‘It satisfies a lot of my musical cravings as a player and a listener’

John Jorgenson On the Django Technique

John Jorgenson is one of those guys who routinely leave mortal musicians in a quandary. It would be bad enough if he was simply one of the world’s most versatile and accomplished guitarists, but add to that his mastery of mandolin, mandocello, Dobro, pedal steel, piano, upright bass, clarinet, bassoon, and saxophone, and it’s difficult for all but the most self-confident muso to avoid wondering where they were when the talent was handed out. He sings pretty well, too.

Jorgenson has three vintage Selmer guitars—a mid-’30s D-hole, a mid-’30s four-string Eddie Freeman Special, and a ’42 oval-hole—as well as a Dupont 14-fret, D-hole sound chamber model and a David Hodson oval hole. His main touring guitar is a Saga Gitane John Jorgenson signature model, which he helped design. For amplification, he uses Schertler DYN contact microphones and UNICO amplifiers. Jorgenson uses very thick Wegen or old tortoise shell picks, and strings his instruments with his new Signature Dell’Arte sets, which are similar to the strings manufactured by Savarez Argentine in France.

After graduating from college, Jorgenson played around the Hollywood scene in a new wave band, until he got a call from Disneyland. “They wanted somebody who could play Dixieland clarinet and bluegrass mandolin, and after hearing David Grisman the summer before, I had wanted to learn to play mandolin anyway,” he recalls. “I didn’t know anything about Dixieland, but I lied and said, ‘Yeah, I can do that!’ We’d dress up like cowboys and play bluegrass music, then change clothes and instruments, and play Dixieland.”

It was at this time that Jorgenson began his lifelong love affair with the music of Django Reinhardt—a man the banjo players he worked with talked about “as if he was a god.”

In the mid ’80s, Jorgenson met ex-Byrds bassist Chris Hillman, who asked him to replace Bernie Leadon in his bluegrass group. A short time later, Jorgenson persuaded Hillman to go electric, and they formed the Desert Rose Band, which roped-in five number-one country singles and three consecutive Academy of Country Music awards for Band of the Year. (Jorgenson also received ACM’s Guitarist of the Year award in 1988, 1989, and 1990.) That success put Jorgenson on the national map, as well as helping establish him as a first-call session player. Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison, Barbara Streisand, Hank Williams, Jr., Willie Nelson, Sting, Rose Maddox, Ricky Nelson, the Byrds, and Elton John are only a few of the luminaries he has recorded or performed with over the years.

Jorgenson released his first solo album, After You’ve Gone, in 1988. The record featured Django-style music on one side, and Benny Goodman-style music on the other. He left the Desert Rose Band in 1991, planning to record a second solo album, but had to postpone it when the twang triumvirate he’d formed with fellow Fender slingers Will Ray and Jerry Donahue blossomed from a one-off gig into a decade-long association. The Hellecasters’ debut—which won Guitar Player’s ’93 Reader’s Poll for both Album of the Year and Country Album of the Year—brimmed with virtuosic, yet playful instrumentals that contrasted sharply with most other guitar recordings of the time. Jorgenson’s solo effort was sidetracked again when he was asked to join Elton John’s band for an 18-month tour that turned into a six-year commitment. Emotional Savant, “a singer-songwriter-oriented album with a lot of guitar playing and some instrumentals,” was finally recorded and released in 1999.

Jorgenson’s Franco-American Swing showcased the guitarist’s Gypsy jazz leanings, and it coincided with the John Jorgenson Quintet’s headlining status at Django festivals throughout the world, and his cameo appearance as the Gypsy master himself in the film Head in the Clouds. His latest double-shot of Django-inspired music, One Stolen Night, with his quintet, and Istiqbal Gathering, with Orchestra Nashville and the Turtle Island Quartet, further expands his exploration of gypsy jazz and the different contexts in which it can thrive. In the following quick Q&A, Jorgenson discusses some of the technical aspects of gypsy jazz in general and the Django Reinhardt style in particular.


The John Jorgenson Quintet performs Robin Nolan’s ‘Mediterranean Blues’ at the Circle Church World Music Concert Series, North Madison, CT, March 27, 2009. Jason Anick is on violin, Kevin Nolan on rhythm guitar, Simon Planting on bass, Rick Reed on percussion. Orignally recorded by the Robin Nolan Trio, the song is featured on Jorgenson’s new One Stolen Night CD.

You’ve been interested in Gypsy jazz for quite some time.

A lot of people think I’m just getting into it, but I have been studying Django’s music since 1979. I went to the Django festivals in Samois, I had a guitar made by Maurice DuPont, and, over the years, I’ve jammed and recorded with players such as Bireli Lagrene, Babik Reinhardt, Jimmy Rosenberg, Jon Larsen, and Romane.

What is it about the music that affects you so much?

Django’s music has drive like rock, it swings like jazz, it requires virtuosity like classical music, and you can improvise to it. It satisfies a lot of my musical cravings as a player and a listener. I grew up playing rock guitar, but I also loved bluegrass and other acoustic music, and Django sounded like a rock guitarist playing an acoustic—not with the sound of rock and roll, but in the sense that the notes were sustaining and really firing all over the neck. Bluegrass guitar is great, but it doesn’t have that passion. Also, Django had that tremolo and vibrato and extraordinary technique, and I’m always compelled to learn things that I can’t do.

Is there also a unique rhythmic and harmonic approach that distinguishes the music from traditional jazz?

Yes. The rhythms are more lively and infectious than straight-ahead jazz rhythms, which tend to be more cerebral. It’s the same with the harmonies. The standard jazz harmonic extensions are higher—more 9, 11, and 13 alterations—which throws all of the lines way up—sometimes making them less heart and sex oriented. In contrast, Gypsy jazz stays right in the emotional zone. Also, the Gypsy element itself, which comes from Eastern European Gypsy music, is defined by a minor-sixth tonality. If you’re on the I chord, you use a minor sixth, not a minor seventh, whereas straight-ahead jazz or Latin is going to sound like Santana with that minor seventh chord. But if you play a minor sixth chord, it’s a little bit more mysterious. And Django used a diminished arpeggio over the V chords, which makes an E an E7flat9. So that gives a sort of harmonic minor tonality to it, as well, which is very Gypsy.

How did having only two functioning left hand fingers affect Django’s style?

When you’ve got four fingers you can do the same thing in many different places. You eliminate some of that by using just two fingers, because if you’re playing along and there are only two possibilities—it’s either one or the other. You also have to plan ahead a little more to have a sense of where you’re going. The two fingers make him move all the way up and down the fingerboard a lot, traveling all the time, and that makes him much more colorful, humorous, and romantic, and gives his playing more personality.

What about his right hand technique?

His right hand was amazing, and I think that was from starting out on the banjo, because the banjo is less forgiving. Also, there’s a long-existing European style of picking that people are now calling “Gypsy picking,” which Django may have used. You use a rest stroke, where you rest a heavy pick on the strings and just let your hand drop to the next string, and that produces a very strong attack without a lot of motion.

The other thing about this style of picking is that you never use an upstroke to change strings. Whenever you change strings, you use a downstroke—no matter if you’re going to a higher string or a lower one. If you play two notes on that string, then you’d use an upstroke. So if you’re playing three notes on one string, and three notes on the next string, the normal player would go down-up-down-up-down-up, but in this style, it’s down-up-down-down-up-down.

Barney Kessel owned one of Django’s Selmer guitars, and he said it was difficult to play chords on and didn’t stay in tune very well. There are definitely some inherent tuning issues with that style of guitar. Sometimes, if you play an octave on the B and the D strings in the middle of the neck, the D string is flat and the B string is sharp. Django definitely developed a style to suit that instrument, although he played other guitars before the Selmer. The Selmer came out in 1932, I think, and he didn’t get his first one until 1934. So his style was already intact at that time. There are stories about when he came to America without a guitar, because he figured the Americans would be lining up to give him guitars to play. Well, they didn’t, so his tour manager bought him a non-cutaway Gibson with a P-90, and he was really bummed out. He wrote back to his manager: “Don’t speak to me about American tin-pot guitars anymore!”

What else does the future hold?

My wife is always telling me to visualize what I want, but I keep telling her that what happens is so much more amazing than what I could ever dream of. For example, I never thought I’d get to play “Good Golly Miss Molly” with Little Richard!
© Djangomania.com 2005

(reprinted from the website for the Austin Django Jazz Festival 2005, http://www.djangomania.com/jorgenson.html)

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