Django guitar for the experienced player, in 6 months, 10 easy stages (and less than $6 a day)
By Mike Hardaker
It’s too easy to sound like a half-decent manouche guitarist if the guitar just oozes "that sound". The deep-down secrets are actually:
Numbers 3, 4 and 5 in this list may seem pretty obvious, but they’re a lot harder to crack than you might think (especially if you’ve been playing guitar for a decade or two).
The rest are less obvious, and even harder to get tapped. If you’ve been playing a Gibson, PRS, Martin, Taylor or even a Yamaha for a while, the odds are that you’re not very strong – there’s no need to be. Get one of those things that are designed to build up hand strength in tennis players (they look like two short sticks joined by a coil spring). Can you squeeze the thing closed 50 times in each hand? And then do it again? And again? If not, you’re not ready for the Django stuff. Now you’ve bought the tennis thing you can do some boring physical exercises every day – and you should – but it’s a lot better to fight with an old plank of a guitar with a half-inch action at the twelfth. Your innate desire to make the beast sound almost reasonable will force you to press down harder, release quicker and, generally, build up the strength of your fingers.
Dexterity comes from this as well.
Finally, the odds are that the old plank sounds awful, so you’ll start using serious finger vibrato while attacking the strings with your right hand. And that’s the secret to tone, basically.
Oh – string the bugger up with flatwound 12s. They’re even harder to play, and sound particularly bad on most guitars.
If you don’t have a crap guitar, buy one – 1960s "student" archtops are pretty cheap and almost always horrible. If you can’t buy something crap enough, go for a Hofner Congress or something like that – not exactly "crap" but totally inappropriate!
Most rock/folk/jazz guitarists rest their fingers on the guitar while playing, holding the pick delicately between thumb and forefinger (or middle-finger). This won’t do. Clench your fist and then park the plectrum (which should be seriously heavy – like 3mm thick) at 90 degrees to your thumb. Clamp it there. Play like this. It’ll hurt (a lot – but you’ve got that tennis thing to build up your wrist) but that’s what you gotta do. Honestly. Look at the old photos: no fingers on the box...
It’ll take a while before you’re comfortable with this, but in the meantime you can...
I mean really learn the chords. Not the chords you already know. Unless you’ve been dicking around on an ES-175 for forty years the odds are that you know lots of chords that have your hands in completely the wrong position and that you’ll never use in manouche jazz. Get Mickey Baker’s book on Jazz Guitar and look at the first few pages. Learn every one of the chords. Properly. Then string them into sequences and get these off pat. Then do it again. And again...
The chords may seem more appropriate to Bop than manouche jazz, but they all – even the really odd ones – will help your soloing later.
Then start inventing chords. Find the bass note you want and work out (1... 3... 5... 7... 11...) where the other notes are. You’ll find new inversions that aren’t in any book (because they’re a bit weird) but that sound great when thrashed out with a boom-chicka beat.
But don’t get hung up by finding all the notes in a chord. Any 7th can be perfectly satisfactory with only three notes (even though it "needs" four) and so on. Look for the rhythm and the feel.
And get those changes moving at 300bpm, four changes per bar.
Boring? Yes. Essential? Also.
Get the basics drilled into you: major, minor, major 6th, major 9th, diminished, augmented, chromatic...
Then do them faster. And faster. Then pick a spot on the fingerboard at random and do every scale you know – from there. Learn every scale, every arpeggio, in every position, until playing them is as natural as breathing.
If you’re the sort of person who likes to know they’re playing a G mixolydian over a B7 phrygian then learn all that stuff. Otherwise, just build the sense-memory of where you fingers go for all the options. Both approaches work...
Most jazz standards are in awful keys for the guitar – eleven flats, and the like. Transpose them into something civilised like G major and then learn the rhythm part (using modified chords you’ve learnt earlier – and with the assumption that "G" never means "G", probably means "G6", but could be anything...). Then practice that rhythm part until you can produce the best rhythm part for Sweet Georgia Brown (or whatever...) that anyone’s ever done. Then build on the rhythm part, imagining Grappelli’s doing his solo while you vamp. To stay fresh, try to be Eddie Lang behind Joe Venuti. That’s what Django did, after all...
Only when you can hear the chord changes in your sleep should you learn the top line. Get the melody down pat.
Then try the whole business in different keys. Eleven of them.
It’ll be hard, because you’ll still be struggling with that crap guitar – but do it anyway.
Record your brilliant rhythm parts and then play over them. Start by just working around the top line and then, after a week or so, pretend you don’t know the melody and just follow the important notes of the chords (the ones you "hear" best) and throw your scales over them.
You probably grew up listening to the Beatles, the Stones, Nirvana or that Spears woman. It doesn’t matter – remove all these things from your life. Listen exclusively to French valses, flamenco, Bach, Satchmo’s Hot Seven and the like.
Then bring in some Django, and the better disciples (Rosenberg Trio, Romane...). Avoid the speed-freaks such as Jimmy Rosenberg – pick up the melodic sense (which often gets lost when too many notes are involved). Speed-freaks will just intimidate you, pointlessly. Django will intimidate you, of course, but that does have a point...
Forget the backing tapes. Just pick up a guitar and make beautiful music. Don’t worry about what you’re playing, just play.... When you spouse/parents/offspring/SO/poodle think it sounds nice, move on to...
You are now ready. It’s time to phone up Maurice Dupont (or your luthier of choice). You’ll be relatively scrappy, but you won’t actually embarrass yourself. And you’ll sound a lot better than you used to...
You need this before your first gig. No manouche guitarist can be taken seriously without one. If you’re under sixteen (or female) then buy one from a joke shop.
And if you’ve reached this stage in less than 6 months, you’re either a genius or you’re lying to yourself....