You’re new to Gypsy jazz and want to avoid the pitfalls common in learning this style.
Systematically learn the rudiments, which will create a solid foundation for playing Gypsy jazz while benefitting your musicianship in general.
Learn the rhythmic foundation
The essence of Gypsy-jazz rhythm—la pompe manouche as it’s known—is a sparse and swinging canvas of sound. Well-meaning players often misunderstand the basic rhythm of la pompe (which translates as “the pump”) and whack the second and fourth beats way too hard because they think that they hear it that way. Careful observation will show that this is not correct: The rhythm actually feels lopsided when you do this, like a person walking down the street with a rock in one shoe.
If anything, a great Gypsy rhythm has a broad footprint of a strum on beats 1 and 3. While it’s true that the second and fourth beats are clipped or chopped, they’re not accented. Try a basic four-to-the bar pattern on a Gm6 chord as shown in Ex. 1, using all downstrokes. Then, in Ex. 2, shorten beats 2 and 4 by releasing pressure on your fretting fingers.
Sweat the details
La pompe is typically played with decorative string rakes that add vibrancy to accompaniments. Beginners sometimes play these embellishments inaccurately in the rush to learn them. The best way to avoid this problem is to work slowly, through a series of graduated patterns.
Start with Ex. 3 at 80 b.p.m. As indicated by the squiggly line with the downward arrow, drag your pick from the highest string to the lowest, quickly and evenly, so that you can hear each individual note. Play this ten times accurately and then bump up the speed on your metronome. The goal is to play Ex. 3—and the rest of these figures—cleanly at 180 b.p.m.
Ex. 4 is similar to Ex. 3, but after you rake through all six strings, immediately play the lowest strings with a firm downstroke. Strive to make this up/down a continuous sound (like brrrrrrup) and not broken (ta-da). Think of it as a sneeze: You have a slow windup and then an extremely fast finish.
Ex. 5 builds on Exs. 2 and 4 by adding a chop (strong chord) where the rests were. Remember to not hit the chop too hard—it’s already accented because it’s shorter than the beat before it. If you find that the work from Ex. 4 gets lost when you add the chops, revisit it, starting at 80 b.p.m. and playing ten ahhhhhCHOOs in a row perfectly. Remember to speed the metronome up a small amount and repeat until you hit that 180 b.p.m. This may be difficult, but it’s definitely doable with practice.
Relax both hands
In order to play fast and loud—typical traits of Gypsy-jazz playing—you need to cultivate a relaxed body and mind. Novice Gypsy-jazz players tend to play with too much tension in both hands, and this is a mistake. You should have a relaxed grip and a super loose picking-hand wrist—imagine washing your hands and shaking off the water afterwards. Use this same motion whether you’re strumming all six strings or picking just one, and you’ll break fewer strings, while improving your tone, speed, and volume.
As for your fretting hand, don’t squeeze the neck of the guitar. Learning new chords all the time—and how to switch between them quickly and smoothly—will also help get your hand relaxed. Keep these tips in mind when you play Exs. 6a and 6b. Note that each pair of chords (G6/G7 and Gm7/Gm6) has two fingers in common, so keeping these digits in place will help you efficiently switch between the chords.
Develop pick control
In Gypsy-jazz circles, guitarists with superior technique tell interesting stories, while players with lesser chops speak in baby talk. That’s why it’s important to develop some serious pick control, which is more than 50 percent of Gypsy jazz, though nobody ever really talks about it.
For help with pick control, work on Exs. 7 through 9, which incorporate full chords and single notes for a maximum workout. Throughout, hold down a common Gypsy-jazz chord, G 6/9. (If you can’t bar strings 5 and 4 with your third finger, just play the D string open.)
Play all of these examples with alternate strumming and picking. Extend the patterns in Exs. 8 and 9 all the way up to the first string, and back down to the sixth string if you’d like.
Just as it’s important to sometimes play loudly when soloing in Gypsy jazz, it’s a critical skill—often neglected among novices—to play quietly when accompanying. This allows the soloist and the rest of the ensemble to play in a more relaxed and natural way. It might seem obvious, but when accompanying, always make sure that you can clearly hear the soloist and the other ensemble members above your playing.
Learn a boatload of songs
Jazz is all about approaching familiar melodies and chord changes in original ways, but rookie players often make the mistake of focusing on licks and chords at the expense of learning tunes. Look at each melody or jazz standard—whether it’s “Minor Blues,” “All of Me,” or “Minor Swing”—not just as a chance to expand your repertoire, but as an opportunity to acquire more technique, as both a guitarist and an improviser. The more tunes you learn, the better a musician you’ll become.
This article originally appeared in the June 2017 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.