A few weeks ago I wrote about playing electric guitar. For the past two weeks I’ve been on an acoustic and trying to learn gypsy jazz—the style of Django Reinhardt. It is incredibly difficult. At least for me. But I’m determined and progressing slowly, carefully. I’ve always wanted to play like Django. There’s some type of magic in his playing. It is so fast yet melodic and lyrical. A lot of guitar players talk about finding a voice, making their Les Paul or Stratocaster talk. I think Django’s axe has its own language.
Jazz has always been a bit of a mystery to me. I grew up listening to Miles Davis but when I try to get away from those blues based pentatonic scales my mind shuts down. Django uses a lot more arpeggios and triads in his solos. This is taking some time to get used to. I feel as if I have to unlearn a lot and rebuild the muscle memory in my fingers. The thing that throws me off is the use of chromatic scales. In my head these notes shouldn’t sound good. They should sound awkward and noisy like broken glass being tossed onto a tin roof. But somehow they work and sound amazing. The theory is new to me, so I hope once I get my brain wrapped around them I can really get going.
If you know your history you’ll know that Django’s playing is all the more impressive considering he only had two good fingers on his left hand. A fire made his ring and pinkie unusable. I have no idea how he was able to play the way he did with just two fingers. Two fingers! How could he form some of those octopus chords? I can hardly play at half his speed with all my fingers.
It is obvious on a first listen that Django could solo lightening fast. But I truly think he was a musical genius. My favorite Django recordings are actually his improvisations—the pieces that are just him and his guitar. Some of these recordings are just him warming up but they’re still jaw dropingly amazing. Violinist Stéphane Grappelli (who soloed over Django’s guitar) was also a type of genius, but Django by himself could construct wonderfully beautiful pieces that defy what a single guitar should be capable of. The chords are luscious, the melody is clear, and he never lets the bottom fall out.
Django died when he was forty-three. I try to imagine what he would have done had he lived longer. I wonder what he would have thought of Rock and Roll, of Chuck Berry and Jimi Hendrix. Toward the end Django played quit a bit on an electric guitar, and for me (though his playing is still sharp) it doesn’t have quite the same sound. The electric guitar makes his solos sound too shiny for my taste. Some things should remain classic. Django, old buddy, you’ll never go out of style. Django is still the king!
Writer living in the hill country of Texas