Django’s Fret Hand – Fingerboard Technique
Django’s Fret Hand – On November 2nd, 1928 an event took place that would forever change Django‘s life. At one o’clock in the morning the 18 year old Django returned from a night of playing music at a new club “La Java” (La JAVA, 105 rue du Faubourg du Temple 75010 Paris) to the caravan that was now the home of himself and his new wife. The caravan was filled with celluloid flowers his wife had made to sell at the market on the following day. Django upon hearing what he thought was a mouse among the flowers bent down with a candle to look. The wick from the candle fell into the highly flammable celluloid flowers and the caravan was almost instantly transformed into a raging inferno. Django wrapped himself in a blanket to shield him from the flames. Somehow he and his wife made it across the blazing room to safety outside, but his left hand, and his right side from knee to waist were badly burned. Initially doctors wanted to amputate his leg but Django refused. He was moved to a nursing home where the care was so good his leg was saved. Django was bedridden for 18 months. During this time he was given a guitar, and with great determination Django created a whole new fingering system built around the 2 fingers on his left hand that had full mobility. His 4th and 5 digits of the left hand were permanently curled towards the palm due to the tendons shrinking from the heat of the fire. He could use them on the 1st two strings of the guitar for chords and octaves but complete extension of these fingers was impossible. His soloing was all done with the index and middle fingers! Film clips of Django show his technique to be graceful and precise, almost defying belief.
Django devised a highly efficient system of 3 note chord shapes, each of which encompassed inversions of several different chords. He developed unorthodox techniques to play these, including the use of his left thumb to fret the lower one or two strings, one fingered “double stops” – where two strings are fretted simultaneously by placing the tip of one finger midway between both strings – and employed his contracted ring and little fingers on the upper strings, where they acted like a single finger. The last technique particularly suited 9th or minor 6th chords rather than the more conventional major or minor chords of the time, and introduced his audience to a new range of tonal colours.
It is difficult to play standard scales with just index and middle fingers, so Django adopted an arpeggio-based rather than modal approach to soloing. He adapted arpeggios so that they could be played with2 notes per string patterns which ran horizontally up and down the fret board instead of the usual vertical “box” patterns, enabling him to move around the fret board with great speed and fluidity. Influenced by his childhood violin lessons, he often oriented his left hand so that these fingers were almost parallel to the strings instead of perpendicular to the fret board. His injuries also defined his phrasing and ornamentation – he often incorporated open strings into his solos, along with his trademark chromatic glissando runs, for which he used his middle finger braced by the index finger – and the considerable strength that he had to develop in these fingers enabled him to achieve wide string bending and vibrato effects.”
As a result of the relative immobility of his hand, Django often moved fixed shapes up and down the fret board which produced intervallic cycling of melodic motifs and chords, and played octave runs with the index and middle or ring fingers – a technique subsequently popularised by Wes Montgomery.
Django’s technique was only possible because of the remarkable length and span of his index and middle fingers. Photographs show that he could play a “barre” across the full width of the fret board using just the distal two phalanges of his index finger, and a half barre with the distal phalanx of his middle finger and analysis of film footage shows that he could effortlessly span a distance of at least 120mm [4.7 inches] between the tips of his index and middle fingers.
David J Williams, consultant anaesthetist and senior clinical tutor1, Tom S Potokar, consultant plastic, re-constructive and burns surgeon, and senior clinical tutor2
Department of Burns and Plastic Surgery, Morrison Hospital, Swansea SA6 6NL,
Swansea University Medical School, Singleton Park, Swansea SA2 8P
Williams and Potokar analysed the few minutes of surviving film footage of Django’s playing. Their analysis of this gives us some insight into the innovative techniques that he developed to overcome the limitations imposed by his injuries
Dr D.J. Williams and T.S. Potokar, “Django’s Hand”. BMJ 2009;339:b5348
Doctor David Williams Lecture @ Brecon 2009
The instinctive response when threatened by assault or fire is to protect the face by raising the arms, which exposes the dorsum of the hands to injury. The thin subcutaneous tissue and superficial tendons in this region make it vulnerable to subsequent deformity.
The ability to play a musical instrument also requires an intact nervous system to provide motor fibres and sensory feedback from cutaneous touch receptors and joint proprioceptors. Nerve damage was unlikely in Django’s case – the burn injury was on the dorsum of his hand: the digital nerves run deep on the volar aspect. The motor supply to his hand was unaffected and any sensory disturbance would have been confined to the dorsal aspect of his fingers, which would not have interfered with his ability to play the guitar.
Disaster can also be a positive catalyst for innovation. Modern reconstructive surgery would have dramatically improved the function and cosmetic appearance of Django’s hand, but would have perhaps changed the course of jazz music forever. The enduring popularity of Django’s music is testament to his innate genius and determination.
Computer model of Django’s hand illustrating the deformity and effect of contractures
From the people most influential to the development of Django’s distinctive playing style, two have been considered to rise above others: Poulette Castro and Gusti Malha. Poulette Castro, player of banduria and other stringed instruments, performed mainly waltzes and the more traditional Gypsy repertoire with his guitar playing brother Laro. Django at his early teens would watch them attentively for hours.
Poulette Castro was probably the primary model for Django‘s famous picking hand technique so distinct from the American jazz guitarists: very fast, strong and accurate wrist movement with the hand and arm loose at all times from the top of the instrument, thus allowing free movement with greater power.
Some writers have argued that Django’s physical handicap actually made him a better guitarist than had he the use of all 4 fingers on his fretting hand. Unable to play the linear, scale-driven lines that fall all too easily under the fingers of most guitarists, Django’s limited mobility forced him to view the fingerboard more vertically than horizontally.
Blessed with exceptionally large hands and long fingers (one famous photo shows him fretting the high E through A strings of his guitar at the 14th fret with his middle finger from the second knuckle down), he had the strength and stretch to make wide intervals with just his first two fingers. He invented the use of octave runs as a soloing device on guitar, another example of taking his two-fingered limitation and making it a musical asset. Moving beyond that, he frequently used double stop runs in colourful intervals to generate tonal tension and resolution in his solos. Django literally developed a new vocabulary for lead guitar, making wide interval jumps across the strings as often as he moved up and down the strings individually. When he did remain on one string, it was typically for a blistering chromatic run that might start on the first fret and run all the way up to the 13th fret. Always aware of the slightest nuance of tone, Django honed each note perfectly, often incorporating a beautifully modulated finger vibrato or a skilfully executed blues bend or slur to add emotional strength to his playing. As the Django repertoire books written by guitarist Robin Nolan show clearly, most of Django’s chord positions were simple three note chords, but his musical genius enabled him to create diminished, suspended and augmented chords that beautifully fit the melodies he played by adding open string notes as needed. Although a total illiterate musically who couldn’t name any chords, he always knew what chord formation he needed to create the musical effect he desired, either a sweet, lush chord or a jarring, angular punctuation chord, to set the mood.
Django taught his left fingers to fret a guitar anew. His two small fingers were largely paralysed, the tendons and nerves damaged, the digits nearly useless. His index and middle fingers still functioned, however, and limited now in the number of digits he could employ to fret the guitar, he forced himself to rethink his approach to the fretboard. Instead of playing scales and arpeggios horizontally across the fretboard as was the norm, he searched out fingerings that ran vertically up and down the frets as they were easier to play with just 2 fingers.
He created new chord forms that utilized a minimum of notes – often just triads made with his 2 good fingers on the bass strings. He pushed his 2 paralysed fingers to grip the guitar as well, his smallest digit on the high E string, his ring finger on the B, and sometimes barring his index finger to fashion chords of 4 to 5 notes. He then slid his hand up and down the fretboard, employing these chord forms to craft a fluent new vocabulary.