10 Things You Gotta Do to Play Like Django Reinhardt

If you could pinpoint a big bang in the guitar universe, it would most likely have emanated from the strings and soundboard of Jean “Django” Reinhardt’s steel-string acoustic on December 27, 1934, in Montparnasse, France.


Reinhardt had already been playing professionally for years and, in fact, he predated Charlie Christian by well over a decade. But this date (the Big Djang?) marked his first recording with the celebrated Quintette du Hot Club de France—featuring violinist Stéphane Grappelli, Reinhardt’s brother Joseph “Nin-Nin” Reinhardt and Roger Chaput (later replaced by Eugene “Ninine” Vées and Pierre Ferret) on rhythm guitars, and Louis Vola (replaced by Emmanuel Soudieux in 1938) on bass—whose instrumentation and remarkable improvisations were unprecedented in the European jazz world. From that moment on, Reinhardt’s fearless gypsy approach to jazz guitar re- sounded like a shot heard ’round the world, leaving millions of mouths agape and setting the course for the instrument’s evolution.

Employing a revolving roster of rhythm guitarists and bassists, Reinhardt and Grappelli supercharged the jazz guitar/violin format (pioneered on our side of the pond by Eddie Lang and Joe Venuti) with virtuosic gypsy passion, leaving most comers in their dust. And you’d be hard pressed to find a cooler looking outfit than the Quintette, with their five stringed instruments chugging away like a happy, runaway freight train. Few films of the group exist, but you’ll find an exquisite performance of “J’Attendrai” (“I Will Wait”) currently making the rounds on the ’Net. Though their live appearances from 1934 through 1936 were sporadic and met with critical indifference, the Quintette essentially ruled Europe from 1937 until they dissolved in 1939, when Django fled from London to Paris in the face of the impending war (with Grappelli choosing to remain behind). After the split, Reinhardt’s career continued to flourish. Between 1942 and 1944, he focused on impressionistic classical music and composed a symphony and a mass, neither of which was ever performed. Other musical explorations included various resurrections of the Quintette and a 1946 stint as featured soloist with Duke Ellington’s orchestra in the U.S., before Reinhardt charged head-on into the ensuing bebop era. Following his success in America, Django remained an international star until his untimely death on May 16, 1953, when he suffered a cerebral hemorrhage near his home in France at the age of 43. Reinhardt was survived by a son, Jean Jacques (b. 1944, also called Chien-Chien or Babik), who became an accomplished guitarist in his own right, and carried his father’s torch until his death in 2001.

Reinhardt was a fearless innovator, the original punk-jazz rocker, if you will, who by all accounts treated music and life as one grand improvisation. Ironically, Reinhardt was painfully shy and rarely spoke in public, a trait that belied the brave torrents of emotion that poured from his instrument. “With my guitar in my hands, I am not afraid of anyone,” he once declared. His breadth of influence remains immeasurable, and legions of guitarists from Les Paul to B.B. King to Jeff Beck to George Benson, plus all of their disciples, are forever in his debt. In fact, the majority of rockers from the past half-century have channeled some aspect of Django’s fiery and passionate attitude. You’ll find virtually every trick in the rock vocabulary, including string bends, vibrato, hammer-ons, pull-offs, dissonant chromatics, flawless arpeggios, flashy triplets, and tremoloed glissandos in any given Reinhardt solo. Reinhardt’s gypsy spirit and musical virtuosity were inexorably linked, and though none of us will even come close to living the way Django did (for fear of winding up in jail), we’ve still got his music, thanks to hundreds of reissues that document the Quintette’s original recordings. Spin a few sides cut between 1934 and 1939—the time period covered in the following musical examples—and you’ll soon be craving a piece of that sweet, Romany action. First, you gotta...


In Romany, the name Django (pronounced Zhahn-go) translates to “I awake.” Born January 23, 1910 into a performing Manouche gypsy troupe housed in a caravan near the French border in Liberchies, Belgium, the aptly named youngster found his path early in life at the age of 12, when an acquaintance gave him a banjo with a 6-string guitar neck, an instrument that would nurture the development of Reinhardt’s powerful right-hand chops and serve as his melodic training ground until his mother bought him a real guitar. Initially isolated from American blues and jazz (those influences wouldn’t surface until Reinhardt began visiting the Pigalle and red light districts of Paris as a teenager), Django first drew inspiration from the banjo and guitar players around him in la Zone, the sprawling mass gypsy encampment in which he lived. Despite never learning how to read or write (though Grappelli eventually taught Django how to sign his name and a few basic writing skills), music came naturally to Reinhardt, who quickly mastered dozens of gypsy melodies traditionally played on violins, cimbaloms, harps, and pianos, and astounded fellow musicians with his inability to play out of tune or stumble in any way. Soon after developing the ability to play anything after hearing it only once, Reinhardt became totally obsessed with American jazz, and, upon hearing a recording of Louis Armstrong’s “Indian Cradle Song” in July of 1931, broke down in tears, wailing “Ach moune! Ach moune!” (“My brother! My brother!”). He was hooked. Reinhardt eventually realized his dream and played with Satchmo in 1934.


Beginning on a variety of guitars, most of which were crafted by various Italian makers, Reinhardt first discovered the Selmer Modèle Jazz guitar when it was exported from Italy to France in 1935. Inspired by the guitars that Mario Maccaferri designed for Selmer, the instrument was well suited to Django’s hard-hitting attack—he used a pick from the start—and gave him a tight, almost electric tone that will forever remain his signature sound. Reinhardt subsequently recorded and performed with a magnetic contact pickup screwed onto his Selmer (probably an American Rowe-DeArmond, a Swiss Bale, or an early French Stimer model). He eventually acquired several Gibson archtops, including the L-5 he played on the Ellington tour, but his musical persona had become so synonymous with the taut, acoustic sound of the Selmer that hearing Django play modernistic bebop on an electric with a touch of tube distortion was and remains a jarring experience. Granted, his electric playing was still adventurous and he broke new ground, but trust me, if you want to sound like Django, keep it woody.


In the early hours of October 26, 1928, Reinhardt suffered severe injuries during a fire in his caravan. In addition to severely damaging his right leg, the accident disfigured the 18-year-old’s left hand, leaving him with full use of only his thumb, index, and middle fingers. Despite the pain and physical challenge, Django slowly regained his chops by devising a unique two-fingered approach to playing single-note lines and went on to record some of the most astounding guitar performances in musical history. And before you think of this as a handicap, consider this: It’s actually easier to decode and play Reinhardt’s single-note licks when you limit yourself to using only your index and middle fingers. It certainly narrows down the possibilities—almost everything you play will be a “1-2” or “2-1” combination. Under the microscope, you’ll find that many of Django’s scalar and arpeggiated lines use open strings interspersed with ascending or descending major and minor third interval shapes played on adjacent strings in extremely clever configurations. Reinhardt did occasionally employ his fused third and fourth fingers during single-note runs, but typically limited that to chords.


For better or worse, Reinhardt had a tendency to live large and beyond his means, and tales of his excesses are legendary. He would demand (and usually receive) an exorbitant fee for a performance, then blow the whole wad on a long taxi ride, a new hat, an extravagant feast for his entire family, a billiards wager, a new car, or anything else that struck his fancy, somehow secure in the belief that the next day would bring equally good fortune (which it usually did). To his credit and unlike many jazz musicians of the era, Reinhardt was neither a viper (period slang for pothead) nor a heavy drinker (Grappelli: “Music was enough for us. We’d often get drunk with it.”), but he played only when the spirit moved him and often preferred the solace of sleep or the warmth of a family gathering to a command performance. Django was notorious for missing gigs, yet always managed to send a last-minute replacement—usually Nin-Nin—to cover his butt, only to reap the critical acclaim bestowed on his sub’s brilliant playing as his own. When he did show up, it was often without a pick (though the tooth of a comb would do), strings, or even a guitar. (Reinhardt reportedly once did an entire recording session with two strings!) Sure, it’s all reckless and irresponsible behavior, but there’s obviously something to be said for the bliss that accompanies that kind of blind faith. Somehow, it worked for Django.


In lieu of a drummer, the Quintette depended largely on their three guitarists for rhythmic propulsion and percussive tonality. Reinhardt and his bandmates developed a swinging rhythmic strategy based on the stride piano style of the day—dubbed “La Pompe” or “The Pump”—which accomplished both goals as they powered through up-tempo tunes such as “Limehouse Blues.” This fast, alternating bass-note-to-staccato-chord motion has been notated in traditional cut time and applied to the first eight bars of the song in Ex. 1a. Add two bars of G6, one bar of B7, one bar of Em, and A7 and D7 for two bars each to complete the 16-bar progression. Ex. 1b shows bars 1 and 2 converted to the space-saving, double-time 8/8 notation we’ll be using throughout. (Tip: Count each quarter note in all 8/8 examples as you did the half notes in Ex. 1a.) This powerful rhythmic foundation allowed both Reinhardt and Grappelli to fire at will, and to...


Reinhardt’s high-energy improvisations in the Quintette brimmed with romance, humor, and, above all, suprise. His “pompe” often morphed into a locomotive-style tremolo, as illustrated by the altered IV (C9b5) and II7 (A7) chords that divide the cheeky tremoloed minor seconds and staccato octaves in Ex. 2a (shades of Les and Wes). This one fits nicely over the “Limehouse Blues” progression from Ex. 1a, albeit with a double-time 8/8 feel as in Ex. 1b. The half-step lower chromatic neighbors that serve as approach notes to each pair of arpeggiated C and Dm chord tones in Ex. 2b are another of Reinhardt’s favorite tools for crafting zippy, on-the-spot melodies.


A romantic cimbalom/violin-influenced Romany melody covers the V-Im (A7 - Dm) cadence in Ex. 3a, while Ex. 3b shows a half-timed three-bar jaunt decorated with descending arpeggios, hammered-and-pulled triplets, and a descending mixed chromatic and scalar run, all played over a busy progression similar to Reinhardt’s first recorded original composition, “Ultrafox.” In Ex. 3c, we reverse most of the last measure of the previous example, then extend it with one of Django’s signature tremoloed thirty-second-note glissandos to form a typically speedy ascending lick that targets a tonic F. The moral? A good lick stands on its own any way you play it.


Reinhardt’s advanced grasp of natural and artificial harmonics was nothing short of phenomenal. Ex. 4a shows how he incorporated natural harmonics to sound the V and I chords (D6-G6) in a medium-tempo I-bVI-II-V-I pompe, while Ex. 4b features syncopated harmonic G6’s capping off an introductory II-V-I progression in two different octaves. In Ex. 4c, we use some very sophisticated, ahead-of-their-time artificial harmonics to float over changes similar to Reinhardt’s signature song “Nuages” (“Clouds”). Fret the parenthesized tab numbers and simultaneously pluck the harmonic 12 frets higher to produce some heavenly chimes. Be sure to pluck directly over the indicated fret and add vibrato as written.


Reinhardt’s on-the-fly reinventions of well-worn standards often surprised him as much as they did his audience. Hugeus Panassié, co-founder of the Hot Club that became the group’s home base and later the artistic director for the Swing label, recalled Django’s joyous outbursts after hearing playbacks in the studio: “He was sincerely amazed when he heard the phrases that he had played. He played them without planning them. They had come from some unknowable region of his subconscious.” The eight-bar solo excerpt in Ex. 5 comes from a January 31, 1938 recording of “Sweet Georgia Brown” and illustrates just one of many unpredictable paths Django has carved through these timeless chord changes. With la pompe in full swing, his tremoloed unison and discordant minor second intervals in bars 1 and 2—which Jeff Beck would adapt to his own “Jeff’s Boogie” nearly three decades later—are well accommodated by his apparent preference for the key of G. (Try ’em as thirty-second-notes, if you dare.) You’ll find plenty of other goodies here, such as symmetrical hammer-ons and pull-offs (bar 3), clever arpeggios and position shifts (bars 4 and 6), sophisticated motific development and harmonic substitution (that F7b9 arpeggio in bar 5 is a sub for B7), a swinging syncopated wrap up (bars 7 and 8), and an unexpected target tone (C, the b6/13 or #5, played over E7), all performed with Django’s usual melodic flair and impeccable phrasing. Mon dieu!


Of course, you’ll need to memorize a few key solo choruses in their entirety to really get inside Reinhardt’s head, and the two excerpted from the Quintette’s “Dinah” (their previously mentioned first recording) presented in Ex. 6 should fit the bill more than adequately. With its swinging pompe foundation and array of tricks and revolutionary techniques, this seminal recording formed a blueprint for Django’s entire career. After opening with a lick that wouldn’t sound out of place (or out of date) in a Clapton solo, Reinhardt sweeps through a series of arpeggios and launches the chromatically descending triplets in bars 4 and 5, which, by the way, are played without pull-offs—yow! The blue notes in bar 6, sax-style unisons played on adjacent strings and string bends in bar 7, syncopated octaves (bars 9-11), speedy triplet ostinatos mixed with chromatic runs (bars 13 and 14), and chordal flourishes (bars 15 and 16) all became integral components in Reinhardt’s ever-expanding musical palette. Don’t be alarmed if you feel a bit lightheaded after playing these choruses. What you’re feeling is just pure, unadulterated bliss. Now, that’s what I call happy jazz!

For more insight into Reinhardt’s music, check out the well-written Django: The Life and Music of a Gypsy Legend by Michael Dregni [Oxford], which was referenced in the writing of this article.