Quest for Volume

Django Reinhardt's Selmer #503
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Reinhardt’s Selmer #503. Screw holes in the top of #503 are remnants of Django’s having affixed a pickup.

Revolutionary jazz demanded a revolutionary jazz guitar. In the summer of 1935, just as his Quintette du Hot Club de France was starting to make waves, Django first began using the new instrument designed by Italian luthier Mario Maccaferri and built by Henri Selmer & Compagnie, of Paris.

In his early years, Django experimented with a variety of other guitars. Following the lead of his Gypsy mentor, Poulette Castro, he played a steel-string guitar made by Julián Gómez Rámirez. Photographs also show Django playing other instruments that look like Martin Coletti guitars and a large-bodied steel-string made by Arthur Carbonell of Marseille. But once Django started playing a Selmer-Maccaferri, he swore by it for the rest of his life.

The quest for volume was the Holy Grail of guitar construction at the time; jazz players such as Django sought instruments to slice through the sound and fury of a full band. Guitar makers were experimenting with inventions and innovations ranging from bold to bizarre. Believing bigger was better, Gibson, Stromberg, Epiphone, and John D’Angelico vied with each other to build ever-larger archtops. Meanwhile, John Dopyera unveiled his radical, complex, and expensive National tricone, with three stamped-aluminum resonating cones serving as crude speakers amplifying the strings. Other inventors were creating electrically amplified guitars, experimenting with everything from gramophone needles to crude radio transmitters. At the same time the Selmer was launched, visionary Lloyd Loar was ousted from Gibson and started his Vivi-Tone Company, offering an electrically amplified guitar. But the technology was still exotic, and acceptance slow; Vivi-Tone was bankrupt months after it was founded.

A lithograph created for a 1941 ad portraying Django with the instrument.

In this quest for volume, Maccaferri’s guitar excelled. He learned to build mandolins as an 11-year-old apprentice to Italian luthier Luigi Mozzani, and aspects of mandolin design were central to the success of his later guitar. Maccaferri began designing the prototype of his novel guitar after he immigrated to London in 1928 and established a lutherie in the back of a furniture shop. He showed his creation to the managers of Britain’s largest music shop, the London branch of Selmer; impressed, Henri Selmer immediately charged ahead in licensing the Maccaferri design.

Maccaferri’s ideas were old-fashioned yet ingenious. Taking cues from mandolin construction, his guitar had an arched soundboard glued to the sides, under pressure, with the tailpiece attached to the back of the guitar. The body was built around a unique resonating soundbox hidden within; this created more volume while retaining the purity of tone. In addition, the body had a cutaway, for facile access to upper frets. A short fretboard extension ran over the soundhole, providing a wider palette of notes with two-octave range on the high E string.

The headstock, with enclosed tuners designed by Mario Macaferri.

The volume of Maccaferri’s guitar was especially pronounced in the treble registers, giving it a tone that cut through the powerful voices of accordions and horns. And the trebly tone made it ideal for recording sessions of the day; the treble stood out from the rest of a jazz band’s sonority yet was also sweetened and smoothed by the recording process, sounding clear and warm by the time it was reproduced through a phonograph speaker. 

In 1931, Maccaferri established an atelier, or workshop, in a wing of the immense Selmer factory in Mantes-la-Ville, just north of Paris. Here, Selmer also made its famed clarinets, saxophones, and other woodwinds and horns. Mario designed and fabricated all of the lutherie tooling, set up an assembly line, and instructed a team of carpenters in guitar construction. Metal-working machines in the main factory were used to stamp out special brass tailpieces and novel covered tuners to his design.

Django’s second son, Babik (left), playing Selmer No. 503 in the family’s caravan. Django’s widow, Naguine, with the Selmer in the early ’60s.

The first Selmer guitars were made in 1932 and shipped to England. By mid ’35, they were finally available in France, and Django played his first riffs on a Selmer.

Django began using a Selmer gut-string guitar, but Maccaferri soon launched a louder steel-string version that proved perfect for jazz. With their large soundhole (better for projecting sound), these became known among musicians as grande bouche guitars – large mouths. Or better yet, loudmouths.

In 1936 or ’37, Django began using a revised Selmer with a small soundhole and a longer neck with 14 frets to the body; soloists like him were drawn to their more-focused, directional sound. And with their elegant oval soundhole, they naturally became known as petite bouche guitars.

Like a Cathedral

Django was on his way to becoming Europe’s premier jazz star in the mid ’30s, when he entered into an endorsement arrangement. It was likely a handshake agreement whereby Selmer provided Django guitars when needed. And that seems to have been often, given the number of Selmers that were reputedly owned by him. He reportedly visited the Selmer shop and tried new guitars as soon as they arrived, choosing the best-sounding for himself. So, he literally may have played every one. Meanwhile, his accompanists – from brother Joseph to cousin Eugène Vées, the Ferret brothers (Baro, Sarane, Matelo, and cousin Challain), Marcel Bianchi, and Henri Crolla – all had to pay for theirs.

This display at Paris’ Cité de la Musique includes the Selmer, Rámirez, and Stéphane Grappelli’s Hel violin.

After Django began using a Selmer, it was rare to see a European jazz guitarist play anything but a Selmer, both for the guitar’s jazz qualities and in emulation of Django. Like the Martin dreadnought, the Selmer-Maccaferri soon became a style, if not a template, followed by other European luthiers.

Django’s Selmer No. 503 has back and sides made of mahogany ply capped with a rosewood veneer. The soundboard is fine-grained French spruce. The fretboard and moveable bridge were made of ebony with 21 frets running up to the rosace. The tuners and tailpiece are brass.

Django played other brands of guitars over the years, of course. These included Selmer-style instruments made by Busato and Di Mauro, as well as the Gibson ES-300 he bought when he came to the United States in ’46 as guest soloist with Duke Ellington’s band. But he soon set aside the Gibson in favor of his Selmer, telling erstwhile manager Charles Delaunay, “All the Americans wish they could play on this guitar! At least it’s got tone, you can hear the chords like you can on the piano. Don’t talk to me any more about their tinny guitars! Listen to this, it speaks like a cathedral!”

Artist endorsements are rarely so vehement or heartfelt.

Last Guitars

In 1964, Selmer No. 503 was donated to the Musée de la Musique by Django’s widow, Naguine. How long or how much Django played this actual guitar is unknown. Reportedly, following French Roma customs, Naguine and Django’s mother, Négros, burned his possessions immediately following his death to protect themselves from being haunted by his moulé, Romany for spirit or ghost. This pyre reportedly included his clothes, prized fishing poles and tackle, homemade tapes of compositions he was working on, and his “last guitar.”

A couple days later, when Django was buried at the cemetery in Samois-sur-Seine, his brother, Joseph – longtime sideman and long-suffering porter of Django’s strings, picks, and guitar – laid yet another last guitar on his casket to be buried with him.

This mid-’30s ad for Selmer included Django’s endorsement.

All of this is not to call into question the validity of his ownership of Selmer No. 503. But Django famously owned many a guitar. While his fellow Roma traded horses, Django horsetraded guitars. 

After Django’s death, Naguine did the same. She gave one of Django’s Selmers to Les Paul – or so Paul said – in thanks for everything he had done to further Django’s career and for making sure she received royalties due from American releases. Where did all these guitars came from? Perhaps Django had a guitar stashed in every caravan.

Two photos survive of Django’s second son, Babik, playing this last guitar, Selmer No. 503, in the family’s caravan after his father’s death. You can tell it’s the same guitar from the wear marks and old screw holes that once held a Stimer pickup to the soundboard. In the photos, even Babik, who became a renowned jazzman with numerous recordings to his credit, seems a bit stymied in his playing and awed by the instrument – and legacy – in his hands.

Today, Selmer No. 503 is on display at La Cité de la Musique accompanied by a Julián Gómez Rámirez guitar Django played, and one of Stéphane Grappelli’s Hel violins.

Thanks to Cité de la Musique, Musée de la Musique, Marion Challier, Eric de Visscher, Philippe Bruguière, Joël Dugot, Philippe Vieira, and Scot Wise.


Coup de foudre Encounter

The author with a ’50s Sonora D-hole possibly built by Busato, in Paris.

Holding a guitar like Django Reinhardt’s Selmer, one expects something to happen. Perhaps a flash of musical inspiration, a sudden dancing brilliance coming alive in the fingertips, a cold shudder running down your back. Or maybe it’s a coup de foudre, as Django might have said – a thunderbolt striking you down where you stand, your hands sacreligiously grasping this guitar.

None of that came about when I had the opportunity to play his 1940 Selmer Modèle Django Reinhardt, serial number 503, which is housed at Paris’ wondrous Cité de la Musique, an ensemble of museum, concert halls, and more.
I certainly had a Wayne’s World moment: “I’m not worthy!” But the most intense sense was that this is just a guitar. The genius, the electricity, the magic was all Django.
Coming back down to earth, the first thing I noticed was its simple beauty. The instrument is worn and darkened with time, the cigarette smoke of a thousand jazz clubs, and the scars of Django’s itinerant journeys. Above all, the neck and fretboard struck me; they’re worn smooth like a French cathedral’s steps from praying penitents. And they’re exquisitely patinated by his scarred hand and the two fingers he used to fret guitars after the 1928 fire that destroyed his caravan and threatened his fledgling career. When an English journalist looked down his nose at the condition of the guitar, Django responded in perfect Gallic nonchalance, “C’est le guerre.” Hopefully, this was accompanied by a shrug and the lighting up of yet another Gitane cigarette.
I couldn’t resist strumming an A6 chord – Django loved sixth chords; their sound must have spoke to his sense of the alchemy of Gypsy music and American jazz that he stirred up. I then picked the intro to one of his famous early compositions, “Djangology.”
The guitar is impossibly light, it’s tone lustrous, rich, and alive. My playing, however, sounded trite and clichéd. But I’m not alone; other famous Roma guitarists – Boulou Ferré, Biréli Lagrène, Stochelo Rosenberg – have remarked about how daunting and terrifying it is to even attempt to play this guitar. – Michael Dregni


Django and the “Wappen”

1930s Julián Gómez Rámirez wappen guitar with Brazilian rosewood back and sides and a softwood soundboard.

Some of the earliest recordings of Django Reinhardt playing guitar are from the soundtrack for the 1932 film Claire de Lune. Long believed lost, the film was recently found, and fans are hopeful that Django’s songs will be collected and released, if licenses can be cleared. Photos of Django and band from the movie show him with a bizarre-looking instrument crafted by luthier Julián Gómez Rámirez, a Spanish guitar maker who immigrated from Madrid to establish an atelier in Paris.

It’s not surprising this guitar didn’t actually belong to Reinhardt. Rather, it was borrowed from his best friend and chief musical rival, Pierre “Baro” Ferret. In the early ’30s, the two played together in several bands in the south of France, then Paris, where in 1933 they recorded “Brise Napolitaine,” a stunning waltz with accordionist Vetese Guérino. For years, the song’s dazzling guitar work was believed to be proof of Django’s early genius, but was actually played by Baro – likely using the Rámirez.

But the tables turned in the early years of the Quintette du Hot Club de France; Reinhardt was by then playing the leads with Baro as his sideman – Baro was focusing his forces on more lucrative side ventures in the Parisian underworld.

Poster for the 1932 movie Clair de Lune.

Both Django and Baro used the Rámirez in emulation of one of their mentors, fellow Gypsy guitarist Jean “Poulette” Castro, who was revered as Le Grand Gitan among the Roma of Paris. Castro was a wizard of the strings. Along with his brother, Laro, and two other Gitan musicians, Coco and Serrani Garcia, he formed Le Quatuor à Plectre. With layered guitars and the multi-timbred sounds of mandolins, banjos, and bandurias, they recorded enchanting original instrumentals like “Valse Poulette.” Reinhardt also backed singer Rosita Barrios on several sides.

Because he could read musical notation, Poulette was a rarity among Gypsy musicians of Paris, which earned him a seat in the pit orchestra at the city’s Théâtre du Châtelet, accompanying theatrical presentations and operas. Among fellow Roma, he was considered an encyclopedia of Gypsy music; having traveled the continent as well as to England, his fingers contained a vast repertoire of Gypsy melodies, flamenco songs, dance tunes, and waltzes of all nations.

Soundholes on the Rámirez reveal the label noting Jean Ferret’s ownership.

Poulette taught Django and Baro a new style of playing by blending flamenco influences with a more-modern fashion of holding and picking the instrument. Playing his own Rámirez, Poulette used a pick on the steel strings for volume and instructed the young players to keep their right hands off the soundboard, loose and free for fast playing.

It was Poulette’s example and style Django would take into the future, leading to the development of Gypsy jazz. Matelo Ferret was likely also influenced by Poulette, later became one of Django’s sidemen, and went on to record stylish Gypsy guitar music of his own. And he later passed along his legacy to sons Boulou and Elios Ferré.

This guitar is believed to have been made for Baro Ferret’s younger brother, Jean “Matelo” Ferret, and was perhaps borrowed by Django in the early ’30s. Its build recalls a style of Italian and French guitar from the late 19th century with a body shaped like a shield or coat of arms; it’s called “wappen” today in reference to the many later built in Germany. – Michael Dregni

The unique neck joint.

This article originally appeared in VG‘s June 2018 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.