By Paul Mehling
I first heard “Swing Gitan” backstage at a Djangofest jam between some younger players in Seattle, who were playing it as if they themselves had written it! (That’s true of Gypsy-jazz players, many who really get inside every song they play). It’s a great vehicle for the showy, virtuosic style of the disciples of guitarist Django Reinhardt—Djangoistas, Djangologists, Djangophiles, whatever you wish to call them—and it works at many different tempos, which is one of the reasons it’s so popular. Also, it’s pretty easy for a beginner to play and yet still challenging enough for an OG like me. I’ve been playing this song for years—I still love it and I still find some things to learn from it!
Not much is known about “Swing Gitan”; it’s so old it’s attributed to “Anonymous” (who must get a ton of royalty checks, just sayin’). But it may have had its origin in a tune called “Stephane Stomp” from an LP made in the ’70s by André Dedjean. [You can find the music for “Swing Gitan” at the bottom of this article.]
Many Gypsy-jazz tunes are in G minor, and this one is no exception. It’s an A/B tune, which means it has no bridge (like “Minor Swing”).
Its A section is deceptively similar to the B section, so it’s easy for players who can’t keep track of such details to get lost. Suffice to say, this detail of A versus B separates the players from the fakers at many jam sessions. Don’t be one of the fakers: if you have difficulty with this, the best solution is to concentrate on the last four bars of the tune for a while until you really have that turnaround down cold. That way, you won’t get lost.
I suggest to my students—and to you—that the best way to learn a tune is to focus on the hard parts first and then fill in the rest. I also recommend practicing by recording yourself playing the rhythm part, also called la pompe, for three to five minutes and at three or four different tempos. This way, you’re practicing with yourself and you can hear if you’re making it happen with the groove, and with the chord changes, while keeping the tempo consistent and driving the way Django’s rhythm guitar–playing brother, Joseph Reinhardt, did it. In my experiences all over the world, many players concentrate far too much on soloing and not enough on rhythm.
Too Many Djangos and Not Enough Josephs!
Playing along with your own rhythm tracks is a great way to practice. If you’re not making the groove happen, you’ll soon get sick of your rhythm tracks and re-record them. This way, you can be your own teacher and save money on lessons. Remember, every guitarist has room for improvement, so don’t lose heart here. Prerecorded play-along tracks are fine, but making your own will ensure that you become an expert at rhythm. You’ll find that even if you’re a hot-shot soloist, if you cannot play la pompe at an expert level, you will not be welcome at most of the better jams.
How to Master the Melody
Studying the melody is a great way to learn how to improvise in the Gypsy-jazz idiom (scroll down for tab and notation). This tune is an example proving that Gypsy jazz is more about arpeggios than scales (note: One of the benefits of playing tons of rhythm is that you become an expert in how chords change from one to the next—which notes change and which stay the same. This informs your soloing later).
The melody starts on the fifth degree of the Gm chord (G Bb D), which is the note D. Then it does a cool little chromatic ornament around that note—an essential element of Gypsy jazz. In bar 1, I’ve indicated the two fingers that Django would have used, but you can go with whatever fingering works for you. Use the same articulations wherever you see the ornament in the piece—bars 3, 5, and elsewhere. The melody then skips over the G in the chord and goes for the minor third (Bb). It then returns to the D before dropping to C# (the third of A7), repeating this same trill on C natural to C# to A.
The third phrase of the melody (beginning in bar 5) goes to the C natural (the seventh of D7) before working up to the A. It appears that a pattern is established here: The D goes to the Bb and the D drops to C#, which goes to the A. Everything appears to be descending in half steps (one fret) as the C# drops to C. But then the pattern is altered slightly when the melody goes up to the A again, instead of down to Ab, which you could do, but it isn’t the way the song is constructed. Plus, you’d be giving away the shocking chord of Ab, which is coming up soon. The melody goes back to the C natural, dropping down to Bb (the third of Gm) leading to the G.
Now, for the wild-card chord: Ab6 (bar 9)! It’s one of the rarest chord changes in all of the jazz tunes I know: a half step above the tonic. And, instead of being an Ab7, which could be a tritone substitution for D7 in a more typical composition, it’s a plain old Ab6. You can play over this as if it were a dominant-seventh-chord and it’ll sound great, or you can treat it like an Fm6 for a different result.
While we’re on the subject of oddness, the Gm6 to A7 at the beginning is a bit rare in jazz also, but it’s worth studying. It’s essentially a minor ii–V (Gm6 = Em7b5 going to A7, which would resolve to D minor). You can use that later in other tunes with that chord sequence.
Likewise, the Cm6 leading to D7 is another case of ii–V–i.(In this case, Cm6 can be replaced with Am7b5; it’s the same notes, inverted.). Studying these chords and hearing the relationships of the substitutions (Cm6 = Am7b5, Gm6 = Em7b5, and so on) will help you get in touch with your inner Gypsy. By the way, the Gypsy community doesn’t bother with all of this analysis, they just play it all by ear!
Now, you can, too
A Note About the Fingerings
I’ve used one set of fingerings to get you started (bars 1–8) and a different set of fingerings for 17–24). As a teacher, I like to build upon what the student already knows. You may find that one of these fingerings will be easier (or at least more familiar) than the other. I suggest that you to learn them both. When you come to a fork in the road—
My fingerings are based upon common chord shapes. Since Gypsy jazz is more about arpeggios than scales, this will help you get an idea about constructing solos.
I would suggest that beginners work through each measure by playing only chord tones in quarter notes. When this becomes easier you can graduate up to eighth notes, then triplets, and so on. Plan ahead for each chord change so that the note you are playing at the end of one chord jumps to the next closest chord tone of the next chord.
For example, in improvising on bars 2–3 of the head (Gm6 to A7), you might play an ascending Gm6 arpeggio and then a descending A7, as shown in Example 2, where the fifth-fret E is a common tone between the two chords. Or, as depicted in Example 3, you could play a Gm arpeggio and then an A9.
More-advanced guitarists might try playing arpeggios over the chord changes as they appear: Gm6, A7, and so on. Graduate-level players can try using chord substitutions, for example, Gm6 might be negotiated with a Bb (ascending) arpeggio, A7 could be an Em6 or even Fº, or you could try Am7b 5 over Cm6. For the wild card Ab6, you could play an Fm6, Ab7, or Em6 arpeggio.
Note the neat half-step movement, from Bb to A, between the two chords.
Paul “Pazzo” Mehling is the founder and lead guitarist of the Hot Club of San Francisco, a group dedicated to performing and recording Gypsy-swing music. Mehling conducts clinics and private lessons and is a staff teacher for the Jazz Masters Workshops.