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(Credit: Jeromie Blum)

Music

From George Harrison to Jerry Garcia: Five guitarists inspired by Django Reinhardt

Django Reinhardt isn’t a jazz guitarist. In many ways, he was the ultimate jazz guitarist. Re-calibrating the genre to suit his own needs, the guitar solos he wrote were soaked in invention, demonstrating an animal-like quality that was almost punk-like in its delivery.

Having lost some of his fingers in a fire, Reinhardt took a liking to jazz, where the genre of music facilitated his fiery style of playing. Reinhardt is remarkable, not simply because he recovered from injury, but because he changed the lexicon of guitar music.

It’s harder to find a guitarist who wasn’t influenced by Reinhardt than one who was, as his influence is so vast. Creating a twangy sound, Reinhardt’s structures were expansive in their delivery, but accessible in their presentation.

Disciples came from all genres. He influenced metal performers, bluegrass musicians, jazz players, and pop stars. His influence is most notably present in Wings, with three of its musicians bowing in his wake.

Five guitarists inspired by Django Reinhardt:

5: Tony Iommi

Like Reinhardt before him, Tony Iommi lost the tips off his fingers, which made it harder for him to learn the guitar. Yet Iommi was comforted by Reinhardt’s example and set out to conquer the instrument.

He’s best known for leading Black Sabbath through a myriad configuration, but Iommi was able to work with so many different singers and drummers, precisely because his guitar was so central to the work. He briefly tried his hand with Jethro Tull, but his style wasn’t right for that band.

“At the end of a few days, we probably both decided that it wasn’t going to work, because some of the songs I was writing were partly a little more complex, as I only discovered at the last minute, Tony was finding some of these things difficult to play,” Jethro Tull vocalist Ian Anderson explained to Far Out.

“The way I was playing them, and showing them on the guitar…what the chord sequences were…they were due to his physical limitations because of an industrial accident, but rather like Django Reinhardt, it didn’t stand in his way. It actually helped him develop a unique style, and laid down the foundation of everything you could call ‘heavy metal’. Tony was the man: Tony was the prime moving force. It inadvertently became a genre of music.”

4: Denny Laine

You may know him as the quivering singer of ‘Go Now’, but Denny Laine spent much of the 1970s playing lead guitar with Paul McCartney and Wings. Indeed, he co-wrote their biggest UK hit, ‘Mull of Kintyre‘, having furnished a guitar sound based on Reinhardt’s.

He employed the Reinhardt-style playing on ‘Deliver Your Children’, which might be the highlight of London Town. Otherwise, he played the cascading riff that cements ‘Band On The Run’, as well as the flamenco guitars on ‘Goodnight Tonight’.

“I lived in Spain for a while, took some flamenco guitar from there, so that gave it a bit of a different feel,” Laine admitted in 2018. “Very me that song [‘Deliver Your Children’] and people like it.” And then he added, “I like Django Reinhardt.”

3: Jerry Garcia

Much like Tony Iommi, The Grateful Dead’s bandleader took solace from Reinhardt when he heard that the guitar player mastered his instrument despite some limitations.

“His technique is awesome,” Garcia said in 1985. “Even today, nobody has really come to the state that he was playing at. As good as players are, they haven’t gotten to where he is. There’s a lot of guys that play fast and a lot of guys that play clean, and the guitar has come a long way as far as speed and clarity go, but nobody plays with the whole fullness of expression that Django has. I mean, the combination of incredible speed – all the speed you could possibly want – but also the thing of every note have a specific personality. You don’t hear it. I really haven’t heard it anywhere but with Django.”

Reinhardt’s influence came be heard most notably on ‘Friend of The Devil’, a trembling blues number that still makes classic radio playlists all over the United Kingdom. It might be Garcia’s fieriest work as a guitar player.

2: George Harrison

Although he was cruelly dubbed ‘The Quiet One’ by the British press, George Harrison was actually the most chameleonic of the four Beatles, and regularly brought his idiosyncratic tastes to the sessions.

The yearning of ‘And I Love Her’ is accentuated by his Chet Atkins style playing, brandishing the verses with a choppy, bristling arpeggio. And then there’s his work on ‘Girl’, demonstrating the jangly style work that he must have gleaned from Reinhardt.

Reinhardt disciple Robin Nolan recognised a kindred spirit in Harrison: “One of his ex-gardeners bought a CD and gave it to George, and then George called me up out of the blue. We played at a Christmas party, and then he loved this kind of music. We used to play together and just hang out at his place. That was awesome. He was very eclectic in his musical tastes. He really dug this kind of stuff.”

1: Jeff Beck

Commonly pencilled as the finest guitar player of his generation, Jeff Beck is also privy to his influences too. “By far the most astonishing guitar player ever has got to be Django Reinhardt,” Beck boasted. “I’m sort of a newcomer to his work, although I was always aware of him. Django was quite superhuman. There’s nothing normal about him, as a person or a player.”

Beck performed beside Mahavishnu Orchestra bandleader John McLaughlin in 2002, Beck exhibited a passion for Reinhardt’s music, by encompassing and bending the frets of jazz to his will. Ever the professional, Beck throws in some of his own metal-tinted proclivities, bringing the work from the 1950s into the new millennium.

Personally, I’d pay good money to hear Beck record a whole album of Reinhardt covers. Indeed, he could use Iommi and Laine on certain tracks, and the three of them could punctuate this form of freestyle rock into something more contemporary and engaging.