Who is the guitarist that experts look up to for inspiration? Who’s the best guitarist? The answer, according to some the best guitarists to ever live, is Django Reinhardt.
Django Reinhardt, often simply referred to as ‘Django’ (well before the Quentin Tarantino movie) is regarded as ‘the world’s most influential pre-rock’n’roll guitarist‘. It’s surprising then that so many people, including many guitar players who reckon themselves, have never heard of him.
Names such as Keith Richards, Prince, Brian May or Van Halen are household names. Yet Django Reinhardt. Some know him, many don’t. Yet as we’ll see many of the worlds best guitarists in their own right cite Django as their main inspiration. And if you’re saying to yourself ‘no, never heard of Django’ then you’re in for a treat.
History of Django
Django was born in Belgium on 23 January 1910 and given the name Jean Reinhardt at birth. A Romani Gypsy, he was afforded the nickname Django, meaning “I awake”. According to legend, Django’s early strengths included “stealing chickens, tickling trout and cooking hedgehogs, all necessary for survival”. Django’s talent at playing the guitar was clear for all to see from an early age. Self-taught at the banjo and guitar, his youth was spent in the gypsy camps of ‘La Zone’ on the outskirts of Paris. At a young age, he began working Paris’s dancehalls where he joined in “playing musette, a sound that blended French folk flavors with tango, polka, waltzes and the new American style, jazz. All who heard Django play agreed: the Gypsy kid was a prodigy.”
From Tragedy to Genre-Maker
In 1928, at the tender age of eighteen, Django was approached by English bandleader Jack Hylton to join his band. Jumping at the opportunity, Django had made it into the big time. But tragedy stuck almost immediately. That evening, a fire broke out in his caravan, leaving Django badly injured and crucially putting his fretting hand out of action, leaving him with the use of just two fingers.
The story goes that his brother Joseph, visiting Django in hospital, gave him a guitar to play while he was bedridden, and as he got better, Django miraculously invented a new way to play the guitar to overcome his disability. And the rest is history as they say. Django created a new genre, called ‘gypsy jazz’ or ‘jazz manouche’ with his band Le Quintette du Hot Club de France, accompanied with Stephane Grappelli on Violin. For the next twenty years from 1934 to 1953, his music and guitar playing changed not only how the guitar was perceived, but music in general.
Let’s have a look at what 12 of the finest guitar players have to say about Django:
The Best Guitarist?
Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page is one of the greatest guitarists that’s ever picked up a guitar. The man behind Stairway to Heaven, Whole Lotta Love and Black Dog, you’d be pushed to find a guitarist more accomplished than him. That is, except for Django Reinhardt. Yep, that’s right, Jimmy Page’s number most influential guitarist is no other than Django.
Jimmy appeared on a TV show called ‘The Guitar Show’ with Les Paul. He was asked by the host of the show “do you listen to a lot of the new guitar players that come up? Anybody really impress you, come out the word work so to speak?”
Jimmy’s answer: “Not like Django Reinhardt, no.”
Peter Frampton is an English rock musician, singer, songwriter, producer, and guitarist and worked with the likes of David Bowie and Pearl Jam. He tells a great story of how he discovered Django in an interview on Guitarworld.com. He is asked: “What guitarist has had the biggest impact on your playing?
“Dad would put on Django, and I couldn’t get up the stairs quickly enough. What happened was, I’d start listening to it on my way up the stairs. And then one day I stopped halfway up, turned, came back and sat down in the room. I said, “Holy crap, this guy’s good!” I heard Django before I heard blues artists, so I was always more drawn to the jazz side in my rock playing than I was to blues”.
Keith Richards often cites blues legends such as Robert Johnson as his major influence, but also Django. Keith said his mother “trained his ears with Django Reinhardt”. It just goes to show how far-reaching Django’s influence can be; leaving the world of jazz and going all the way to one of the iconic rock and roll stars of all time.
Guitarist Les Paul, who is commonly associated with the guitar of the same name, said he learned how to create guitar solos by listening to Django records and memorized Django’s solos note for note. This is no mean feat. Django’s solos can be technically very complicated.
Another example of the massive influence of Django across many types of guitarists is his influence on BB King, Legendary blues guitarist, Riley “B. B.” King, first heard a recording by Django brought back from France by a returning GI and forever set aside his plow in favor of his guitar.
Django’s influence didn’t stop at rock n roll or blues players either. A hot country picker called Chet Atkins made a pilgrimage to see Django perform during Django’s only visit to the United States in 1946, and came away speechless.
His influence didn’t stop there. Master of the Spanish classical guitar Andrés Segovia watched Django play at a Paris soirée and was hooked. He immediately requested a copy of the music to perform.
Dire Straits frontman and lead guitarist Mark Knopfler did a version of Django’s classic ‘Minor Swing’ on his album Metroland. A longtime fan of Django, you must also check out his duet with Chet Atkins of another Django classic ‘I’ll see you in my dreams’.
Here it is:
A formidable player in his own right, Jeff Beck was quoted saying Django was “by far the most astonishing guitar player ever … Django was quite superhuman, there’s nothing normal about him as a person or a player.”
“His electric playing in the forties is just humiliating. His lead lick–whew! I slow them down, and I still can’t grasp what he’s doing. Recently I acquired some rare scratchy black-and-white film of Django playing. It’s the most glorious, but tantalizing short footage, but he is playing like crazy. I’ve been studying it in slow motion, and all you can see are these two grubby fingers going like lightening up and down the fretboard.”
Black Sabbath guitarist Tony Iommi lost the tips of his middle and ring fingers in a sheet-metal factory. Hearing the music of Django helped Tony regain his passion for the guitar. As we learned (see intro) Django managed to find a way through his condition, in the process creating a new way to play the guitar. So did Tony, thanks to hearing Django.
Tony said ‘It made me invent a new way of playing’
Stevie Ray Vaughan
Stevie Ray Vaughn is also a massive Django fan. This is what he said in Guitarworld.com “To me, Django and Jimi were doing the same thing in a lot of ways. Django would do it with acoustic guitar and Jimi would do it on electric, using feedback and things. Instead of using feedback, Django would just shake those strings like crazy. And neither one of them had anything to build on … they just did it. Django didn’t have any book or anything to borrow from. He wrote the book. Same with Jimi. Nobody was doing those kinds of electronic things he was doing. He just did it.”
Tommy Emmanuel is one of the most exciting acoustic guitarists today. It’s tempting to think at his level, there’s no-one above him. In an informal chat with Tommy, he was asked who he always listens to for inspiration. Yup, you guessed it. Django!
“If I want to listen to a guitar player that fires me up, I always put on Django”.
See the clip below (he talks about Django at 0:53):
Quite an accolade isn’t it! Listening to great guitarists is a key element of maturing as a guitarist. It helps to develop your listening skills immensely. Do it enough and some of the sheer beauty and power of their music may just seep into your own playing.
Listen to this great collection of his music below. Listen to it, soak it up. You’ll be a better guitarist for it.
Ged is Founder and Editor-in-chief at Zing Instruments. He’s a guitarist for London based gypsy jazz band ‘Django Mango’ and a lover of all things music. When he’s not ripping up and down the fretboard, he’s tinkering with his ’79 Campervan.