Django Reinhardt: The original Guitar Hero?
Saturday marks what would have been the 100th birthday of guitarist Django Reinhardt, and one thing the Gypsy jazz innovator is often credited with is helping elevate the guitar from a supporting role to a lead player in his vibrant take on early American jazz.
In the early part of the century -- when all the music world was unplugged -- that wasn’t much of an option because hollow-body acoustic guitars of the day couldn’t compete with the volume produced by other instruments used in jazz such as piano, trumpet, clarinet and saxophone.
But in his trans-Atlantic take on jazz, Reinhardt did two important things: He created an ensemble consisting only of strings -- no drums or wind instruments to compete with. And he played an innovative guitar created in Selmer's musical instrument factory in Paris.
In America, guitar makers such as National and the Dopyera Brothers, creators of the dobro, were experimenting with the use of metal instruments to increase their volume. The Selmer guitar used by Reinhardt was something of a cross between a flattop and an archtop, with an innovative sound hole and soundboard that increased its ability to project.
Gypsy jazz player John Jorgenson notes that only about 1,000 such instruments were made between 1932 and 1953, when Selmer stopped producing them. They’ve become highly collectible among Gypsy jazz enthusiasts. Jorgenson has picked up five different models over the years, but notes that other companies have since started copying the Selmer design in new models, including Saga’s Gitane models, which Jorgenson has endorsed with a signature line.
Another Reinhardt devotee, New York jazz player Frank Vignola, doesn’t worry about using an instrument comparable to Reinhardt’s. A friend and associate of guitar great Les Paul, Vignola recalled that Paul was part of the procession at Reinhardt’s funeral, and that after the service, Reinhardt’s widow gave him her husband’s guitar.
“I had the pleasure of playing it a couple of times,” Vignola said, “and if there’s such a thing as a spirit in a guitar, that was it…. I did have one of those guitars for a while, but it was so one dimensional — only that one sound that came out of it -- I never really felt comfortable with it.”
By coming up with a suitable ensemble in which the guitar could lead—often in tandem with violin—and playing a technologically advanced instrument with seemingly limitless dexterity and musicality coupled with a dynamic presence as a performer, Reinhardt might well be considered the original Guitar Hero.
Photo: 1949 Selmer guitar. Credit: Gypsyguitars.com