When you hear the guitar playing of Django Reinhardt, with its fluid phrasing and lightning-fast arpeggios, it’s incredible to think that he had only two good fingers on his left hand.
When Reinhardt was 18 years old he was badly burned in a fire. It was late on the night of November 2, 1928. The young guitarist was at home with his common-law wife, Bella, in their gypsy caravan on the edge of Paris. To scrape together a little money, Bella had been making artificial flowers out of paper and highly flammable celluloid. When Django accidently knocked over a candle, the material from the flowers ignited and the trailer was quickly engulfed in flames.
They both survived, but Django would spend the next 18 months recovering from terrible injuries. When a doctor expressed interest in amputating his right leg, Reinhardt left the hospital and moved into a nursing home, where he eventually got better. The two smallest fingers on his left hand–crucial to a guitarist for articulating notes on the fretboard–were paralyzed. A lesser musician would have given up, but Reinhardt overcame the limitation by inventing his own method of playing. With his two good fingers he moved rapidly up and down the guitar neck while making very limited use of his two shriveled fingers on chords, double-stops and triple-stops. He rose above his handicap to create one of the most distinctive instrumental styles in 20th century music.
For a rare look at Reinhardt’s amazing technique, watch the excerpt above from the 1938 short film, Jazz “Hot.” It features Reinhardt with violinist Stéphane Grappelli and their band, Quintette du Hot Club de France, playing a swing version of the popular song “J’attendrai.” (It means “I will wait.”) And to learn more about Reinhardt’s life and times, look below for the 2010 French documentary Django Reinhardt: Three-Fingered Lightning. (The third finger referred to in the title is the musician’s thumb.)