When you consider the circumstances, it’s ironic that a Belgium-born Gypsy named Django Reinhardt became arguably the most influential guitarist in jazz history.
First, in the 1930s, jazz was snobbishly considered an exclusively American art form.
Second, Django was severely handicapped. The 3rd and 4th fingers of his fret hand were scarred and paralyzed—the result of a fire that swept through his caravan wagon when he was 19.
But he persevered, managing to develop a highly unorthodox technique, whereby he relied mostly on his first two fingers, occasionally planting his permanently fixed digits on the higher strings. During the next few years, while still in his early 20s, he laid the groundwork for a playing style that would baffle musicians the world over.
A true visionary, Django was churning out blazing melodies and breathtaking improvisations as early as the mid-Thirties, a time when the guitar was largely considered a mere rhythm instrument. Backed by his band, the Quintet of the Hot Club of dance, his unamplified acoustic exploded with personality that reflected his Gypsy soul.
Whether putting forth fiery diminished runs, sensitive melodies, furiously tremoloed chromatic passages, or chord-melody flurries, the essence of his music was at once sophisticated and whimsical—not to mention intensely romantic, free-spirited, unpredictable and consistently brilliant.
ARPEGGIOS, CHROMATICISM & OPEN-STRING INGENUITY
Django’s intricate lines were often composed of basic arpeggios mixed with chromatic passages that targeted the chord tones.
FIGURE 1 provides a typical example. Primarily based on a C triad (C E G), the phrase begins with a chromatic descent from the root (C) down to the 6th (A) of the C6 chord. A second chromatic line connects the 6th and 5th (G) of the chord before going out on a set of wide intervallic leaps.
FIGURE 2 features a similar approach, with a C7 arpeggio (C E G Bb) providing the basic framework. Chromatic passages link the root (C) with the b7th (Bb), and the 13th (A) with the 5th of the C7 chord. Note also the half-step bend (a fixture of Django’s playing style) that kicks off the example, as well as the odd deployment of an open string (another Reinhardt staple) in mid-phrase. While such open-string ploys would have certainly serviced his challenged fret hand, they also provided a specific sparkle to the timbre of his lines.
Django was also inclined to use open strings as pedal points, to help propel fretted passages. In FIGURE 3, a pedal on the open G string sets off a series of staggered dyads played along the D and G strings. Harmonized from G Mixolydian (G A B C D E F#), these dyads feature a chromatic passing couplet (C#/A#) and a resolution to the open B.
FIGURE 4 is a lightning-quick chromatically targeted chord-tone passage befitting an F7 chord. Notice how each single-string move begins and ends in solid chord-tone territory: C (5th) to D (13th); G (9th) to A (3rd); Eb (b7th) to F (root); Bb (11th) to C (5th); and F (root) to A (3rd). Also, don’t overlook the musical duplicity of the pattern. The passage simultaneously ascends and descends in steady increments.
DIMINISHED IDEAS, MINOR-KEY GYPSY FIRE, and MELODIC CHARM
FIGURE 5 exhibits another dramatic fixture of Django’s playing styles: soaring diminished 7th arpeggios.
In this example, a matching set of diminished triad shapes are dispatched over an E7 chord that resolves to Am. Theoretically, these can be viewed as inversions of a G#˚7 arpeggio (G# B D F). G#˚7 is the vii chord of A harmonic minor (A B C D E F G#) as well as a suitable substitute for the E7 chord.
FIGURE 6 is a fiery burst of Gypsy flash. Set against a Gm chord and played at a devastating tempo, this series of trills falls in chromatic order along the high E string.
FIGURE 7 demonstrates the sweep-picking style that Django often employed. Based on an Em arpeggio, this phrase begins with an upstroke, which facilities a three-string “rake” from the low E to the D string. At this point, the picking pattern is repeated to complete the arpeggio.
FIGURE 8 offers some insight into Django’s minor-key soloing strategy. The harmony is an Am6 chord, but instead of going with the “expected” A Dorian scale (A B C D E F# G), the line borrows from a blend of the A harmonic minor (a Django favorite) and A blues (A C D Eb E G) scales.
In the end, after all the emotional fire, furious tempos and fretboard flash, one must not overlook the simple charm of the lighthearted chord-tone-conscious melodies of the often whimsical Gypsy guitarist (FIGURE 9).
The solo (FIGURE 10) reflects an uptempo 1930s-style swing number. Twenty-four bars in length, it centers on a I–V vamp in the key of Bb (Bb6–F7). It takes a turn at measure 9 with a i-V cadence in the relative key of G minor (Gm–D7), then shifts to a I–V in F major (F–Caug). An Faug chord in measure 16 flags the return to the original Bb progression, and the solo goes out with an old-fashioned IV–bV˚–I–VI7–bV˚–I (Eb–E˚7–Bb/F–G7–E˚7–Bb) ending tag.
A rhythmically simple acknowledgement of the tonic note (Bb) opens the solo, followed closely by an open string–fueled, chromatically enhanced ascending Bbmaj7 arpeggio (Bb D F A). Measures 3–4 follow suit with chromatic embellishments of an F7 arpeggio, except here the melodic contour gradually descends the pitch spectrum.
Quirky inside-outside phrasing marks measures 5–6, courtesy of Bb major (inside) and B major (outside) triads laid over the Bb6 chord harmony. This is followed by a C#˚7 arpeggio substitution over the V chord (F7), an easygoing melody over the Bb6, and a transitional chromatic passage over the passing A˚7 chord. As you work these first 8 measures up to tempo, be aware of the following stumbling blocks: 1) the unexpected open strings in bars 1–2; 2), the C#–D trill at the top of measure 7 (difficult to achieve at the brisk tempo of 184 bpm); and 3) the slippery G- and B-string slides in measure 7.
At measure 9, the progression modulates to the relative key of G minor. With the solitary exception of an F natural note in measure 9, the solo services the entire i–V (G–D7) cycle with carefully selected notes from the G harmonic minor scale (G A Bb C D Eb F#). Gypsy-jazz highlights include the introductory F#–G trill in measure 9; the half-step bend from the 7th (F#) to the root (G) of the scale, also in measure 9; and the string-raked D triad in measure 10. The tail end of measure 12 hosts a Django–style half-step bend-release lick over the transitional Gb7 chord, and we’re off to another modulation.
The I–V–I–I7 F major progression in measures 13–16 houses several intriguing Django-isms. The first is a brisk sweep-picking run that outlines an Fmaj7 arpeggio (F A C E) and culminates on a chord tone—a G# note—on the downbeat of the Caug chord in measure 14. (Use a hefty downpicking attack on all six strings, and “straighten out” the last two eighth notes of measure 13.) Another half-step bend-release triggers the next signature lick: a back-cycling approach to chord tones via diatonic scales. In this case, C Mixolydian (C D E F G A Bb) leads to the F major scale (F G A Bb C D E) during the transition from bar 14 to bar 15; and F major segues to F whole tone (F G A B Db Eb) in bars 15–16.
At measure 17 we’re back at the original Bb6–F7 progression. The Bb6 measures host a paradoxical pair of Django-style phrases. The first is a cheerfully melodic line loosely based on a Bbmaj7 arpeggio with liberal chromatic ornamentations. The answering phrase provides a quirky counterpoint, utilizing the Bb and B major triad scheme witnessed in measures 5–6. The “laughing” quality of the ensuing F7 phrase is courtesy of a stream of rapid, chromatic hammer-ons to selected chord tones.
In typical Django fashion, the solo goes out in a blaze of fretboard glory. First, there’s a quick segue from an Ebmaj13 (Eb–G–Bb–D–C) to a slippery E˚7 (E–G–Bb–Db) arpeggio. This is followed closely by a nearly impossible chord-melody flurry (Bb6–Db˚–Bbsus4/add9–B˚). Then, finally, after an ascending stream of tremoloed diminished triads (G˚–Bb˚–Db˚–E˚), a final E˚7-fueled run caps the solo.