The Birth of Gypsy Jazz: Django Reinhard

gypsy jazzGypsy jazz is a style of music that originated in the 1930s in underground Parisian jazz haunts.  Traditionally, it is played acoustically, without a drummer.  An acoustic guitar is the lead instrument, with guitar and violin starring as solo instruments. To fill in for the lack of drum beat, the rhythm guitar is played with a distinctly-gypsy, percussive technique known as “la pomp,” a technique which is similar to the “boom-chick” you hear in bluegrass music.  Though it is not absolutely necessary, if you learn even the most basic of music theory, it can act as foundation for learning this unique style of guitar-playing.

Django Reinhardt

Gypsy jazz was borne out of the tragedy and genius of Django Reinhardt.  In 1910, Jean “Django” Reinhardt was born in a Gypsy encampment in Belgium. Django’s parents were gypsy entertainers, his father a musician and clown, and his mother, a dancer and acrobat. At the age of 12, Django was given a banjo, which he learned to play by watching and listening to others play. He proved early on to have great musical talent, and by the age of 13, Django was making a living playing music. He made his first musical recordings in 1928.  At the age of 18, after coming home late from a performance, he was injured in a fire. He suffered paralysis in his right leg and his fourth and fifth fingers were horribly burned, leaving them almost unusably gnarled. Everyone believed that Django had strummed his last note, but they were terribly wrong.

As he healed in a private sanatorium, he was given a guitar by a family friend. Over the 18 months that followed, Django retaught himself to play the guitar, and what emerged from his self-exploration was an amazingly fresh technique:  a highly efficient, but completely unorthodox system of 3-finger chord shapes, “each of which encompassed inversions of several different chords” (Williams and Potokar).  This new flavor of gypsy-style music was spiced with jazz, flamenco, and musette. To really appreciate the genius of Django, you should develop a clear understanding about jazz chords and how to play them.

Some of Django’s other innovations include the bent and smear notes, full use of the complete 12-scale note, and the free interchange of modes of scale, most specifically an alchemical marriage of Mixolydian and Phrygian modes. The Mixolydian mode, one of the most commonly used in Latin and Jazz music, is in the C-Major scale played over a G-7 chord. The Mixolydian mode adds an assured level of spice and sophistication to the music. The Phrygian mode is in the key of C-Major played over the E-minor chord, something which lends charismatic and mysterious, Eastern colors and flavors to the musical mix.  If you are feeling clueless about scales and modes, a quick course in Jazz guitar scales will bring you back up to speed.

By the 1930s, deeply inspired by American Jazz artists Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, Django was back on the music scene.

The Elements and Techniques of Gypsy Jazz

The Gypsy Jazz Guitar

The original gypsy jazz guitar is the Selmer, also called the Selmer-Maccaferri or the Maccaferri, produced by the company of the same name from 1932 to about 1952. Because the guitar style is more percussive, it is slightly different from the full or classical guitars. It is distinguished by a large body with squared bouts and either a longitudinal oval or D-shaped sound hole.  The top of the guitar has a slight dome-shape.  The strings are gathered at the tail and they pass over a floating bridge. It is constructed with a ladder-braced back and top, something which adds to its unique Gypsy-style tone.

Ergonomically, the unusual-shaped guitar is designed so that your arm crosses the guitar and lands in the right spot for Gypsy picking.  As one ladder-braced enthusiast says, “If you seek to reproduce the sound of the guitar coming from that old 78 spinning on your Victrola, then a ladder-braced guitar is for you!”

The Picking Style

One of the most sonically distinctive elements of gypsy guitar playing comes from the pick used. In order to achieve the voluminous and percussive sound, you need a stiff, thick pick.  One of the most-hailed Gypsy picks is the Wegen.  Wegen guitar picks are materially close to that of the tortoise, only they are not bendable.  It has a curved, beveled tip with grooves on both sides and is concave on the thumb side.  Standard gypsy picks are 3.5 – 5 mm thick, 30 mm wide, and 26 mm long.

Because it had to be heard over an entire orchestra, the original gypsy guitar sound had to be played loud. Part of this volume comes from the construction of the guitar. The other part comes from the picking technique.  If you tried to play the guitar like you would a classical guitar, you would dampen the sound. According to Gypsy Jazz Portugal, when playing, you should always follow two golden rules:

  1. Angle your wrist and arm so that you don’t rest your hand on the bridge, this will let the guitar ring and help you achieve maximum volume by letting gravity work for you as you do rest strokes.
  2. Do a rest stroke whenever you change strings. This will enable you to get the right phrase dynamics. In (almost) every other case just alternate between rest strokes and upstrokes. This picking can be tricky on descending arpeggios or when you have an odd number notes per string.

Rhythm – The Pump

The rhythm in gypsy guitar, also known as “la pomp” is achieved through the percussive strumming technique similar to that of the “boom-chick” in bluegrass music.  The sound is achieved by a very quick up-down followed by a down stroke, a pattern which is typically played in unison with another rhythm guitarist.  If you learn basic guitar techniques, you can adapt those to the gypsy-style to expand your repertoire.

Harmony

The element of harmony in gypsy jazz was borne of Django’s injury.  You may already know how to play standard guitar chords.  In Gypsy Jazz, the standard major and minor chords are very seldom, if ever, played. They are instead replaced with two or three-finger chords – major 7th chords, major 6th chords, and 6/9 chords – chords which were adapted by Django to fit his hand.  This Gypsy re-harmonisation is often aimed at giving the sound a minor feel even when a song is played in a major key.