Stochelo Rosenberg is one of the top Gypsy Jazz guitar players of the day and is also certainly one of my favorites. He embodies everything one thinks of when considering a guitar player in this style of music; brilliant rhythm and timing, ferocious soloing abilities, great compositional qualities and an endless stream of musical ideas with which to improvise. He comes from a very musical family and learned from his father and uncles, and his two cousins, Nonnie (bass) and Nous’che (rhythm guitar master) are the other members of The Rosenberg Trio. Based in the Netherlands TRT are probably, along with Bireli Lagrene, most responsible for the popularity of Gypsy Jazz today. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of other great players who are popular, especially in Europe, but TRT have established themselves world-wide as premier ambassadors of this style of music.
Stochelo has said many times that he learned to play by copying the great Django Reinhardt and it shows. While he has certainly expanded himself beyond being a mere imitator, he is very adept at capturing the vibe, ambiance and approach that Django pioneered. I’m sure there isn’t a Django side that Stochlo hasn’t internalized and you could probably wake him up in the middle of the night, force out onto his lawn, give him a guitar and make him play any of them, and he would be able to do it. Blindfolded. In 30 degree weather. Once again, almost all of the really great players in this style start at a very early age and grow up in a community where there is always music, and musical elders who can provide all of the assistance necessary to become a great musician. That isn’t everything though, as with any artist, the drive, discipline and will must be there in order to progress to the point of greatness. Aside from that determination, I find there are five important attributes found in all of the great players.
1. Tremendous picking skills — In order to play hyper-virtuoso lines on an acoustic guitar, one must be able to pick (or finger style if you are Paco De Lucia/Sylvain Luc) like a demon. This isn’t something haphazard—THERE ARE RULES. Classical guitar players spend a great deal of time in their early developmental stages just getting the right-hand (if they are right-handed guitar players) into an automated system of where to go and what to do—when. So it is with Gypsy Jazz. They do not just alternate pick their way through the songs but use the “rest stroke” technique combined with extra down strokes and alternate picking depending on the type of line they are playing. While there is not a long list of “what do I do here” moves, there are a few that are specific and must be practiced intensely for a significant amount of time in order to play at blinding tempos with a good tone. While many people are capable of playing fast, playing with good tone is very difficult and of course depends on other factors including guitar, strings, weather conditions etc. But using the rest stroke actually turns the pick into a “small hammer” (Romane) which gives Gypsy Jazz players volume, great tone, and a very percussive effect when picking.
2. Ninja Fretboard Knowledge — There is no doubt about it — you must know where everything is on the neck and I mean KNOW — the same way you can find your way from your bed to the bathroom in the pitch dark middle of the night, drunk out of your mind with your hands tied behind your back and headphones on. Joe Pass stressed the importance of this because you can always play faster, better, and easier if you know where you want to go next. Using the above bathroom metaphor, imagine if you didn’t know or weren’t entirely sure where your bathroom was, but you really had to go and there were 400 people in your house at the time. That’s kind of what it’s like to play Gypsy Jazz in front of people. But if the route to the bathroom is completely internalized, and you have alternate routes—in case of fire, plumbing failure, a crowd, or just to impress people, that’s even better. I have already posted on how knowing how arpeggios relate to the chords you are playing against and playing with 2 fingers can simplify the fretboard so you can play in a variety of positions all over the neck. It is also helpful in breaking out of the “box-position” thing that many people do. Stochelo can play runs from the 1st position to the 5th(12-15 fret) at 150 miles an hour. Once you learn how to tie all of the arpeggios together, while you may not be playing at that speed, you certainly will have increased your knowledge of the fretboard and how your notes relate to the music. This means not just the OBVIOUS notes, but all of the not so obvious notes that work if they are played and phrased correctly (chord/note substitutions). Mainstream jazz players are very adept at this and some have genius qualities in how they improvise on the fly in performance. Gypsy jazz musicians are likewise very adept at this and the thinking behind it is simultaneously very complex, but simplified to the point where it is almost instinctive. People have asked Bireli Lagrene questions like “what do you play over dominant chords?” and he will reply “what is a dominant chord?”. Of course he knows what it is and how it functions. What he is saying is that all of the naming conventions and the “this is what I do here” ideas don’t matter.
3. Awesome Bag of Tricks and Licks —Guitar and guitar playing has changed, evolved and expanded in scope since the days of Django Reinhardt. Though he was a total master and his playing and compositions sound fresh and modern today, there are more tools for performing and recording and a wider range of influences and styles a guitar player can call upon to achieve his or her dreams. Many jazz and Gypsy Jazz players employ licks and theory from other styles, the blues for example. Stochelo Rosenberg has a wide variety of blues licks at his disposal and the great thing about a blues lick, like your basic arpeggio; you can alter it by changing a few of the notes, the timing or the phrasing to play something that ranges from similar to completely different—over the same phrase or somewhere else in the song. Blues players do this all of the time and jazz players usually build on simple blues lines and chord patterns to make them more complex. He also has modern-sounding licks and some that are based in the style of Paco de Lucia and other flamenco players, and is obviously a fan of flamenco music. He also has a really, really cool vibrato technique. It can be very subtle, mysterious and soft on ballads and very sustaining on more uptempo songs. Personally, I think he has some of the best acoustic vibrato going and that combined with a very strong and stylish ability to bend notes effectively has a lot to do with why he has a very signature sound .
4. Compositional Approach to Playing and Improvising — Ultimately, the goal is to be able to construct solos and improvisations that stand on their own as pieces of music. That doesn’t sound controversial, but each person will have different criteria for what constitutes a musical statement. What I like about Stochelo’s playing is the energy and phrasing; he is the Eddie Van Halen of modern gypsy jazz. The speed and fluidity of his lines, all of which make perfect musical sense when slowed down, combined with his great sense of timing and rhythm make for a very exciting musical statement. He is also capable of playing very emotional ballads and has a very good sense of feel that one can find in great jazz, blues and popular music players. Because he also composes his own music, some of it very popular and well-known, like For Sephora*, Gipsy Summer, Double Jeu, Last Minute Swing, Made for Isaac and many others including various waltzes and solo improvisation pieces, there is always a beautiful (my favorite word) ATMOSPHERE to his playing. This doesn’t have to be a fast lick or a complicated theoretical part. In the long run it comes down to playing the perfect part for every measure in the song. Time, focused practice, experience, imagination and thinking of the music (yours or a cover/standard) conceptually will eventually result in an infinite amount of options at your disposal and the ability to make use of the right one at the right time.
5. Excellent Rhythm and Timing —While I’ve listed this at number 5, it could just as easily be the most important aspect of playing to focus on, especially if you are a player who doesn’t play with others very much or does not practice with a metronome or along with recorded music. Having a good sense of time is so important and it is definitely something I have to continuously work at. When playing a “chop-heavy” style like gypsy jazz or metal, the difference between someone who can shred really beautiful and powerful lines, and someone who is just wanking away on scales or arpeggios, is usually defined by how the lines are phrased and timed. All of the gypsy jazz pros advocate practicing with a metronome and creating lines with a sense of feeling, dynamics and emotion. While playing along with recorded music is good, it’s also important, in order to develop good improvising skills, to practice your routine (arps, lines, licks, comping, rhythm guitar) with a metronome so you are imbued with a strong sense of where and how to place notes and chords against a beat. This isn’t as easy as it sounds unless you are already very accomplished. You can play very well alone, and then get together with a rhythm section and in front of people and find out just how lacking your skills are. Some people need that awareness to force them to focus on this aspect and I count myself as one of those people. The good thing is that even after just a few weeks playing with a metronome every day and learning to relax when you are playing, you will see definite improvement.
* This is a great version of For Sephora. It looks to me like Stochelo has a little bit of trouble getting started, but by the final chorus he has even gotten a smile and a nod from Nous’che, the rhythm player, who has seen Stochelo do this song a million times. I hear some Al Di Meola stylings in this solo (Mediterranean Sundance). Do you?
A Guitar Master soundchecking/warming up
Stochelo now has his own Online Academy and I would encourage anyone interested in playing Gypsy Jazz to take the free tour and see what they have to offer. Living in the internet age is amazing because you can study with a guy you would never be able to hang with one on one. He is a very in-demand performer and, of course, many people would love to be his students.
1. Interview with Stochelo Rosenberg. Stochelo Rosenberg Part 1. 2005. Page 127.