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Let’s shift our focus to lead playing. Before we dig into some of Django’s lines, let’s talk picks. In this style of playing, thicker picks are preferred over thin ones. Check out pick maker Michel Wegen’s Gypsyjazzpick, which is 3.5 mm thick, and his massive 5 mm Fatone pick. Experiment with various pick materials and thicknesses to find the tone you’re looking for with a comfortable feel. Your pick grip should not be tight. An excessive grip only adds tension to your playing—it’s fatiguing and slows you down.
If you are used to strict alternate picking, you’ll find Gypsy-style picking to be a bit different. Without going into great detail here, follow the general rule of playing a downstroke at each string change and you’ll be off to a good start. For more information on Gypsy jazz picking, check out Michael Horowitz’s book Gypsy Picking, which is available at DjangoBooks.com. At this site you’ll find other resources that may be helpful.
Next, it’s on to lead playing. We’ll start with an overview of common elements and devices employed by Django in his line construction, and then look at a handful of his lines that incorporate these elements and devices.
The first device used to create lines is the arpeggio. Arpeggios play a big part in Django’s line construction. Not always using the extended arpeggios one might expect when dealing with jazz, Django created wonderfully exciting and colorful lines using the triad as the core building block. If you take time to listen and transcribe the melody to “Minor Swing,” you’ll find it is composed of arpeggiated minor and major triads.
Another device used in line creation is the chromatic approach. By approaching chord tones by either a half-step above or below (and in some cases, both) you can add color to your lines without having to learn exotic scales. When it’s time to expand the harmony beyond the triad, a common added tone is the 6. This happens over both major and minor chords. Incorporating major and minor 6 arpeggio practice into your workout routine is time well spent.
Django wove the elements and devices mentioned above (plus many others) into beautifully crafted statements. I’ve chosen a few licks to help illustrate this. You’ll find the bulk of the analysis is placed directly into the music notation. Given the seamless way Django combined these elements and devices, it seems like a clearer way to highlight them.
The first lick, Fig. 11, is a great example of chromatic approaches. The harmony he’s soloing over is a C7, and he approaches the root and the 5 from both above and below. You can hear this in the following YouTube clip of him playing “Honeysuckle Rose” at approximately 0:58 into the song.
The next two licks can be heard on Django’s recording of “Honeysuckle Rose” with the original quintet. In the following video, Fig. 12 is at approximately 0:51 and Fig. 13 is at 1:10.
Fig. 12 is over the A section of “Honeysuckle Rose.” Interesting rhythmic variety occurs in the first five measures of this line, and is created by starting a similarly crafted phrase on different beats of the measure. The first phrase starts on beat 3, the second on beat 2, and the third on the “and” of 2.
The diminished 7 arpeggio is used frequently, typically being played over a dominant 7 chord to create a dominant 7b9 sound. For example, over an F7 chord play an Adim7 arpeggio. The combination of the two sounds results in an F7b9.
Fig. 13 is at the start of the bridge. Check out how the Adim7 arpeggio (over the F7) resolves to the 6 (or 13) of the Bb6 chord. Super cool!
All right, we’ll wrap this section up with a few licks played over the Gershwin standard “Lady Be Good.” These licks can be heard on the following video clip at approximately 0:57 and 2:06.
Django’s playing impacted generations of players (jazzers and non-jazzers alike), and his legacy lives on with “Hot Clubs” found throughout the world, as well as festivals—some bearing his name—devoted to this style. For more in-depth information on Django and Gypsy jazz, check out Michael Dregni’s books (Django: The Life and Music of a Gypsy Legend and Django Reinhardt and the Illustrated History of Gypsy Jazz).
My hope is that this lesson will help tune your ears to some of the nuance in the rhythm guitar, as well as some of the colors present in Django’s lines, and inspire you to dig further into this beautiful and exciting style.
Mike Cramer is an award-winning performer and educator. A stylistically versatile multi-instrumentalist, Cramer has shared the stage with or opened for B.B. King, Tommy Castro, Chris Duarte, Gordon Goodwin, John Hartford, and Steve Kaufman. Cramer co-founded All 12 Notes, LLC where he has a private lesson studio, teaching guitar, mandolin, and electric bass. His most recent CD release, Open Spaces, is a collection of original and traditional acoustic pieces. For more information, visit all12notes.com.