“Django Meets Van Halen”
What can be said about this “song”, an off-the-cuff recording, done in one take in 1937? Nothing…you just have to listen to it, or watch Jimmy Rosenberg play it. While Jimmy is good, and by that I mean, REALLY GREAT, there is something even more amazing about Django’s recording of the song. It’s done with such wild abandon and confidence that the performance seems to fall out of him. It is the classic Django performance one could rightfully point to as example of how he was a one-of-a-kind guitar player and completely ahead of his time. Even today, I think it was performances like this one that cemented Django’s reputation as a player who could do things that defied comprehension.
Django’s recording still holds up — (HERE)— the richness of the chords and harmony playing and the complete virtuosity with all of the rapid-fire single string lines, plus the tone, the SOUND of that Selmer guitar which jumps out at you even though the recording is now almost 75 years old. What I love about this performance is that it shows that Django anticipated and laid the groundwork for another of my favorite players, Edward Van Halen, forty years before the latter came along. From a purely technical aspect, Improvisation #1 is Django’s Eruption; blazing diminished arpeggios, the unbelievably cool and lightning-fast descending chromatic runs, the hammer-tapped harmonics between the two fast sections, the statacco picking that almost sounds like the beginning of the second part of Eruption after the key/ tonal center change from Dm to Bm, and the complete command of drama in the performance, which results from the confidence and ability to time and pace everything correctly without rushing, stumbling, or overplaying. What makes this even more amazing was Django recorded this at the end of a recording session and had someone signalling to him when his 3 minutes was running out. Everyone else at the session was amazed at the result and would not let Django reconsider a do-over.
Much of the same can be said for Edward Van Halen’s Eruption which is dazzling in it’s pyrotechnic beauty and enhanced by the power of electricity, volume, distortion and effects (minimal compared to some players). Certainly both he and Django have similarities in their approach to playing guitar and were going for a similar type of (improvised) performance. Everyone knows that Eruption completely turned the guitar-playing world on its head in 1978. It was EVH who brought the sophistication of classical and jazz music and a completely new level of virtuosity to arena rock audiences. While there had been many talented rock players taking many extended solos and solo pieces — Page, Blackmore, Howe, Beck, May, Hendrix — and jazz, fusion and progressive rock certainly had many technical powerhouses — McLaughlin, DiMeola, Fripp, Metheny, Coryell — the technique, sound, and go-for-it! attitude contained in Eruption and on every Van Halen record through 1984 was so overwhelming that he was repeatedly voted the #1 Player and an entire industry was created around learning to play his style. Whether one likes or appreciates his talents is immaterial because what is most important is the effect and influence he had on so many other players and how that has shaped what guitar playing is all about.
In the wake of Eruption new guitar magazines appeared and so did other materials like the“Hot Licks” cassette tapes, and soon after, videos with in-depth explorations of the technique and the sound needed to pull of the Van Halen performance. While the concept of “tablature” as a form of notating music has been around since the 15th century, personally, I can’t remember seeing music written out that way, even in Guitar Player Magazine before EVH turned the guitar world upside down (At the time was the youngest player ever to appear on the cover of that magazine). I have a copy of GP from the summer of 1984 that has Van Halen on the cover with an accompanying article that gives an in-depth look at his style, while another article explains the whole concept of what “TAB” is and today, some 27 years later, “TAB” is THE most popular form of guitar notation. I’m not saying Van Halen was personally responsible, but he certainly re-ignited interest in the instrument and re-defined (again) what the instrument was capable of…even though, the truth is, musically, much of what is contained in Eruption, minus the legato tap-pull-off passages, and the sonic landscape powered by overdriven Marshalls, can be found in Django’s Improvisation #1. Bands like Van Halen, and other guitar-driven virtuoso bands that followed, sold huge amounts of records and played to very large audiences world-wide. Therefore the market for prospective players learning this style was also very big, which is why all of the learning tools developed as they did.
Another similarity between Eruption and Improvisation #1 is that they are improvised and there is, in my opinion, a slight misconception about what that term means. Even I was confused on this issue for a long time. Many people think improvisation means to make it up as you go along, however, that is and isn’t what is happening. Dissecting a piece like Improvisation #1 or Eruption, after playing either style of music for awhile shows that some very commonly used motifs, arpeggios, lines and technical “moves” that were/are mainstays of Django’s/EVH’s musical language are employed to create each performance. EVH has said that he used to do variations of Eruption at sound-checks before he and his band made the first Van Halen album and I believe Django played parts or variations of Improvisation #1 to and by himself before he ever recorded it. If you follow the link from the EVH pic at the top you will see a version of Eruption from 2007. Keep looking on You Tube and I’m sure you will find an endless number of versions, none of which are completely the same, but all of which have most of the same elements. EVH has said that he just “went for it” on most of the stuff the first line-up of Van Halen recorded and he was able to do that because a) the band had been playing quite a few of the songs live for years b) the band recorded their first 3 records pretty much sans guitar overdubs and c) EVH was always playing so he could just play and turn out something really good.
The same was true of Django — on the streets of Paris as a musician from the age of 11-12, and with the extra motivation that it was his only source of income save for gambling, he was playing ALL the time. Also, like EVH, who was a classically-trained pianist, classical music and his understanding and intense love of it played a huge role in his formation as a player and as a composer. Of course, the Gypsy community from whence Django came holds music as a very important, almost spiritual element and from a very early age he was astonishing the others in the community with his instrumental prowess. Not even the severe damage to the third and fourth fingers on his left hand hampered his abilities as a player, although the sheer effort necessary to come back from the injuries he sustained in the caravan fire of 1928 I believe says something of the drive and determination that was Django’s character. It is what one hears in many of his performances — this great force of nature that will not be denied!
Not only was Django a total headbanger, as the clip above illustrates, he was capable of hearing, and playing licks that none of his contemporaries could match because a) they didn’t have his unique blend of influences: jazz, gypsy and classical music, and b) his instinctive understanding of music in general. I find this also to be true of some American jazz guitarists like Charlie Christian and to a lesser extent, Wes Montgomery. While both may have surpassed Django as jazz players, neither of them ever composed or performed anything likeImprovisation #1. Many of Django’s best techniques: flamenco-style passages, diminished runs, mixing beautiful chord patterns with single string lines and very precise, powerful picking all come together to create a memorable performance. I think, that like any other guitar player, Django sat and around and played with ideas that he would then mix and match and change and do differently every time he picked up the guitar. He was just way better than most people at doing it on the spot without making a mistake. He totally nailed it the day it was recorded and considering that it was recorded at a time when you couldn’t go and “punch in” or fix a little mistake shows what a master he was at execution.
The point of all this is not to diminish Django’s or Edward’s greatness and their natural abilities to make music, but rather to humanize them. They both WORKED very hard to become incredible players, and while they both were born with immense natural abilities, there is no musician who is capable of producing that level of art without a lot of effort. Constantly being involved with the music — playing it all the time, is what helps to produce great improvisation. They both deserve the reputation they earned as people who could do things others could not, but it must never be forgotten that there was a whole lot of determination and dedication to the cause. It’s certainly true that a player could spend 10 hours a day for years practicing to play like Django and not reach a point where it would be exactly the same, or even, nearly as good. There are always particulars and intangibles that must be written off to the abilities and personality of the player. However, both Django and Edward made the best use of their natural abilities and spent many hours honing their skills and refining their talents and this is something players and non-players alike should always remember.
It’s also important for players to understand that there is no magic key for having the ability to navigate around the complex changes of a song or reach a point in one’s development when it’s conceivable that music could just fall out of whatever mood you happen to be in at the moment. Anyone who has been playing for even a short time is capable of this to a certain extent. Building on what is known little by little and incorporating as many different influences and musical possibilities during practice can lead to great performance later. And don’t forget FUN. There must be plenty of that. Both Django and EVH obviously loved/love playing guitar and that in itself can take you a long way. When I began playing Gypsy Jazz four and a half years ago my improvisation skills were pretty hopeless because most of the music I had played over the years was either prepared or based on much easier chord progressions. Though I’m still not the improviser I want to be, I can do stuff now that would have been impossible in the past. It’s much like learning a 2nd or 3rd language — you can’t just know the words, you have to be using the whole scope of the language, words, punctuation, sentence structure etc., on a regular basis.