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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