A Django Reinhardt Style Mandolin Lesson with John McGann

I have been listening to and loving the playing of Belgian Gypsy guitarist Django Reinhardt for many years. My first attempts at learning his playing were only concerned with 'figuring out the notes'- a very left-hand centric approach. As I only knew of 'alternate picking', where notes on a downbeat get a down stroke and notes on an upbeat get an up stroke, I had no idea that there is a special group of guidelines for the right hand to achieve the incredible punch and power (as well as delicate shadings and dynamics) exemplified by Django.

I learned about the right hand many years later, when I had the good fortune of meeting Stephane Wrembel when he lived in Boston. Stephane is a great musician who is very deeply schooled in Gypsy style guitar. His knowledge was developed by visiting the Gypsy camps in his homeland of France, and also from great players like Serge Krief, whom Stephane befriended. Stephane was very generous in showing me how the Gypsy Picking techniques maximize tone and volume on acoustic instruments. Stephane's excellent "Getting Into Gypsy Jazz Guitar" (Mel Bay) contains many of the ideas and approaches we discussed.

My next mentor was another friend, Michael Horowitz, who is also known as the author of "Gypsy Picking", "Gypsy Fire" and many other great book/CD sets that he sells through his website, DjangoBooks.com. Once I discovered these great resources, I started to apply them to the guitar, and my understanding of how Django phrased and articulated these lines increased exponentially.

My attitude toward applying these techniques on mandolin and octave mandolin is that while a mandolin is not a guitar, and there is nothing wrong with using standard alternate picking techniques, there is much to be gained from the picking style in terms of articulation (how the notes speak) as well as power and projection. Here, I will share with you some Django style lines to help you get started in applying the technique to your own mando playing.

Mandolin is a newcomer to Gypsy Jazz. While I don't believe one has adhere 100% of the time to the guitar right hand "rules" on the mandolin, but it is good to experience how the guitarists get that particular tone, attack and articulation that is characteristic of the style. There are now Selmer-style mandolins being made by several builders, which can aid in the tone quest. A style and the Brazilian Bandolim also seem well suited to the Gypsy Jazz sound.

For those of us who are rooted in bluegrass, Irish/Scottish, or other fiddle tune music on the mandolin, (meaning most non-classical mandolinists!) the Django technique is unusual to the point of seeming counter-intuitive at times. I play bluegrass, Irish music and mainstream jazz using a more conventional technique- the techniques taught here are those used specifically for Django style playing.

The basics are:

  • Downstrokes are played as rest strokes. Play your open G string, and come to rest on the D string. Do not lift the pick into the air- with this technique, you naturally play down toward the top of the instrument. It maximizes the string's vibration and draws the most sound from the mandolin.
  • As a general rule in Gypsy Jazz, switching strings is always achieved with a downstroke, regardless of pick direction. On guitar, this often equates to DUD DUD patterns that Celtic players may know from playing jigs in 6/8- but they are applied to 4/4 lines. This is perhaps the trickiest element of the right hand for those of us who worked hard to make alternate picking our default style.
  • Gypsy guitarists use very thick rounded-ended picks, traditionally from around 3.5 to 5mm in thickness. I find them to be overkill for mandolin, and I have been using either the Dunlop Tortex 500 series1.5 mm or a Tortis pick custom made for DjangoBooks.com, which seems to be close to 2mm. Each of these picks has beveled edges which allow you to 'slide through' the string, drawing tone as you go (rather than 'slapping' the string into ringing). I use this 2mm pick on the octave mandolin.
  • The overwhelming majority of the virtuoso guitarists in this style play with the right hand in the air, wrist cocked, not touching the top or bridge, with the fingers unclenched and brushing lightly on the strings and/or top. I find this to be a good position for this sound on the mandolin as well as octave mandolin. I try to keep the relative angle of the hand/pick the same on all strings, which means the elbow is the delivery system to get the hand/pick to each different string in it's own 'slot'. YouTube is a good source to see the virtuoso right hands in action, as is the Video Archive at www.djangobooks.com.

Lesson Examples Lesson Examples

Example 1 gets us rolling with a DUD DUD DU pattern replacing the alternate DUDUDUDU pattern on open strings to allow concentration on the right hand. After each downstroke, be sure to come to rest on the next highest string. Play the example with alternate picking DUDUDUDU and contrast the accents 12121212 with the DUD DUD DU 123 123 12 pattern's built-in syncopated accents.

Ex. 2 adds some fingered notes to the same picking pattern, a phrase that would work on a Dm or G7 chord.

Ex. 3 presents the challenge of switching to a lower string on a downstroke.

Ex. 4 again adds some fingered notes to the same picking pattern, a phrase that would work on a Dm or G7 chord.

Ex. 5 is a picking pattern Django used on his 1947 recording of "Dark Eyes". The pattern starts with an upstroke on string 1 and then "sweeps" the downstroke from string 3 through strings 2 and one in one long motion (rather than three separate, choppy downstrokes, it is played with one fluid motion).

To get a more in-depth look at applying these and other ideas to Django style mandolin, please check out Djangobooks.com for my ongoing series of Gypsy Jazz style mandolin lessons and transcriptions of the playing of Django and Stephane Grappelli for the mandolin.

John McGann