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Gypsy Jazz Guitar: Melody & Improvisation

A Gypsy Jazz Guitar Lesson by Steve MacReady

This lesson is an introduction on how to play gypsy jazz guitar. This style is most associated with the gypsy guitarist Django Reinhardt, who found fame in the 1930‘s playing his own unique style of swing music alongside the violinist Stephane Grappelli.

Other gypsy jazz guitarists include Bireli Lagrene, Diz Disley and Ian Cruikshank - I strongly recommend Cruikshank’s book 'The Guitar Style of Django Reinhardt and the Gypsies' for any one interested in this style.

Because this is Jazz music, there is not one definitive scale or one distinctive mode that characterizes the Gypsy Jazz sound, however a good knowledge of arpeggios is a useful way to start and a great way to enter into the spirit of this style.



Arpeggios are the bread and butter of gypsy jazz guitar. Django would often use triads, here are 2 examples:


Ex.1: (Chicago): this first example is an Fmaj7 arpeggio that starts on the 7. Note that while descending, the 7 is no longer played, only the F triad.

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Gypsy Jazz



Ex. 2: (Nuages): Here's an example from Django's famous composition Nuages. It starts with a simple C triad that is repeated half a tone higher.

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In this video Django Reinhardt plays Nuages on electric (!) guitar:



It is not true that in order to create complex melodic lines you have to know your scales. I wouldn’t ever put anyone off learning scales – but equally Django Reinhardt often used nothing more than simple arpeggios to create long, melodic lines.

In the Gypsy jazz style, chords can move pretty quickly, often two chords to a bar. This easily allows melodic lines to be formed, provided you know your arpeggios well. Below are two examples of beautifully developed lines, completely based on arpeggios!


Ex.3: (Nuages): from an F triad to a Bbm triad and back.

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Nuages Guitar



Ex.4: (I can't Give You Anything But Love): starts with an Em7 arpeggio, to a Bdim7 arpeggio over A7 and resolves to the b7 of Dm. Recognize the Fmaj7 chord shape played over Dm. Bar 3 opens with a D triad, the b7 is introduced on beat 3 before going to an Ebdim arpeggio and resolving to the 3 of G.

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Gypsy Jazz Guitar



Very often Django will combine arpeggios with the odd scale note: one very common lick, and an example of this type arpeggio/scale combination, is a minor run that that can be played in any key and really evokes the ‘Gypsy sound’ when played fluently:


Ex.5: Run in E minor: an E minor arpeggio with added 9

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Gypsy Guitar



Ex. 6: Run in D minor: same as the previous example, but in D

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Gypsy Guitar Tabs


Licks & Tricks

Django had limited use of his left hand (it was badly burnt in a fire) and he developed a unique way of playing chords runs and solos. Conventional technique was not an option to him and so he invented many tricks that have now become standard guitar techniques both within and outside the Gypsy Jazz style.

Quite simply, long flowing lines based on scales and modes are not a feature of Django's style. His left hand style is very ‘choppy’ and full of staccato notes at faster tempos; but this is balanced by an amazingly agile right hand and Django was able to create wonderful effects as a result. Some typical Django patterns and tricks are shown below.


Ex.7: Diminished Run: this guitar lick can be played over D7, F7, Ab7 or B7. The first note of each chord is picked with an up stroke. The following notes are swept downwards creating a lovely rippling effect. The right hand needs to be very accurate while the left hand merely keeps the same shape throughout.

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Diminished Guitar Lick



Ex.8: Chromatic Scale: Only two fingers are used for this chromatic scale. Finger one on the F, and the second finger for all the rest of the notes. When played accurately this lick instantly evokes the Gypsy style. It is tricky at first but well worth the effort. The key is to synchronize the picking right hand with the notes on the fret-board as you slide up the neck.

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Chromatic Guitar Lick



Ex.9: Dominant Chord Lick with two fingers: This lick is a humorous little tailpiece to a chord progression. For the most part it uses a distance of only two frets and only fingers one and two are needed. Typical Django.

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Django tab



There is more Django Reinhardt out there:

       How to Play Gypsy Jazz Guitar Chords
       Django Reinhardt's Guitars
       Django Reinhardt Guitar Licks

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