by Andy Ellis & John Jorgenson

John Jorgenson has a highly eclectic résumé. The masses know him as the lion-haired guitarist in Elton John’s band, but he’s also a session cat who tracks guitar, mandolin, pedal steel, and saxophone for the likes of Barbra Streisand, Marty Stuart, Bob Seger, and Bonnie Raitt. Loyal fans know that Jorgenson cofounded the Hellecasters with fellow twangers Will Ray and Jerry Donahue. And some will remember Jorgenson from his days in the Desert Rose Band—an outfit that scored numerous Top Ten country hits.

But years before he embarked on any of these musical adventures, Jorgenson was playing Gypsy jazz on a Selmer 6-string in the L.A.-based Rhythm Brothers. For more than two decades, he has continued to hone his Django Reinhardt-inspired chops, and, in the process, earned a rep in Europe as one of the few Americans who can truly wail on a manouche guitar.

Modern Gypsy-jazz guitars, or guitare manouche (named in honor of Django Reinhardt and the Manouche Gypsies of Belgium and Northern France), stem from an instrument designed by classical guitarist and inventor Mario Maccaferri. From 1932 to 1934, Maccaferri built instruments for Selmer, a woodwind manufacturer based in Paris. “The original Selmer Maccaferri guitars had a 12-fret neck, a D-shaped soundhole, and an interior resonating chamber,” says Jorgenson. “Later, when Maccaferri and Selmer parted ways, Selmer switched to a 14-fret neck, removed the chamber, and changed the soundhole to an oval shape. Django played that model until his death in 1952.”

Read on for the Gypsy jazz guitar lesson with Power Tab, charts, audio, and text…

Guitar Lesson

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Building Harmonic Energy
“If you want to explore Django’s music,” says Jorgenson, “a good starting point is his tune ‘Minor Swing’—it’s the ‘Proud Mary’ of Gypsy jazz. ‘Minor Swing’ has a 16-bar progression that’s divided into two, eight-bar sections [strums Ex. 1]. In this style of music, you generally play minor chords as minor-6th voicings. Right away, this gives you that ‘hot’ sound. We’re in the key of A minor, so Am6 is the Im, Dm6 is the IVm, and E7 is the V. Instead of playing these chords as four-note voicings, try stripping them down to three-note shapes played on the sixth, fourth, and third strings, like this [plays Ex. 2a]. Do you see how the shapes are the same, whether you’re playing a minor 6 or a dominant 7?”

When you analyze Ex. 2a’s harmony, it becomes apparent why these chords are interchangeable. Take Am6, for instance: The fournote voicing (A, F#, C, E, low to high) provides the root, 6, b3, and 5. Drop the top note, and you’re left with the root, 6, and b3. The two most significant chord tones are the b3 (which supplies the minor sound), and the 6 (which gives the harmony its unique sonic color). The same principle applies to Dm6.

With E7 (B, G#, D, E), the chord tones are different, but the concept remains the same. The four-note voicing yields the 5, 3, b7, and root. Dump the top note, and you have 5, 3, and b7. This time, the two most significant tones are the 3 (which gives the chord its major sound), and the b7 (which imparts a dominant flavor). Together, the 3 and b7 create a tritone—the core interval that defines a dominant-7th chord.

“Things get fun when you start using passing chords,” continues Jorgenson. “By playing Bb7 and F7 in bars 14 and 16 of ‘Minor Swing,’ you set up half-step resolutions that create tension and release. For even more color, use diminished-7th chords as stepping stones from the Im to the IVm or the IVm to the V.”

Examples 2b and 2c show both the four-note and three-note fingerings of these passing chords. Take a look: Bb7 (Bb, Ab, D, F) is voiced root, b7, 3, and 5. Drop the top note and you have the root, b7, and 3. This abbreviated arrangement still contains the dominant 7’s essential b7 and 3. For F7, simply shove the previously mapped E7 up a fret.

The three diminished-7th chords—Bdim7, Cdim7, and C#dim7—all share the same four-note structure: root, 6 (technically speaking, a bb7), b3, and b5. When you shave off the top chord tone—the b5—you lose the one note that truly defines the diminished sound. But some sleight-of-hand is allowed when dealing with fast moving passing chords. In this case, momentum coupled with the suggestion of diminished harmony is enough to create the illusion.

“You can approach Dm6 chromatically with these abbreviated diminished-7th voicings,” says Jorgenson as he plays Ex. 3a. “To keep the rhythm crisp, make the Am6 and Dm6 chords staccato. Notice how you’re using the same grip for all five chords? That’s the beauty of this voicing—it’s so versatile. You can also descend chromatically from Dm6 to E7 by way of the diminished chord [plays Ex. 3b].”

Arpeggio Power
When it comes to improvising single-note lines, it pays to know your arpeggios. “They’re crucial to Gypsy jazz,” states Jorgenson. “For instance, let’s try a line over Am6, the first chord in ‘Minor Swing’ [plays Ex. 4a]. There’s a chromatic moment on the second string, but otherwise the line comes directly from an Am6 arpeggio—A, C, E, and F#. For an authentic sound, use a quick, singing vibrato. Over Dm6—the Ivm—I might do something like this [plays Ex. 4b]. The framework is a Dm arpeggio—D, F, and A—with extra color provided by E and Eb, the 9 and b9, respectively. Again, we get some chromatic motion.”

Let’s take a closer look. Against Ex. 4a’s Am6, the chromaticism is 5-#5-6 (E-F-F#); against Ex. 4b’s Dm6, it’s 9-b9-root (E-Eb-D). For the sake of convenience, we’ve notated these moves with three-digit fingering. Because Django only had full use of his 1st and 2nd fretting-hand fingers, he would typically slide one finger up or down the fretboard to generate chromatic motion. While it’s not necessary to play Django-inspired lines with only two fingers, doing so can help you decode his unique fretboard patterns.

“This is especially true of arpeggios,” elaborates Jorgenson. “When I pull a lick from one of Django’s records, I try to determine where I can play it with two fingers, because then it’s more likely to be in the position that he used. There are many ways to finger the notes in this E7 lick, for example [plays Ex. 4c], but this particular pattern feels right. Basically, we’ve got an E7 arpeggio [E, G#, B, D or 1, 3, 5, b7] enhanced with four color notes [Bb, C#, D#, F# , or b5, 6, 7, 9]. If you look carefully, you’ll see how the notes seem to fall in pairs. That’s a hallmark of Django’s two-finger lead style, and it gives you a really strong, even sound.”

To glue an arpeggio-based run tightly to the underlying harmony, end on a chord tone, as in Examples 5a and 5b. “In both cases, we start with a dissonant b5,” says Jorgenson, “but the last note resolves inside E7, the chord of the moment. Notice, however, that we’re not targeting the root. The 5 or the 3 [B or G#] offer a sense of resolution without being too final. In this lick [plays Ex. 5c], chord tones act as bookends. We start with the b7 [D], and work down to the 3 two octaves lower. Django loved to work the b5 to 6 shift into his phrases—it’s one of his key moves.”

Diminished Strategies
Diminished sounds play an important role in Gypsy-jazz lines. “Say you have an E7-Am6 change,” Jorgenson details. “That’s a V-Im cadence. To build tension before heading into the Im, try arpeggiating a diminished chord whose root is a half-step above the V7. In this lick [plays Ex. 6a], we launch into an E7 arpeggio from a half-step below [D#], then roll through an Fdim arpeggio, and finally tag Am6’s root.”

Wicked theory alert: The notes in Fdim are F, Ab, and Cb, or 1, b3, and b5. To reduce the occurrence of accidentals in this example and make it easier to read, we’ve written the b3 and b5 enharmonically as G# and B. “Diminished-7th arpeggios are slippery,” admits Jorgenson. “Any note in the pattern can function as the root—it really depends on where you start playing. Like in this V-Im line [plays Ex. 6b], it’s easiest to analyze the ascending arpeggio as a G#dim7 [G#, B, D, F or 1, b3, b5, bb7] simply because we’re starting on G#. Conceptually, imagine that you’re launching the diminished sound from E7’s 3. This approach works for any V-Im cadence.”

Jorgenson’s Gypsy-jazz phrases rise and fall like waves. “What goes up, should come down,” he says, playing the next three V-Im examples, each of which ascends over E7 and descends over Am6. “Even though these licks begin the same the way—by stepping through a G#dim7 arpeggio—they differ in their endings. You might land on Am6’s root [Ex. 7a], or b3 [Ex. 7b], or 6 [Ex. 7c]. Such subtle tweaking lets you get a lot of mileage from a given arpeggio pattern.”

Baubles and Bangles
“Ornaments offer another way to create variety,” explains Jorgenson. “Compare this double grace note [plays Ex. 8a] to a sixteenth note triplet [plays Ex. 8b], or this phrase [plays Ex. 8c]. The notes are identical in each instance, but the different ornaments alter the rhythm, which, in turn, puts the emphasis on different pitches. If you’re ambitious, you can spin one line into two or three new ones by simply applying various embellishments.”

To illustrate, Jorgenson plays Ex. 9a. “First try this Dm6 arpeggio with a grace-note hammer and pull. The slurs are really fast and very decorative. For a more rhythmic approach, try the D-E-D move as sixteenth-note triplets.”

Ex. 9b is another Dm6 line that can be interpreted in several ways. “You get a fluttery sound when you play the half-step slurs as grace notes,” says Jorgenson. “For more drive, play the A#-B-A# move as sixteenth-note triplets. You might be tempted to use three fingers on the chromatic sections, but if you stick with two fingers, you’ll get closer to Django’s sound. Sometimes he would play a series of chromatic notes with one finger. The trick is to apply enough fretting pressure to keep the string vibrating as you bounce over the frets, but not grip so hard that you have trouble gliding along the string. In this Im-IVm line [plays Ex. 10a], I’m using one finger to chromatically descend from Am6’s root to Dm6’s b3 [F]. You can also ascend chromatically with one finger [plays Ex. 10b]. We’re moving from E7’s 3 [G#] to Am6’s b3 [C] in this V-Im phrase.”

Encircling Chord Tones
At times, Django would create chromatic colors in his lines by approaching a chord tone from its adjacent neighbors. Jazzbos refer to this technique as encirclement.

“Let’s say you’re making the transition between E7 and Am6,” says Jorgenson, playing Ex. 11a, “and you want to target E—the 5 of Am6—on the downbeat of bar 2. In the last beat of bar 1, play F and Eb, which respectively lie a halfstep above and below the target note. This sets up tension against the underlying E7 chord that’s released the moment you cross into Am6 territory.

“Or try this line [plays Ex. 11b]. We’re again using F and Eb to target E, but, this time, it’s functioning as E7’s root. The cool thing about these half-step approaches is that you’re able to retain the simplicity of an arpeggio-oriented technique, yet play some very jazzy tones.

“You’ll get a similar effect playing through the bII-Im change in bars 14 and 15 of ‘Minor Swing’ [Ex. 12a]. After cruising over E7 with a descending G#dim7 arpeggio, simply arpeggiate Bb7 before resolving to Am6’s root. Two of Bb7’s chord tones—Bb and Ab—lie a half-step away from the target A. It’s an arresting sound.”

As an encore, Jorgenson plays Ex. 12b, which features anFdim7 arpeggio over E7 (bar 1) and revisits the bII-Im, Bb7-Am6 encircling technique (bar 2).

More Manouche Music
“Gypsy jazz is huge in Europe,” says Jorgenson. “The style is really alive and evolving, particularly in Holland, Belgium, France, and Germany. When I first started playing this music 20 years ago, it was hard to find information about it here in the United States. But today, interest is growing rapidly, partly because of the Internet and chat rooms. You can order virtually any European Gypsy-jazz album from the web, and many American cities have their own ‘Hot Club’ bands patterned after Django’s Quintet of the Hot Club of France.

“The standard-bearer of the manouche technique is Stochelo Rosenberg. Angelo Debarre is another great player, and Bireli Lagrene was hot when he was only 10 years old. He has a phenomenal mastery of Gypsy-jazz music. Sinti’s Jimmy Rosenberg is really young with amazing chops, and for composition and swing, I really like Romane. He pushes the boundaries by mixing sambas and bossas with Gypsy jazz. All in all, it’s a great time for exploring Django and Gypsy jazz. You’ll find the music offers ideas and techniques to keep you inspired for years.”