Video feedback on gypsy jazz guitar technique

November 12, 2006

How often do you look closely at how you are playing gypsy jazz guitar? Whenever I learn a new guitar technique I look very closely to see that I have got it right before I start regular practice, because regular practice programmes in the technique – bad technique gets programmed in just as easily as good. Gypsy jazz guitar has a number of fundamental techniques which have to be programmed in absolutely correctly otherwise huge problems emerge later when you try to use them at fast tempos or for a whole gig. The plectrum rest stroke (of which more soon) and the loose wrist (not arm) action for rhythm guitar are quite difficult to learn intially and there is considerable scope for error. Sometimes I play in front of a large mirror to check my technique but recently I have been using a video camera which is more useful because you can look at the replayed images with full concentration. I mounted the camera on a tripod and turned the viewing screen round so it was facing me, it was easy to set up and use.

I learnt a lot from looking at a few minutes of clips – I still move my forearm more than I should when playing rhythm guitar but this only happens at high tempos, I angle my plectrum correctly for rest strokes on the upper strings but don’t have enough angle on the lower strings (which is a counterintuitive finding) – all things that I can easily correct before I do more practice but which I wouldn’t have otherwise noticed. I recommend a session of video feedback every couple of months to check for creeping bad habits – but I won’t be posting mine on YouTube!


Gypsy jazz lick 1

October 26, 2006


Thinking about my post on gypsy jazz scales it seemed to me that it would be better if I could produce examples of arpeggio licks for readers to try. After a little fiddling around here is my first one (as described in the earlier post). It is simply the notes of a C major triad (or any other major triad if you slide it up and down the fretboard) with additional notes a semi-tone below each. The numbers show the order in which the notes should be played.

You could play this lick in a number of different rhythms and articulations. Each note could be one beat so the lick spreads across 2 bars, or each note could by a swung quaver in which case it would fit into one bar. Each note could be picked, or just the first note of each pair and then hammer-on the second. I find it easiest to play this with just the first two fingers of my left hand, as Django would have done.

You can also try starting on the triad note (i.e. number 2 in the diagram) going down a semitone and then back up to the triad note again, probably with a triplet rhythm.

Notice how the triad notes in this lick are the top four notes of a straightforward C major bar chord:


Gypsy jazz scales

October 26, 2006

One interesting feature of writing a blog is that you get information about the search terms which people have used to get to your site. One of the most popular search combinations that finds this site is ‘gypsy jazz scales’ so I thought I had better post my view on this subject:

There are no scales in gypsy jazz

Of course without qualification this might seem a little extreme but I am sure that if all novice gypsy jazz guitarists started from this premise then they would get going a lot faster, I know that I would have saved a lot of time learning any sort of jazz guitar style if I had initially ignored scales but it is especially relevant to gypsy jazz guitar.

If one looks at the general pattern of notes played in gypsy jazz the overwhelming pattern is of arpeggios with chromatic decoration – by that I mean the standard arpeggio notes of a chord, e.g. C E G for a C major chord, with other notes just above and below them.

Take a very common, and great sounding, Django lick which just consists of the three note of a major arpeggio (or more strictly major triad) and the notes a semitone below each of these – B C, Eb E, F sharp G, B C  – that sounds like authentic gypsy jazz doesn’t it?  It is very easy to see how this relates to the C major chord on the fretboard especially if you start on the B at the 9th fret on the D string and so it is very easy to see when you might use that lick simply by playing through the chords of the tune. If instead you analysed these notes in terms of a scale you would get – root, minor third, major third, flattened fifth, perfect fifth, major seventh – which doesn’t make any sense at all.

So my advice to any gypsy jazz guitarist just starting out is to ignore scales and practice lots of arpeggios. The triads – root,  third and fifth are a good starting point and then later add major sixths (sevenths don’t feature much in gypsy jazz, especially minor and major sevenths). You have to be careful how you choose to play the arpeggios, the temptation on the guitar is always to start on the bottom string and work across the strings but in gypsy jazz many arpeggios in solos will start on higher strings and go up and down the fretboard rather than across. For this reason it is best to get one of the excellent tuition books that are available and start from there. At the moment I am getting a lot of use out of Robin Nolan’s Essential Gypsy Jazz Licks which contains many of the most important decorated arpeggio patterns but I will be reviewing some alternatives to that on the site soon.

CD review – Acoustic Spirit by Romane

October 24, 2006


As I often do I found this CD on Amazon and that company does seem a great source of really rather specialist CDs. This is a double CD with a difference – one CD is a usual (though there is noting ‘usual’ about the standard of the music) audio CD of great gyspy jazz by Romane and a cracking band. The other CD contains all the tracks from the first but with the lead instruments removed so you can use it as a playalong for practice, and as all the compositions are by Romane this CD also contains all the written parts for lead and rhythm section. Goodness knows how long it took to put this project together but all gypsy jazz players should be grateful for such a greast learning resource.

The music on the first CD is great and well worth the price even if you have no interest in the 2nd CD.

Bireli Lagrene on DVD

June 28, 2006

I was lucky enough to see Bireli Lagrene when he was a teenager. I was a student in London at the time and treked across the city to the backroom of a pub in Putney where I heard the most amazing guitar playing I had ever listened to. Since then I haven’t had a chance to see Bireli again, he was supposed to tour the UK a couple of years ago but had to cancel due to an illness. So I looked for the next best thing and found a couple of DVDs of recent concerts:

Live in Paris – this is a DVD of a concert at a jazz club in Paris featuring Bireli’s current quartet, the one on the Move CD with Franck Wolf on saxophones, Hono Winterstein (my current rhythm guitar hero) and Diego Imbert on double bass. The concert starts with Bireli on acoustic guitar and the quartet is really cooking, the music is great and there is some jaw-dropping guitar playing especially on the (very) up-tempo version of Cherokee. The sound quality on the DVD is very good and the filming is great without too much rapid cutting between different views. Later in the concert Bireli picks up his electric guitar and I have to confess that I don’t like the sound of standard electric jazz guitar. The flat wound strings and the strong mid-range bias of the sound make it all sound muddy to me and I miss the sparkling upper harmonics that sing out from the acoustic guitar. I wouldn’t pick ‘Isn’t She Lovely’ as an encore number either but that’s just a question of taste. The first half of the DVD is fabulous and easily justifies the purchase.

Bireli Lagrene and Friends – this is a DVD at the Vienne jazz festival and was recorded a couple of years before the Live In Paris disc. The band is largely the original Gypsy Project line-up with the great Florin Niculescu on violin, Homo Winterstein and Thomas Dutronc on rhythm guitars and Diego Imbert on double bass. The first half of the concert is the quintet playing many of the tunes on the Gypsy Project and Gypsy Project and Friends CDs. The live situation seems to spur them on and they are more adventurous in thier soling than on the CDs. The second half of the concert features virtually all the best gypsy jazz guitarists in the world including Angelo Debarre, Stochelo Rosenberg, Tchavolo Schmitt, etc. Usually such guitar fests become a bit much but here they do play well and are disciplined about their soloing. As a bonus there is also footage of Bireli as a young teenager at the Montreux Jazz Festival.

How do you learn gypsy jazz guitar?

June 8, 2006

As soon as I heard Django Reihardt and other gypsy jazz guitarists I wanted to be able to play at least a little like that, and I am sure that just about any guitarist who hears gypsy jazz wants to as well. However the means to learn to play like this is not always readily available, and I speak with many years experience of trying. The biographies of Django Reinhardt and other great gypsy jazz guitarists from France and Belgium suggest that they were born into an environment where music was as much a part of life as eating and drinking and they had opportunities to learn from members of their close social group from an early age. This doesn’t happen to many aspiring gypsy jazz guitarists! A good teacher would be invaluable but again these are rare in many places. Sheffield, where I live, is a conurbation of a million people but I don’t know of any gypsy jazz guitar teachers. Generic jazz guitar methods are of no use at all – they mainly concentrate on scales whereas gypsy jazz is much more centred on arpeggios, they are often based on the premise that the type of jazz you want to play is bebop and they make great play of positional playing using all four fingers. Gypsy jazz, from my observations, is far more concerned with movement up and down the fretboard and most players usually use only their first three fingers when playing solos (and of course Django only used two).

What about specific gypsy jazz books and DVDs? Well there are a number of these available but many of them are dissappointing – I have shelves full of them! I will mention some more of the better ones in future posts but for now I will tell you about the one which I have just discovered and which might really be the solution to a lot of players’ needs – it is Robin Nolan’s Essential Gypsy Jazz Licks Vol 1.


There are many fantastic features about this book. Robin Nolan is a great player who tours all over the world and has many CDs available so we can be assured of his credentials as a gypsy jazz player. However many great players don’t make great teachers but Robin shows in this book that he is one of the exceptions. The book consists of carefully constructed solos over the changes to 5 common gypsy jazz tunes including a major and minor blues. For each tune there are five solos and these build from single note through octaves to chordal soloing. Each solo is made up of classic gypsy jazz licks that are just the sort of thing that every aspiring gypsy jazz guitarist wants to play – they don’t sound like dry technical exercises. The solos are given in ordinary notation and tabulature – no left hand fingerings are given but if you only use 2 or 3 fingers it is easy to work out sensible and consistent fingerings and that process in itself helps to assimilate the licks. The book has a CD with it which has all the solos played through twice, once at a slow speed and once at ‘gig’ speed which is absolutely invaluable. There are also notes about each solo which point out the musical features that make them work which enables you to work out your own licks.


I really can’t recommend this book enough and wish that it has been published twenty years ago – it should be everyone’s first port of call when learning gypsy jazz guitar soloing.