Updated: Jan 25, 2022
Student: “My fingers are too fat/skinny, short/long.”
Or, “My hand is too small/big.”
“I have arthritis and that knuckle is deformed.”
”I broke my finger and it won’t bend that way anymore.”
I hear these and other equivocations/excuses all the time. My response is always one word:
In other words, "It's a poor workman who blames his tools."
For those who don’t know (and it's now a depressing majority of people), Django Reinhardt was a Belgian gypsy who is one of the most influential guitarists ever...who just happened to have a severely deformed left hand due to being badly burned at the age of 18 when his wagon in the gypsy encampment where he lived caught fire.
Django created a style of playing, a whole genre, now known as Gypsy Jazz, using only the first two fingers of his left hand.
The fire was in 1928. By 1934, Reinhardt and violinist Stéphane Grappelli were working as the principal soloists of their newly formed quintet, the Quintette du Hot Club de France, in Paris. It became the most accomplished and innovative European jazz group of the period.
The group prolifically recorded and those records were the initial vehicle for Djangos’ influence.
Many guitar players and other musicians have expressed admiration for Reinhardt or have cited him as a major influence. Jeff Beck described Reinhardt as "by far the most astonishing guitar player ever" and "quite superhuman".
Grateful Dead's Jerry Garcia and Black Sabbath's Tony Iommi, both of whom lost fingers in accidents, were inspired by Reinhardt's example of becoming an accomplished guitar player despite his injuries.
Take a look at Djangos’ left hand:
Here's an excellent 27-minute video on his history and influence:
Besides his influence on all styles of music, there is a whole genre of Django-derived music, "Gypsy Jazz." It features blistering tempos, intimidating technique and emotionally hot playing.
By far the Gypsy Jazz artist I've listened to the most (besides Django) is Stochelo Rosenberg:
Another player who is firmly rooted in this style but is more modern in his technique, chord voicings and use of technology is Bireli Lagrène. If you're interested here is an entire concert:
Notice that these guys are doing with four fingers what Django did with two!
Now you have an idea what's behind my one-word response, "Django!"
Whenever I have a student who complains about something over which they have no control; the shape/size of their hand, some disability due to injury etc, after my initial put-down, "Django!" and then my explanation if they have no idea who Django is, I tell them,
"It doesn't matter what limitations you have, we'll find a work-around. Who knows? Maybe we'll discover a whole new way to play something! After all, DJANGO!"
One of my students is an adult who came to me with rudimentary skills even though he'd been playing a while. There was nothing about him that was stand-out, but he is a perfect example of Aesops’ adage, "the tortoise wins the race." He's consistent, shows up every week, practices regularly and exhibits dogged persistence.
In just 2 or 3 years, he went from basic cowboy chords to working on solo arrangements of Jazz standards.
He‘s also an example of why I suspend any kind of initial judgment about how well any given student is going to do; you just never know.
When a student is at this stage, I spontaneously arrange tunes from the Real Book. I don't use stock or prepared arrangements. I do it on the fly during the lesson. I want the student to observe my process. Consequently, if two students get the same tune, the arrangement may not be the same. Different day, different ideas.
Conversely, the same or similar ideas, I call them, "arranging devices," crop up over and over in different tunes.
The aforementioned student was working on an arrangement of "But Beautiful." The 1st and 2nd endings of the "A" section are written as 2 bars of A7.
Boring. Let's put some movement in that space:
Notice how the chords I added lead to the next chord; the D7. We have to keep the B melody-note on the top of all 4 chords. That makes them so:
This is a fairly common device; I use it in multiple tunes. I’ve had hundreds of students play it. Note that I finger the last 2 chords using my thumb for the root. When playing the C#-7(b5) my hand looks like this:
Due to what my aforementioned student calls his “short-ass thumb,” he simply can’t finger the chord like I do, so he did this:
How's this for a mind-bending fretboard diagram:
When he initially played this I confess I happened to be double-tasking and wasn’t watching, I was listening. I heard nothing untoward.
It was only after I said, “Good! Let’s do another one“ that he said,
“So you were ok with the way I fingered the C# chord?”
”Sounded fine” I said, “How’d you finger it?”
He showed me and I admit to being somewhat flabbergasted. I’m like, “Well, in over 35 years of teaching that’s a new one; I've never seen that fingering before!”
I repeat, I heard nothing wrong; he made this bizarre-o fingering sound completely functional!
And all because of a “short-ass thumb.”
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