The jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt, although limited by burn injuries, developed a musical technique that created a new musical genre. David Williams and Tom Potokar, of Morriston Hospital Swansea, analysed archive photographs and constructed a three-dimensional computer model of his injuries.
Django Reinhardt was born in a wooden gypsy caravan on 23 January 1910 in Belgium. As the son of a travelling musician he learnt to play the violin, banjo guitar, and accordion at an early age. On 26th of October 1928, however a discarded cigarette set light to a bunch of artificial flowers, and Django’s wooden caravan was soon in flames. He sustained burns to the left side of his body including his left hand.
He was initially treated at the Hôpital Lariboisière in Paris, but discharged himself on 22 November, when he feared that doctors might amputate his leg. Back in the gypsy encampment his burns were treated with traditional remedies, but quickly became infected. He had to go to the Hôpital Saint-Louis on 23 January 1929 for further treatment (debridement and cautery with silver nitrate under chloroform anaesthesia).
The burns healed eventually, but left a legacy of severe contractures of his left ring and little fingers, which limited the movement of these fingers. This meant that conventional left hand techniques were impossible. Nevertheless Django re-learnt the guitar during an 18 month period of recovery, by adpating his technique. His new technique combined with his musical influences covering jazz, flamenco and musette led to the Gypsy Jazz genre that endures today. By 1930 Django was playing again and began to tour worldwide until his early death in 1953, from a cerebral haemorrhage at the age of 43.
Williams and Potokar anlaysed 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.
Django devised a highly efficient system of three 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 ninth or minor sixth 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 with two 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.
Williams and Potokar also used lutheir's blue-prints of Django's guitars, combined with photographs and film footage to perform anthropometric analysis and 3D modelling of Django's left hand.
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.
In addition to their day jobs as doctors David Williams and Tom Potokar are dedicated guitarists, and members of the gypsy jazz trio "Swing Bohème".
Reference: D.J. Williams and T.S. Potokar, "Django's Hand". BMJ 2009;339:b5348