Decorate Like Django
Even if you aren’t into Gypsy jazz, there are a wealth of inspiring ideas to glean from Django’s impossibly fast lines.
• Understand how to artfully navigate the changes of a 12-bar blues.
• Combine chromatic or “outside” notes with standard 7th-chord arpeggios.
• Learn how Django Reinhardt turned a perceived weakness into an advantage.
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The arpeggio can be a powerful ally on the journey to fretboard mastery. As a melodic device, it’s the most no-nonsense, straightforward way to convey the chords you’re playing over. Fast or slow, arpeggios spell out the chords to the listener, just as much as they do for the player.
Using the arpeggio as an improvisational tool lets you get outside of a modal sound and control the harmony in flexible ways. It’s common to enclose the arpeggio with passing tones inside and outside of the key. The master of this approach is, without doubt, the great Gypsy-jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt.
What made Django’s style and sound unmistakable was his approach to harmony. This was partially due to the condition of his fretting hand, which only allowed him full use of two fingers. He would modify arpeggios to accommodate his fingering and picking, while simultaneously presenting a unique sound. Not only can this approach give you the ability to create compelling lines as you maintain the musical plot, it can also give your picking hand more options.
In this lesson, we’ll explore a few Django-inspired ideas based on common arpeggios. We’ll also discover when and where you can use them in a common musical scenario: the 12-bar blues. The goal of these examples is to not only share a few cool licks, but also give you a new, fresh way to approach a common progression and breathe new life into its familiar changes.
Ex. 1 is a simple 12-bar blues in A. The version we’ll be working with in this lesson has the IV7 chord (D7) in the second measure; this is commonly known as a “quick IV” or “quick change” blues. Assignment: Play this progression for 10 minutes straight without losing the form.
Remember: An arpeggio literally spells out the chord. In Ex. 2, we have a fingering for A7 (A–C#–E–G). Always keep track of the 3, because it’s the strongest resolution point. The root note is our vantage point and at times playing it can be vital to staying in key.
Here we have a D7 (D–F#–A–C) arpeggio in the same position as the A7 (Ex. 3). Anytime I play an arpeggio, I make sure I can see the chord. It’s important to visualize the chord on the fretboard while you play these arpeggios.
This particular E7 (E–G#–B–D) arpeggio in Ex. 4 is tough on the fretting hand. The first thing you’ll notice when you work out full-chord arpeggios is the number of notes per string. Here, we move in groups of three adjacent strings before adding the pull-off on top. Keep in mind that stacking all three of these arpeggios in the same region of the neck will allow you to see harmony changing in real time.
The sound of Ex. 5 can be found in a lot of different styles of music. We begin spelling out the A7 chord by starting with a quick slide into the root. The decoration unfolds as we add elements of the Mixolydian mode (F#) along with the b5 (Eb) from the blues scale.
Ex. 6 offers further melodic exploration.For D7, we’ll borrow from an F# diminished triad (F#–A–C). It’s common to use an F#dim chord in conjunction with D7 because of the shared chord tones. We open with approach tones leading into the 3 on the downbeat, followed by a tritone leap to start our descent through the diminished arpeggio. The added 4 (G) allows us to resolve nicely to the 3 (F#).
When it comes to the V7 chord—in this case, E7—skilled players often add more tension to build towards a stronger resolution. In Ex. 7, we start out with chromatic approach tones leading up to the 5 before descending through the lick with some enclosures. Whenever I see a single note on a string, it becomes a prime candidate for some decoration. Notice how I surround the D# in beat 2 and the G# on beat 4.
Learning a lick or concept is the easy part. Knowing where, when, and how you can use that lick or concept is what separates good players from great players. Ex. 8 illustrates one way to apply the concepts we’ve been discussing to our quick-change chord progression. With a little effort and some imagination, you can adapt these ideas to other progressions and changes, and thus become better at writing and improvising on the fly.
Once you grasp these basic ideas, you can decorate the spaces between arpeggio tones to create a long line through the chord changes. To demonstrate this, let’s look at the most vital moment in the 12-bar blues: the turnaround.
The turnaround is a potent section in any progression. Whether you want to convey the chords as they move by or just get as tense as possible before a resolution, the turnaround is where you can really flex your musical muscles. Ex. 9 demonstrates “filling in the blanks,” but also shows just how interchangeable these ideas are in different positions. Here, I’m using chromaticism to fill in the spaces between each idea and create a continuous line.
Before you gain a firm grasp of harmony, or even a certain progression, it can feel as if you’re shooting in the dark when soloing through chord changes. These ideas are intended to generate a more chromatic sound while illustrating the advantage of interchangeability that most basic arpeggios provide. Remember, learning a lick is only half the battle. Knowing when and where you can use it will dramatically improve your musicianship.