A Beginners Guide To Gypsy Jazz
I love Gypsy Jazz! So much so that I want to spread the love and help grow this genre of music particularly in Australia. I have also opened Gypsy Jazz Australia. Australia’s first dedicated Gypsy Jazz store, as I was frustrated trying to buy the specialty guitars and accessories, we all like to use.
When I first started out, I found it hard to figure out what Gypsy Jazz was all about. It took me a bit of digging around and a few wrong turns before I was on my way.
I would like to help you so you can get straight into it!
This blog / site is not intended to be comprehensive. I would rather keep it brief and give you links if you want to learn/read/listen/do more. At least you can wet your toes enough to decide if it is for you. The disclaimer is that while online learning is easy and accessible; it is hard to replace a really good Gypsy Jazz guitar teacher who can help you with technique and keep steering you in the right direction. Just make sure they can really play Gypsy Jazz! I spent 6 months with a teacher finger picking on a classical guitar thinking I was learning Gypsy Jazz…sorry that won’t work!
SO..WHY PLAY GYPSY JAZZ?
WHY PLAY GYPSY JAZZ?
- Because you can jam! Two people or a hundred, Gypsy Jazz was made to jam. If you are tired of playing on your own, Gypsy Jazz has a wonderful welcoming community that loves getting together to play. With some basic rhythm you can get amongst it pretty quickly. I love these guys jamming around a kiddy pool!
- It is so much fun! Gypsy Jazz is almost frivolous and light hearted, and always an easy escape.
- In its basic form it is easy to learn, but can take a lifetime to master. Possibly the most famous tune “Minor Swing” has three chords, and two of those chords are the same shape. Yet the rhythm and soloing techniques are extraordinary once you start digging. Every bend reveals another acre of learning and technique.
Here is Minor Swing-
- You get to really make music. Gypsy Jazz has a swag of classics (standards) that are played often. But by improvising you get to make it your own; put your own stamp on things.
- You don’t need a band. Gypsy Jazz is guitar based. The guitar makes all the percussion, rhythm and melody. One guitar is fun, two guitars and you are making music. Having said that in its classic form a double base and a violin are common. You could easily find yourself at a jam with guitars, accordion’s, mandolins, flute, bongo, bass guitar…everyone is welcome!
- It is acoustic. No need for amps, ear phones. You can play it around a camp fire…or gypsy caravan!
I could go on…but you get the idea.
GYPSY JAZZ AND DJANGO – A SHORT HISTORY
Gypsy Jazz, also known as Gypsy Swing and Monouche amongst other names, dates back to Paris in the 1930’s, and a Belgian Gypsy guitarist Django Reinhardt and a violinist Stephane Grappelli.
Django was an extraordinary and creative guitarist. Intrigued by the sounds of American jazz he and Grappelli would take turns improvising while the other played; along the way creating their own unique sound. Eventually they formed the Quintette du Hot Club De France often with Django’s brother Joseph (playing rhythm) and a double bass.
The music of Django and Grappelli while Jazz, was different to anything the World had heard before. Django cleverly molded the gypsy guitar sounds with jazz. His sound was usually completely acoustic and string based, replacing the drums with a percussive rhythm guitar, and dispensing with the trumpets and piano’s more synonymous with jazz at the time.
Django is certainly the hero of any Gypsy Jazz guitarist. Like many Gypsy’s he grew up playing music around the camp. He couldn’t read or write. He had no formal musical training other than his gypsy family. Along the way he also had his hand badly burnt in a camp fire and lost the use of all but two fingers on his fretting hand. But boy could he play; and play FAST!
Here is a rare video of Django, Grappelli and the Hot Club De France…
Django was an intriguing character. Forever a Gypsy at heart! He was renowned for being late to shows and gambling away his earnings. He would often disappear to hang out with his extended Gypsy family. But there was no denying his talent as a musician and a prolific composer. He played on his own terms.
Django and the Hot Club toured and recorded from 1934 until the outbreak of war in 1939 when sadly he and Grappelli were separated and the Hot Club eventually disbanded.
After the war Django continued to play and compose some wonderful music, and even toured America with Duke Ellington. But the heady days of the Hot Club were in the past. Django passed away quite young (43) in 1953.
Here are links to the history of Gypsy Jazz http://www.columbia.edu/~lnp3/mydocs/culture/Gypsy_Jazz.htm
GYPSY JAZZ AFTER DJANGO
Stephane Grappelli and Django did play again together after the war but both were now pursuing different musical paths. Stephane had a long and varied musical career after his partner Django had passed away.
In the 1970’s Gypsy Jazz and the Hot Club style of music was experiencing interest from a younger audience. In 1973 Grappelli was enticed back to his Hot Club days performing with a new breed of guitarist. His performances at the time were met with rapturous audiences and led to a resurgence in the popularity of Gypsy Jazz.
Since then, the fire and passion for Gypsy Jazz has been kept stoked by a series of incredible musicians and their own interpretation of the genre.
These days the music played by Gypsy Jazz musicians is a mixture of old and new. The music of Django is ever present, blended with old and modern jazz and swing, waltzes, ballads and Bossa’s.
Here are a few to listen to–
The Rosenburg Trio
Bireli Lagrene & Joscho Stephan
GYPSY JAZZ GUITARS
So what is with the different looking guitars? Do I need one?
Please get started on whatever instrument you can get your hands on. But ultimately if you want to get that authentic Gypsy percussive rhythm you are going to need a Gypsy Jazz guitar and a really solid pick.
So, what makes the Gypsy guitar different?
The guitar used by Django, and the guitarists in the Hot Club de France, was a Selmer Maccaferri. Selmer was the manufacturer and Maccaferri was a luthier who had an unusual design at the time. The guitars they built were about the size of a dreadnought with a metal tail piece and a movable bridge with a moustache marker each side. The top was gently arched and quite thin. They also usually had a cut away which was quite novel at the time. Also, novel was the sound hole; either oval (Petite Bouche) or a large D (Grande Bouche). Even today I think these guitars are unique looking.
Though these Selmer’s were not especially designed for Django. He and the Hot Club made these guitars their own; and the design suited their music perfectly. The thin top, brass tailpiece and large body gave these players plenty of volume and a percussive sound hard to find in other guitars. They had a sound of their own.
Here is some more reading on Selmer guitars-
Today a Selmer guitar is automatically associated with Gypsy Jazz. Sadly, there are less than 200 original Selmer left and they fetch huge prices ($30k - $75k). Fortunately, there are excellent modern luthiers who copy the original design and keep us all playing authentically.
BUYING A GYPSY JAZZ GUITAR
After arriving at my first Gypsy Jazz guitar lesson with a Classical nylon string guitar, I immediately went and bought a Selmer copy…and it made huge difference.
In Australia the most accessible brands usually come from Asia and are reasonably good for their price point. These are a good place to start if you are happy to buy a brand-new guitar. Gitane, Altamira and Dell Arte sell a range of guitars from just under $1k to $2.5 for the upper end models which are all easy to find online and in some local guitar shops.
It is also worth connecting with the gypsy Jazz community on Facebook and Instagram. Often a guitarist is upgrading and needing to cash in his current model…try Australian Gypsy Jazz on Facebook or connect with your local jammers. Even Gumtree has a few come and go, but stay local and pick it up in person.
At Gypsy Jazz Australia we specialize on importing guitars not commonly found in Australia. The Dupont Nomade model and Geronimo Mateos Jazz B are both fantastic value in the $2k-$3k range.
GYPSY JAZZ PICKS
This is an original pick used by Django! They think it was made from Bakelite and had three beveled tips of different thicknesses.
English guitarist Martin Taylor was given one by Grappelli. Here he is showing it (SKIP TO 6min IN).
As you can see it is nothing like the plastic picks we would usually use. You will find that a solid beveled pick is necessary to get the true percussive sound needed for this style of music. I struggled for months with the wrong pick.
My advice is to initially find the biggest most inflexible pick you can; though I haven’t found a mass-produced cheap pick that can produce the authentic Gypsy Jazz sound.
Thankfully there are a few creative individuals who have set about solving the problem and make incredible handcrafted picks to re-create the Django sound. Two of the best are Michel Wegen (Wegen Picks) and Jokko Santing (Manouche Picks), both from Holland. My Gypsy Jazz store in Australia www.gypsyjazz.com.au directly import both Wegen and Manouche picks. But sadly, the days of $1 picks will be in the past! These picks are up to 7mm thick…the one I use the most is 3.5mm.
LEARNING GYPSY JAZZ
The foundation is Rhythm, Rhythm and Rhythm!
We all want to play like Django, and you may be an accomplished soloist and improvisor already. But in every jam you will be playing plenty of rhythm and taking turns to solo. Without rhythm there is no solo.
As a beginner the best way to get up and playing is to concentrate on learning the rhythm as comprehensively (and quickly) as you can. The Gypsy Jazz soloing techniques involve rest picking, and plenty of arpeggio’s and chromatic runs that are best learned first-hand from experienced players and teachers.
Once you are getting the hang of some good rhythm playing and a small repertoire of tunes you will be welcome in any jam. You will then learn plenty from the more experienced musicians.
This link is to the Django Fakebook. A Fakebook is a Jazz term for a book that gives you the basic’s of a tune ... enough to Fake it! It is a comprehensive chord and music chart to many of the classics that are played in Gypsy Jazz. Some players download it onto a tablet or get it prints and bound.
GYPSY JAZZ RHYTHM
You will come across many styles of rhythm while learning Gypsy Jazz. I would like to concentrate on the four most commonly found in a jam situation.
La Pompe - Listen to Minor Blues
Ballad- Listen to Si Tu Savais
Bossa – Listen to Bossa Dorado
Waltz – Listen to Indifference -
Or “The Pump” is your classic Gypsy Jazz rhythm. It is absolutely the Hot Club rhythm created by Django and his rhythm guitarists. It is played extensively through the repertoire of Gypsy Jazz swing songs.
It is best when you are starting out in Gypsy Jazz to dedicate yourself exclusively to learning La Pompe and several tunes for a couple of weeks before you move on to the ballads, depending on your current skill level. La Pompe sounds so simple. But to do it authentically, and well, is an art.
In its purist form La Pompe is a short bass stum down on the top 4 thick strings and a very quick percussive strum down over all 6 strings to create the sound of a rhythmic drum. As you progress there are up strokes and other embellishments to add.
It is best to break La Pompe down initially. A great way to describe the sounds are a woof (the deep and slightly longer held bass strum) and a crack (a very short sharp strum that is mainly percussive). To start with do each phase separately; do not try to do them together for at least a week until they sound perfect separately.
Concentrate on getting the sound right using just one chord at a time.
Here is Yaakov from gypsyandjazz.com giving a lesson on La Pompe