Heavy Metal owes many debts, though it doesn’t always acknowledge them—debts to classical music, through guitarists like Yngwie Malmsteen, to the blues, through Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple, and to jazz, through a host of players, including Black Sabbath’s guitarist Tony Iommi. But while other players have picked up techniques from the jazz idiom like blast beats and sweep picking, Iommi found something else: the motivation to relearn to play the guitar after losing three of the fingertips on his right hand in an industrial accident, on his last day on the job, right before he was to embark on a European tour. He was only 17 years old. Iommi narrates the story himself above in “Fingers Bloody Fingers,” a powerful animated short by illustrator Paul Blow and animator Kee Koo.
After the gruesome accident, Iommi, “extremely depressed,” tragically resigned himself to never play the guitar again — that is, until his factory manager visited him in the hospital and told him the story of Django Reinhardt, the Belgian-Romani swing guitarist who lost two fingers in a terrible fire at age 18, himself just on the verge of stardom and highly sought after by the greatest bandleaders of the day. In the clip above from the French documentary Trois doigts de genie (Three Fingers of Genius), learn how Reinhardt overcame his disability to become one of the most famous guitarists of his day, and see why Iommi was so inspired by his story. “A lesser musician would have given up,” wrote Mike Springer in a previous post, “but Reinhardt overcame the limitation by inventing his own method of playing.” Iommi, of course, did the same, also along the way introducing a lighter gauge of string, which millions of rock guitarists now use.
Reinhardt toured and recorded with his own ensembles and with Duke Ellington and others. Unfortunately precious little footage of him exists, but you can see him above with violinist Stephane Grappelli in their Quintette du Hot Club and in a few other short clips in this post. Once you hear Django’s story of overcoming adversity, and once you hear him play, you’ll understand why he inspired Iommi to push through his own pain and limitations to become one of the most influential guitarists of his generation.
Django Reinhardt and the Inspiring Story Behind His Guitar Technique
Django Reinhardt Demonstrates His Guitar Genius in Rare Footage From the 1930s, 40s & 50s
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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness.
Django did not lose two fingers. All you have to do is look at any photo of him or simply watch this film to see that. He lost partial USE of the last two fingers of his left hand after the fire. The scarring of the tendons left his ring and little fingers permanently bent in a claw shape. Being unable to straighten those fingers out, he had to create new ways of fingering chords, and he soloed with just two fingers. He was able to use the crippled fingers in chording by using them on the first few strings, and he also used them in playing octaves Today we struggle to recreate his solos with fully functioning left hands.