Who is the best guitarist of all time?
If you’re looking to start a fight, go to any gathering of guitar music fans and ask the question, “Who is the best guitar player of all time?”
Fans of rock music will shout the names of Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page, or Eric Clapton. Jazz fans will vote for George Benson, Charlie Christian, or Wes Montgomery. Country music fans will offer Chet Atkins, Roy Clark, or Willie Nelson. Acoustic guitar fans will nominate Andres Segovia, Jose Feliciano, or Tommy Emmanuel.
Other names will be shouted: Stevie Ray Vaughan, Carlos Santana, Pete Townsend, B.B. King, Les Paul.
But if you could gather all of those remarkable guitarists together in a single room and ask the same question—“Who is the best guitar player of all time?”—it is likely that they would all toast a single name: Django Reinhardt.
Born in Belgium in 1910, Django grew up in gypsy encampments, where he learned at an early age to play several instruments, including banjo, violin, and guitar. Although his family was furniture makers, several members were amateur musicians, and they taught the young lad their craft.
He learned quickly, and by his early teens, he was able to eke out a living playing music, though his formal education was so minimal he was barely literate.
In 1928, when he was only 18 years old, he knocked over a candle in the caravan he shared with his young wife, and his body was ravaged by the blaze. Half of his body was covered with first- and second-degree burns. His right leg was paralyzed and—worst of all for a guitarist—the third and fourth fingers on his left hand were burned so badly that they were permanently curled toward the palm. Doctors told him that he would never play the guitar again, and they wanted to amputate his leg.
But Django refused to accept the doctors’ decree. He denied the operation, and within a year, he was able to walk with the aid of a cane.
More miraculously, he still played the guitar.
Although a right-handed guitarist needs fine dexterity with all the fingers of his left hand to form chords and clear single notes, Django had to reinvent his style using only his thumb and the first two fingers on that hand to play solos. To form chords, he was somehow able to hook his last two fingers over certain strings to achieve a fuller sound that was remarkably clear and pure.
From 1929 through 1934, Django honed his craft, influenced not by other guitarists but by American jazz horn players like Dizzy Gillespie and Louis Armstrong, as well as Parisian violinist Stephane Grappelli. It was during this time that he became a virtuoso, raising the art of the guitar to new levels.
When World War II broke out, Django returned to Paris, and it was only a matter of time before his career as a guitarist—and indeed his very life—were once again in jeopardy.
Django was a Romani—a gypsy—and as such, he was in peril of being sent to a concentration camp once Paris was occupied by the Nazis. Hundreds of thousands of European Romanis were murdered by the Nazis in this way. It didn’t help that the young man was a jazz guitarist; for the Nazi regime decreed it illegal to play or record jazz, which they felt was the music of an inferior race.
But again, luck was in Django’s favor; for he fell under the protection of Luftwaffe officer Dietrich Schulz-Kohn, who was such a fan of Django’s music that the Nazi officer was often called “Doktor Jazz.”
After the war, Django went back on tour, eventually playing at Carnegie Hall as a special guest of Duke Ellington.
But the world was changing, and guitarists were achieving fresh, new sounds with advanced technology, such as electric guitars and amplifiers. Django found the adjustment hard, so he returned to France and reimmersed himself in the gypsy lifestyle. He continued to perform, but he became unpredictable, often showing up at a concert without a guitar or skipping a sold-out performance to walk the beach or “smell the dew.”
When he died of a brain hemorrhage while walking home after a Paris performance in 1951, the music stopped for him, but not for others who were inspired by his ability to overcome adversity and to rise to the top of his field.
He left a legacy that still inspires countless guitar virtuosos to toast the name of the best ever to play the instrument—Django Reinhardt.