli's violin and Reinhardt's Selmer guitar to carry the melody, bringing the guitar to the forefront of the mix as not only a rhythm instrument (as it was approached as the time) but an instrument capable of breathtakingly complex and melodic leads.

As the Hot Club's notoriety grew, so did Reinhardt's collaborative spirit. Prior to the outbreak of World War II, the quintet would gain the attention of jazz acts across the United States, including the likes of Brooklyn-born vocalist Adelaide Hall. In 1935, she opened a club in Paris called “La Grosse Pomme” where the Hot Club was a featured house band.

This added recognition surely didn't hurt when saxophone legends Coleman Hawkins or Benny Carter rolled through town. In fact, it served as an invitation to collaborate. Hawkins would record a number of songs with the Hot Club's members (“Stardust” is a seminal recording featuring Hawkins, Reinhardt and Grappelli), while recordings such as “I'm Coming Virginia” feature Reinhardt and Carter in a live setting.

The Tempo: A Precursor to Bebop

During the 1930s, jazz musicians on both sides of the pond were fully entrenched in the swing era, still a few years away from embracing bebop's blistering tempos and emphasis on technique. And Reinhardt was no stranger to France's popular music of the time. Some of Reinhardt's earliest recordings, such as Maurice Alexander's “Deception d'Amour” and “Parisette,” feature Reinhardt on banjo and primarily consist of one-steps and waltzes.

Django Reinhardt

By the mid–1930s, Reinhardt's Hot Club had developed a reputation for playing technically and harmonically complex music at tempos yet to be reached by Ellington, Armstrong, Eddie Lang (the “Father of Jazz Guitar”), and the American jazz musicians who changed Reinhardt and violinist Stephane Grappelli's approach to composition.

One of the biggest reasons Reinhardt and the Hot Club played at such speeds was born out of a simple necessity: to get gigs.

In order to thrive as working musicians in France, Reinhardt and the Hot Club (along with other prominent jazz manouche musicians, like the Ferret brothers) would assimilate the era's popular music into their own repertoire. As a result, the swinging Musette–style waltz remained a prominent aspect of the jazz manouche genre, serving both as a template and a catalyst for Reinhardt's complex improvisational technique.

Scales and Chord Voicings

Reinhardt's 1928 injury, which left only two fingers on his fretting hand able to independently articulate, had a profound effect on his ability to simply play certain chords.

But while many of the guitarist's classic tunes revolve around ii–V–I or VI–ii-V–I chord progressions, Reinhardt's means of accommodating his own disability involved casting aside familiar barre chord shapes in favor of major 7, minor 7 and 6/9 chords, among others.

Django Reinhardt - "Three-Fingered Lightning"

With Reinhardt forced to work within a strict set of limitations that most guitarists are never forced to face, the resulting chord voicings would often have a decidedly “minor” feel, even while in a major key — a composition technique that would quickly define the jazz manouche genre.

In many songs, Reinhardt can be heard using movable shapes across the D, G, B and E strings allowing for the barring of strings using his paralyzed fingers.

But developing this complex melodic vocabulary was just the start for Reinhardt. As such, the guitarist's formidable improvisational style followed suit. Arpeggios outlining major and minor 6, major and minor 7, dominant 7 and 6/8 chords would become a staple of Reinhardt's playing, often supplemented with lightning-fast chromatic runs and trills that served as “connective tissue” between chords.

Picking Technique: Approaching the Fretboard Vertically

Reinhardt's improvisational ability reveals a right-hand technique that would take decades — perhaps generations — for other guitarists to match. Long before terms such as “sweep picking” and “alternate picking” would become firmly entrenched in the heads of guitarists, Reinhardt was building a nuanced improvisational technique based out of necessity.

With only two fingers available while performing single-note melodies, Reinhardt would “reframe” the fretboard vertically, replacing long fret–hand stretches with a complex picking-hand technique employing sweeps, economy picking and string skipping.

Much of Reinhardt's “feel” can be attributed to the “rest stroke,” a picking technique that arguably served as a crude blueprint for sweep and economy pickers a few decades later. The “rest stroke” is best characterized as a downstroke that leaves the guitar pick touching the string below. But Reinhardt used the “rest stroke” whenever crossing strings, leading to fluid ascending sweeps and an angular, melodic playing style up–and–down the fretboard.

Django Reinhardt & Stéphane Grappelli - "Minor Swing"

Django Reinhardt - "Daphne"

Within “Minor Swing,” widely regarded as the anthem of jazz manouche, even the casual musician can hear picking techniques that range from rapid-fire alternate picking to fluidly–picked, minor–key arpeggios.

In the case of “Daphne,” a major-key vamp, Reinhardt's ability to re–frame the fretboard becomes evident shortly into his solo, sweeping up and down the strings to hit extended chord tones embedded within the song's time–honored VI–ii–V–I chord progression.

While “Daphne” swings at a moderate tempo, comparatively speaking, Reinhardt's two-fingered, vertical approach to arpeggios — coupled with the all–important “rest stroke” mentioned above — necessitates the use of economy picking.

A Musician's Musician: Django's Lasting Influence

In the words of Jeff Beck, Reinhardt was “by far the most astonishing guitarist ever.” Black Sabbath's Tony Iommi, who lost the tips of two fingers due to an industrial accident, was driven to pick up his guitar once again after his factory manager told him about Reinhardt's abilities to work around his injuries.

Joe Pass, widely regarded as one of the most technically proficient and melodically complex solo jazz guitarists, openly expressed his adoration for Reinhardt through 1964's classic “For Django” album.

The spirit of jazz manouche is kept alive in modern times by an ever-expanding list of musicians whose technical proficiency combine seamlessly with the genre’s melancholy aesthetic, angular melodies and string–driven instrumentation.

Guitarist Stephane Wrembel can be found on a regular basis carrying the jazz manouche torch at Brooklyn's Barbes and Fada venues. Guitarist John Jorgenson regularly teaches master classes at London's Tech Music School and frequents Le QuecumBar, the city's only gypsy swing venue.

The legacy of Reinhardt and jazz manouche is also preserved by the likes of Stochelo Rosenberg, Frank Vignola and other guitarists, many of whom participate at week-long workshops, such as the recent “Django A Gogo” in Maplewood, New Jersey and “Django in June” held annually in Northampton, Massachusetts.

There’s even a French film being released in April called Django, which illuminates the guitarist's life in the midst of the war. It’s a good time to be a fan of his music. Or to become one.

Check out our on–the–ground coverage of the Django a Gogo workshop for a closer look at Django’s guitars.

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