All about Django Reinhardt

Django's Sound

Django9.jpg - 53028 BytesDjango's sound is due to several factors. First is the use of a Selmer Maccaferri guitar, with strings made of silk covered steel, wound with fine steel wire that produced a clear and sharp sound in the upper register and an incomparably full and round sound in the bass. The strings were the Argentine brand. Django used a pick that he held not with the tips of his fingers, but at the joint of his thumb and index finger. His stroke with the pick, which was clear and trenchant, was combined with an uncommon robustness, bringing forth from his guitar a full range of tonal sonorities. His picking hand never touched the top of the guitar and his range and his nuances were in fact limitless. Django could produce on his instrument the most ethereal, feminine sounds--without, however permitting his sound to become an affectation. His style, rather, was always stamped with male authority.

We know that every artist has his own sound, whatever the instrument he is playing. When Django came to the U.S. to play with the Ellington Orchestra, he used mostly an Epiphone guitar with a single pickup. Because the instrument, given to him by Epiphone had a metal bridge, Django covered it with glove leather so the instrument had a softer sound. Because of his intense pressure on the frets and fingerboard, when the frets became worn and slotted, he merely loosened the tailpiece and moved it toward the top of the guitar about one or two millimeters, bringing the strings in contact with an unused portion of the frets. Gypsy Magic!! Even though it was a very different instrument, there was no chance of failing to immediately recognize Django's sound. Take as an example, his "Blues in Minor" recording where he plays the violin. One can fault the violin playing but one recognizes immediately the signature style of Django.

When Django added an amplifier to his guitar it made little difference in terms of his playing, and one can add also, that he was--and is to this day -- the only artist who really knew how to extract the best qualities from his amplifier. It seems that he was fascinated by the possibilities the amp presented by, for example, letting some notes resonate freely, and using it to enrich all of his playing. Most guitarists, on the other hand, only use their amplifiers to increase the volume of their instrument. The jazz guitarist, Jim Hall has said that "The amplifier permits me to play more softly". This is somewhat the same thinking of Django, in using the amplifier as part of his thinking, and composition, not as just to amplify his sound.

Listen to the recording of, "I Can't Give You Anything But Love" made at the Club St. Germain in 1951 and note the marvelous way he uses his amp to achieve a new approach to the synergy of guitar and amplifier. Django in fact employs the amplified guitar as though it were a distinct and separate instrument. Django's improvisations are built on complete knowledge of the underlying chord structure; not merely the notes that comprise the chord, but also the tonal "shape" of the chord in relation to those that come before and follow. This was fused with his prodigious ability to play anything he heard in his head and a technique that permitted him to execute the ideas instantaneously. I excerpt here an observation made some time ago by the British composer, Constant Lambert who said, "He (Django) swallowed and digested the guitar long ago. Now he is a Ventriloquist.

Django's virtuosity is comparable to that of the most brilliant classical musicians, with the difference being, that a violinist for example, is constrained to interpret a piece of music that has already been written, while Django improvises or, if you prefer, expresses on the guitar, music that is produced from his knowledge of the chord structure, bass line and lastly, the melody line.

Overcoming the handicap of his disabled hand, Django could play impeccably at an incredible speed, and he included in his playing, musical forms and figures that were totally of his own creation, such as lightning fast glissando executed usually with one finger on one string without the slighted alteration of dynamics between the notes. No one has ever been able to replicate the quality of that artistic achievement.

With considerable effort, a guitarist might be able to copy some of Django's playing, but no one can replicate his musical conceptions. Beyond simply improvising, Django was, in the final analysis, a composer. The ideas he played on his guitar reveal more of the composer than the jazz improviser, thus if you transcribe one of his choruses and have it analyzed by an individual trained in musical composition, it appears that his music is indeed "constructed" in the manner of a complex composition and is not simply the product of improvisation.

If Charlie Christian was a major influence on the majority of American guitarists, it is because he was the first to express on the guitar, the music of his time; and even more, because it was relatively easy to play like him and to copy his technique. But it is far more difficult to capture the concepts and playing of a composer.

Since his visit to the U.S., most guitarists unreservedly praise his playing and go so far as to consider him the "Master." Thus his influence continues to grow, often indirectly as the following vignette illustrates. Fifty years ago, very few musicians knew of Django. Les Paul, who was a great admirer of the Gypsy and was the idol of many young guitarists who, in trying to imitate Les Paul, were indirectly coming under the influence of Django Reinhardt.

Django Reinhardt will surely remain one of the major innovative influences on the art form of jazz music in the world today and for all time.
May 1972 issue of the French magazine “Jazz Hot”

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