• Understand the basic elements of Django Reinhardt’s style.
• Develop three- and four-note chord voicings based in the Gypsy style.
• Create arpeggio-filled lines using triads and diminished shapes.
In this lesson we’ll look at the elements that make up an exciting style of jazz known as Gypsy jazz. Inspired by the fiery improvisations of American jazz masters like Louis Armstrong, Gypsy jazz was, however, not developed in the United States. Gypsy jazz came from Paris in the form of a string band founded by guitarist Django Reinhardt and violinist Stéphane Grappelli, called Le Quintette du Hot Club de France, which set the precedent for the Gypsy-jazz ensemble and instrumentation. In the original quintet, Django and Stéphane were supported by two rhythm guitars and upright bass. To this day, one can find “Hot Club”-style groups with similar configurations flourishing throughout the world.
As a guitarist, it is important to know about Django Reinhardt, as his contribution was profound and his influence far-reaching. Chances are, many of the guitarists you’d call a guitar hero—no matter their style—would count Django’s playing as influential. Born in Liberchies, Belgium, on January 23, 1910 to a family of Manouche Gypsies, he was given the Romany name Django, which means “I awake.” Django started playing the violin, followed by the banjo-guitar, which he excelled at, and at a very young age Django was a working musician in the dancehalls of Paris.
In 1928 Django’s bright playing career was nearly ended. After returning home from an evening gig, the caravan he called home was set ablaze by a candle that ignited celluloid flowers made by Django’s wife, Bella. Both survived the blaze but Django was badly injured. He suffered extensive damage to his left hand thereby greatly diminishing his ability to use his ring finger and pinky. During a long recovery period Django was able to relearn the instrument using his fretting-hand thumb and first two fingers.
Check out this videoto see Django in action (Django’s entrance is at approximately 2:28). It’s amazing to see how he was able to travel the fretboard in such a fluid manner, despite the limitations due to his injury. You can also see how he used the injured fingers to play certain chord shapes. At first listen, this music seems daunting—especially given the virtuosity of the masters. But hopefully you’ll be equipped to begin your journey into the land of Gypsy jazz with this primer. So, let’s get started!
To capture the sound of Gypsy jazz, a focus on the rhythm guitar is a must. For now, we’ll bid open-string chord voicings adieu and focus exclusively on fretted chord grips. This is important because you must be able to control the ringing of the strings. Let’s start with an A chord (using the barred E shape) and play quarter-notes (Fig. 1).
While strumming these quarter-notes, don’t let the chord ring from one beat to the next. To achieve this, release the pressure of your fretting fingers between each strum. This creates a little separation between beats. It’s the same technique swing guitarists use when playing four-to-the-bar style comping, à la Freddie Green.
We’ll tweak things a bit with Fig. 2. On beats 1 and 3, focus on picking only the bottom few strings, and on beats 2 and 4, strum all the notes of the chord. Because the typical Hot Club group lacks drums, the rhythm guitar sonically fills this role. By playing beats 2 and 4 with more snap of the wrist from your picking hand, you can achieve a snare drum-like sound that will help things groove. Also note a common alternate fingering for the A chord.
While barre chords are used in Gypsy-style comping, three-note voicings are also common and are relatively easy to play. Fig. 3 shows a three-note voicing that’s finger-friendly and has multiple uses.
When playing this chord, be sure not to play the 1st, 2nd, and 5th strings. You can use your 2nd finger to block the 5th string, which allows you to strum through the shape. This chord has multiple functions, depending on which note you determine to be the root. Two common chord functions of this shape are the minor 6 chord and a rootless dominant 7. The classic tune “Minor Swing” can be played with only four chords, and you can play three of those four chords using the voicing from Fig. 3. You can see, in Fig. 4, that Am6, Dm6, and E7 are all played using the same chord shape. The empty circle in the E7 indicates the root—don’t play this note. It's there for you to visualize the location of the root, allowing you to create other dominant 7 chords by moving the shape up or down the neck.
With the addition of another dominant 7 chord shape in Fig. 5, we’re now ready to play the chord progression to “Minor Swing.”
Before we dig into the progression, check out the following YouTube clip. This video features Django and Stéphane with the original quintet playing “Minor Swing.” Pay special attention to the groove that is created by the rhythm guitars.
Now it’s your turn. Try playing the progression in Fig. 6 with the three-note voicings.