Django Reinhardt and the Inspiring Story Behind His Guitar Technique

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.")


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Comments (7)
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  • Hal says:

    Incredible! Playing with two finger what I wish I could play half as good with all five.

  • helen witham says:

    Thank you so much for sharing this Django and Stephane Grappelli were my late mother’s favourites…. marvellous memories……

  • Ben Robertson says:

    The last two fingers on his right hand weren’t paralyzed. They were twisted into a claw shape by the scarring on the tendons. He was unable to straighten them out, requiring him to create new fingerings for chords, and he was also able to use them for playing octaves.

  • Paul Pugliese says:

    I taught guitar for several years and on occasion some student would complain that he or she had short fingers.(So do I, big deal)I happened to have a cassette tape of Mr. Reinhardt and would play it for the students. They would be amazed in his sound. After the music, I would comment, “This guy had only two fingers on his left hand, go practice!” That usually stopped the whining. Great musician.

  • David Budd Sr. says:

    As a Lifetime Harmonica Player – in my early to mid or so 40’s I had to begin all over again from scratch due to MS and CIDP related paralysis, breathing deficiency, and asthma. I spent 6 to 7 years developing a Harmonica Style I had never known or heard of any other Harmonica Player(s) ever having played. A Harmonica Style I had to personally figure out and develop entirely from scratch. After all of the years it had taken me to develop and learn how to play it – I finally had a Harmonica Style that enabled me to play harmonica as well as to be able to breathe while playing harmonica. This is the level of my dedication and passion for playing music. However – it is a Single Note Style in which I play only a single note at a time which conserves my breathing and still enables me to play Diatonic Harmonicas so smoothly as to sound continuous as I am playing harmonica. I was told by a professional Harmonica Player this style is called, “Triple Tonguing.” I had learned how to play it having no knowledge it had ever existed.

    Currently – I am beginning to develop a more advanced Harmonica Style that I know beyond any doubt has never before been played on Harmonica. If it takes years for me to develop it then I will have enjoyed the journey. First I need to develop the physical mechanics of how to use my tongue, mouth, breathing, and passion to make playing this style a rare delicate possibility. From my years of experience developing how to play Triple Tonguing Harmonica – I learned how to cherish having patience.

    Now I am also hoping to develop a style to enable me to play Fingerstyle Guitar. I refuse to merely strum the guitar. There would be no passion for me in merely strumming my guitar. The difficulty — I have varying degrees of permanent paralysis in both of my hands due to MS and CIDP. I am hoping to learn the left hand fingering played by Django Reinhardt. Even this will require me to have to spend time working with my left hand. As for the paralysis in my right hand – I have yet to find a way to do the right hand fingering of the steel strings on my guitar.

    My request is this – do you have any detailed information regarding Django Reinhardt’s left hand playing?

    I am currently 67 years of age and have a sincere love for playing music.

    David Budd Sr.

  • Samuel says:

    I am sure you are familiar with his work, but if not you will be happy to discover the work of Jim Conway, and his bands The Backsliders and Big Wheel. Jim has been the king of the blues harp in Australia for 40 years – while having suffered through a difficult fight with MS.

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