Brand of Gypsies: Django Reinhardt’s Lifelong Affair with Selmer Guitars

July 26th, 2012

By Michael Dregni

In the early ’30s, the quest for volume was a primary concern for guitar builders whose clients, such as Django Reinhardt, sought instruments that could cut through the sound and fury of a jazz band.

In Europe, the solution was created by Italian luthier Mario Maccaferri, who designed the Modèle Jazz guitar for Henri Selmer & Compagnie of France. The guitar used the steel strings of a mandolin, which were louder, brighter, and clearer sounding than gut strings. And like a mandolin, Maccaferri’s design featured a soundboard arched at the bridge and glued to the sides under pressure.

The earliest Selmers were built around a patented resonating sound box, called the Internal Resonator. Concealed within the outer body, it increased the guitar’s volume. This boost was especially pronounced in the treble registers, giving the guitar a tone that carved through the powerful voices of accordions and horns like a knife through foie gras. The bright tone made it ideal for recording sessions of the day: the treble stood out from the rest of a jazz band’s sonority but was sweetened and smoothed out by the recording process of the time.

In addition, the guitar’s body featured a cutaway on the upper bout’s treble side with a short fretboard extension running out over the soundhole, offering a full two-octave range on the high E string alone. Once Django started playing a Selmer, he swore by it for the rest of his life.

The first Selmer guitars were made in France in 1932 and featured a large D-shaped soundhole that earned them the name grande bouche—large mouth (or better yet, loudmouth). Later, in 1936 or 1937, Django began playing a revised Selmer with a small, oval soundhole and neck that joined the body at the 14th fret. These models became known as petite bouche guitars, and were brighter in tone, making them better suited to soloing.

Django became Selmer’s endorser. He reportedly visited the Selmer shop and tried out every guitar as it arrived, choosing the best-sounding examples for himself. When Django traveled to New York in 1946, he left his Selmer behind and tried a Gibson L5 and a Gretsch archtop. Disappointed with the American guitars, he soon had his Selmer back. As he boasted to a friend, “All the Americans will 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 tinpot guitars! Listen to this, it speaks like a cathedral!” Artist endorsements have rarely been so heartfelt.

Like the C.F. Martin Dreadnought, the Selmer-Maccaferri soon became a style, if not a template, to be followed by other Parisian luthiers, including Busato and Di Mauro (Django used guitars made by both). If you want to see one of Django’s guitars, venture to Paris’ Cité de la Musique, the French equivalent of the Smithsonian Institution, to see the instrument pictured here (serial number 503). Django’s widow donated the guitar, whose worn fretboard and battered body show the signs of a well-travelled Gypsy life.

Photo: Maxime Ruiz, Courtesy of the Foxy Lady Project