Gypsy Jazz Guitar: A Comprehensive Guide for Beginners

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Written By Sarah Barlow

Chief Music Officer

Gypsy jazz guitar, also known as Jazz Manouche, is a unique musical style that originated from the Romani guitarist Django Reinhardt in the 1930s. It features distinct characteristics such as elongated necks, a wide hollow body, and a bulkier feel compared to traditional acoustic guitars, which results in its signature sound (Guitar Space). This captivating music style combines elements of American jazz with traditional Romani music and the influences of early 20th-century French musicians.

These guitars typically have a long-extended neck, a slightly bigger body, and an oval or big D-hole, which produce a distinctive, crispier and more metallic sound that supports the famous “La Pompe” rhythm (Jazz Musics). Players of gypsy jazz guitars are drawn to the genre’s dynamic sound and the opportunity to explore complex techniques and melodic lines. Aspiring gypsy jazz guitarists should consider the unique features and qualities of these instruments when beginning their journey into this vibrant and energetic musical world.

History of Gypsy Jazz Guitar

Gypsy jazz, also known as Manouche jazz or Romani swing, finds its origins in the early 20th century in France. This distinctive music style was pioneered by the renowned Romani guitarist Jean “Django” Reinhardt, in collaboration with the French swing violinist Stéphane Grappelli, as they formed their group called the Quintette du Hot Club de France[1].

Paris experienced a significant cultural boom during the Belle Époque period in the late 19th century, with art, music, engineering, and technology all blossoming[2]. Gypsy jazz guitar has its roots back to this era but truly emerged in the 1930s, primarily due to Django Reinhardt’s talent and impact on the genre.

The development of the gypsy jazz guitar was a collaborative effort between Italian musician and luthier Mario Maccaferri and French instrument maker Selmer in the early 1930s[3]. The design of the gypsy jazz guitar, now commonly known as the Selmer guitar, has distinctive features that lend their character to the unique sound, techniques, and performance dynamics of gypsy jazz.

When it comes to playing the gypsy jazz guitar, it is often coupled with light, silver-plated, copper-wound Argentine strings made by Savarez, along with heavy plectrums[4]. These accessories contribute to the characteristic sound and tone that has become synonymous with gypsy jazz performance and style.

From the beginning of the Django Reinhardt era to the present day, gypsy jazz has continued to evolve and influence musicians worldwide, while remaining true to its historical roots and distinct sound.

Closeup view of an old manouche acoustic guitar, vintage style.

Key Characteristics

Gypsy jazz guitar, also known as Django style or Manouche, is a unique genre of music that originated in the 1930s. This guitar style is characterized by several distinctive elements that set it apart from other jazz genres. In this section, we will explore the essential features of gypsy jazz guitar.

One of the most notable aspects of gypsy jazz guitar is its rhythm, which is highly percussive and based on a swung 16th note groove known as ‘la pompe’. This rhythm involves playing downstrokes on the chords followed by a quick upstroke on muted strings (MusicRadar). This rhythmic structure drives the music and creates a unique, energetic sound.

The chord voicings used in gypsy jazz guitar are another characteristic of the genre. Many of the chords chosen are simple triads or seventh chords, often with added color tones such as sixths, ninths, and thirteenths. The chord progressions frequently feature a combination of major and minor chords, and the Dorian mode is often used for playing over minor chord progressions (Premier Guitar).

Another distinctive feature of gypsy jazz guitar playing is the heavy reliance on arpeggios. These melodic figures, built on the notes of chords, provide the foundation for the genre’s improvisational style. Fast arpeggio runs and chromatic passing tones are common in gypsy jazz guitar solos, as well as the use of the minor 6/9 sound. The solos are typically characterized by their fluidity and virtuosity (Premier Guitar).

In addition to these musical characteristics, gypsy jazz guitar often features unique instrument choices. Many gypsy jazz guitarists opt for Selmer-style guitars, which have a distinctive tone that sets them apart from traditional archtops and flat-top acoustics. These guitars are known for their bright, projecting sound and fast response (Acoustic Guitar).

Notable Gypsy Jazz Guitarists

Gypsy jazz, a music genre that originated in the 1930s, has produced numerous exceptional guitarists over the years. One of the pioneers in the field is the legendary Django Reinhardt, often credited with creating the unique style and sound of gypsy jazz guitar. His contributions to the genre are undeniable and have influenced countless musicians.

Bireli Lagrene is another prominent figure in the world of gypsy jazz guitar. Hailing from Alsace, this virtuoso musician gained recognition at a young age for his incredible dexterity on the guitar (Coach Guitar). Over the years, Lagrene has explored various musical styles, including traditional jazz.

Other notable gypsy jazz guitarists include Wawau Adler, Oscar Alemán, and Biel Ballester, who have all made significant contributions to the genre (Wikipedia). Lollo Meier, a Dutch gypsy guitarist, has also stood out among his peers for his exceptional talent and musicianship (

Aside from these established artists, there are also modern musicians who have embraced the gypsy jazz genre. For instance, Avenged Sevenfold’s Synyster Gates has returned to his jazz roots and embraced gypsy jazz in recent years, showcasing his diverse musical abilities (Guitar World).

In conclusion, gypsy jazz has been defined and enriched by a plethora of remarkable guitarists throughout the years. Their talents have not only contributed to the ever-evolving sound of the genre but have also ensured that gypsy jazz remains an important and captivating chapter in the history of music.

Learning Gypsy Jazz Guitar Techniques

Gypsy jazz guitar is a unique and distinctive style that has captured the hearts of many music enthusiasts. Learning the techniques behind this genre requires a solid understanding of the rhythm, chords, and picking styles. This section provides an overview of some essential techniques to help you get started on your Gypsy jazz guitar journey.

Rhythm plays a significant role in Gypsy jazz music. The percussive strumming pattern, known as ‘la pompe’, is a swung 16th note groove. To develop this technique, play downstrokes on the chords and a quick upstroke on the muted notes. Practicing this rhythm will give you the foundation needed to effectively play Gypsy jazz guitar melodies and accompaniment (Musicradar) .

Another crucial aspect of Gypsy jazz guitar is mastering the chord progressions. While there are many chord voicings to choose from, some popular choices include Am6, A13, D6/9, and E7. These jazzy chords will provide an authentic sound reminiscent of legends like Django Reinhardt, Birélli Lagrène, and Remi Harris (Musicradar). For the most authentic Gypsy jazz sound, focus on fretted chord grips rather than open-string chords (Premier Guitar) .

Gypsy jazz guitar picking techniques are also essential to develop. There are three primary picking styles to practice: rest stroke, upstroke, and sweep stroke. It is vital to keep your right hand relaxed and your wrist positioned at an angle to the body of your guitar (Beginner Guitar HQ). To master the ‘Gypsy-style’ right-hand technique, use a floating wrist with a relaxed pick grip, and try playing a small upstroke on the bass strings before the first and third beats (Premier Guitar).

With dedication and practice, these techniques will gradually become second nature, and you’ll be on your way to becoming a proficient Gypsy jazz guitarist.

Recommended Gypsy Jazz Albums

For those interested in exploring the vibrant world of gypsy jazz guitar, here are some recommended albums that showcase this unique style of music:

  • Django Reinhardt & Stéphane Grappelli – This compilation album features the legendary guitar virtuoso Django Reinhardt and violinist Stéphane Grappelli, who together defined the gypsy jazz sound. With 18 tracks that highlight their timeless collaboration, it’s a great introduction to the genre.
  • Gypsy Jazz: 1 Hour of Best Gypsy Jazz FULL ALBUM – This YouTube compilation features one hour of gypsy jazz music, providing a diverse sampling of guitar and violin performances that exemplify the genre’s signature energy and improvisational spirit.
  • The Best Of Django Reinhardt – Released in 1960, this album showcases 24 of Reinhardt’s most iconic compositions, encapsulating his unparalleled skill as a guitarist and his unique contributions to the development of gypsy jazz.

While these albums offer a fantastic starting point, there are countless other talented gypsy jazz artists to discover. A few notable mentions include:

  • Johann Duo Mosïk – Their 2008 album features 11 tracks that beautifully showcase their modern approach to traditional gypsy jazz sounds.
  • Al Di Meola – His 1977 album Elegant Gypsy fuses jazz and Spanish music influences, creating an exciting and enjoyable listening experience.

Exploring these albums and artists will not only introduce you to the complex guitar techniques and lively melodies that characterize gypsy jazz, but also provide a deeper appreciation for the historic and cultural background of this captivating musical tradition.