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.")

by | Permalink | Comments (5) |

Support Open Culture

We're hoping to rely on our loyal readers rather than erratic ads. To support Open Culture's continued operation, please consider making a donation. We thank you!

Comments (5)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.
  • 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.

Leave a Reply