70 years on: Remembering Django Reinhardt, the Gypsy jazz trailblazer who triumphed over adversity and changed guitar forever

Django Reinhardt, who died 70 years ago today
(Image credit: Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images)

Few guitar players in history have had a greater impact on the instrument than Django Reinhardt, who died 70 years ago today in Samois-sur-Seine, France. 

Reinhardt’s name is synonymous with Gypsy jazz, and his influence on jazz guitar was titanic, leaving its mark on Wes Montgomery, Charlie Byrd and George Benson. His ability to adapt to the loss of the use of his ring and pinky fingers on his fretting hand after a devastating caravan fire in 1928 speaks volumes of his character and passion for the instrument. 

To be able to play at all would be a triumph. To play as he did – so clean, so quick, with such clarity – was a miracle. Those live clips we see of him on YouTube bear testament to that.

Speaking to MusicRadar in 2019, Benson said Reinhardt left him in awe for his determination to play on through and adapt to his disability. “He was harmonically interesting and had unbelievable technique,” he said. “That guy really swung hard!”

Reinhardt’s influence on the likes of Chet Atkins, not to mention his protégé Tommy Emmanuel, was clear for all to see. When asked which players changed his life, Emmanuel, whom many might consider the finest acoustic guitar player in the world, listed Reinhardt first and described him as the Louis Armstrong of guitar.

“Django created a whole genre of music that people are still listening to and trying to emulate,” said Emmanuel. “They call it ‘Gypsy jazz’, but I think Django just called it jazz. Django had more good ideas than any soloist I’ve ever heard. He had a great drive in his playing and a beautiful tone from his acoustic guitar. Towards the end of his life he showed us he could play bebop and play incredible inside lines like Charlie Parker.”

Jeff Beck and Jerry Garcia were fans. Willie Nelson loves him. Derek Trucks told us that he nearly named his son Django, before ultimately choosing Charlie Christian for a namesake. “He was just so powerful,” he said Trucks. “And he was another one whose right hand was just devastating, the rhythmic shit he would do, and just the confidence that he did it with. There is something about him being a Gypsy musician and the way you could just hear it in his playing. Every inch gained was hard fought for with Django.”

There is also a case to be made that without him there would be no heavy metal as we know it. When Tony Iommi of Black Sabbath lost fingertips on his fretting hand in an industrial accident there was a question of whether he could continue as a guitarist. But Reinhardt was the inspiration to carry on. “I could relate to Django Reinhardt after losing two fingers, and listening to him inspired me to play more,” Iommi told Gibson TV in 2020. Like Reinhardt, Iommi sought a workaround, and in lighter strings and tuning down he chanced upon a new sound for electric guitar.

“I used banjo strings at first because I was trying to find anything that was light that I could use, and I dropped the gauge down so that I was using a fifth [string] as a sixth,” he said. “That worked for me.”

I could relate to Django Reinhardt after losing two fingers, and listening to him inspired me to play more

Tony Iommi

Reinhardt’s ability, his capacity to imagine new chord voicings and solo ideas blew William DuVall’s mind. Speaking to MusicRadar in 2019, the Alice In Chains frontman/guitarist said his talent was “jawdropping” by anyone’s lights. The back story? Well, that makes it legendary.

“Even without the whole story background, he’d be one of the greatest to pick up the instrument,” said DuVall. “Factor in the injury and how he had to adapt his techniques. It’s similar to Les Paul, who had a car accident which left his arm unusable. They thought he’d never be able to play again, so he got his arm permanently fixed into position and bent so he could keep playing. Those guys really were the music. It shows in their recordings and playing.”

John Jorgenson, of The Desert Rose Band and Hellacopters fame is well placed to offer his perspectives on Reinhardt the man and his legacy. Jorgenson played him on film, appearing alongside Charlize Theron and Penélope Cruz in Head In The Clouds, John Duigan’s film about interwar Europe, [see his part below].

In conversation with the Musicians Hall of Fame and Museum in 2021, he detailed Reinhardt’s history, and how by 13 and 14 years old, Reinhardt was taking hard-scrabble gigs of playing banjo-guitar in the Parisian bal-musette. Back then, playing such venues was a life of danger.

“They were rough. People were in there and they would be dancing, and there would be fighting,” said Jorgenson. “The band would actually be in a little Juliet balcony kind of a thing – and they’d pull up the ladder after they got in because they didn’t want anybody messing with them! [Laughs]”

The makeup department gave him an idea of what Reinhardt had to contend with when he addressed the guitar after the accident.

“When I got the chance to play Django in the movie they put makeup to make it look scarred and burned and, actually, if I tried to open these [fingers] and play normal it hurt,” he said “So it kind of kept my hand in that position for the whole time.

“Django’s hand was pulled back, burnt these tendons, and it caused these two fingers to be stuck permanently in this position. These two fingers [index and middle] get super strong, and he could figure out how to angle around and use these and place them

 “A lot of his famous chords – like Manoir de mes rêves (Django’s Castle), which Chet recorded, if you just sit your hand like that on a guitar it kinda comes out that chord. And then jam these up the fingerboard… It was really phenomenal what he figured out using his thumb over the top of the neck like Hendrix used to do a lot. Just phenomenal.”

Not everyone got Reinhardt straight away. A young Peter Frampton didn’t. Speaking to MusicRadar in 2013, he recalled his parents having recently got a turntable and they would play Django Reinhardt And The Hot Club Quintet. 

It didn’t work for him at the time. The year was 1961. He was into the Shadows. Buddy Holly, Eddie Cochran, Gene Vincent, and Scotty Moore with Elvis were tearing things up. How could any kid resist that. But hearing Reinhardt planted the seed. 

What I really appreciate about Django is his choice of notes when he’s expanding on the melody, and that comes from inside. The passion that he put into each note was unbelievable

Peter Frampton

“It didn’t take that long for me to get it,” he said. “It became evident to me that this man, Django Reinhardt, had full command of his instrument, to say the least. He became a real favourite of mine, and ultimately one of my real guitar heroes.

“What I really appreciate about Django is his choice of notes when he’s expanding on the melody, and that comes from inside. The passion that he put into each note was unbelievable – I think that's part of his Gypsy soul. The man played with fire. He was ferocious. 

“And yet, he could be so delicate; he covered every mood and shade. More than everything, yes, I appreciate his chops, but it was his choice of notes and the way he made you feel when he played. There was such a beautiful melodic soul that came out of his music.”

All of this is why remember Reinhardt after all these years. Jorgenson says it is the flair that Reinhardt displayed with the instrument, and the fact he gave us something we never had heard or seen before. And what cannot be underplayed was the fact that it was Reinhardt who was the first to play the impossible on guitar. 

“I think that’s one of the reasons why Chet and Les Paul, and George Benson and Jeff Beck, and the Beatles, Tony Rice, every guitar player in every style loves Django,” said Jorgenson. “I think because there wasn’t anybody before him that was that dynamic and flashy, and did stuff that you didn’t even think was possible. I mean, maybe there was but however they were they weren’t recorded, and nobody knew.”

You can check out the full interview with Jorgenson above. And read Peter Frampton’s tribute to Django Reinhard here.

Jonathan Horsley

Jonathan Horsley has been writing about guitars and guitar culture since 2005, playing them since 1990, and regularly contributes to MusicRadar, Total Guitar and Guitar World. He uses Jazz III nylon picks, 10s during the week, 9s at the weekend, and shamefully still struggles with rhythm figure one of Van Halen’s Panama.