Choosing the right guitar for Gypsy Jazz – Part 1

I get quite a lot of emails from people all over the world asking me for advice on which Gypsy Jazz guitars to buy. While it is true that Gypsy Jazz guitar construction is unique and quite different from what the majority of guitar luthiers are used to, I feel that some of the advice I would give would be the same for just about any kind of acoustic instrument. Unfortunately, the answer isn’t so simple.

The good news is, nowadays, while still a niche market, Gypsy Jazz guitars are now mass-produced at very attractive prices. There are a few competing brands out there and, in my opinion, not only are they quite decent for the price, they have excellent resale value. I would almost always recommend buying one of these guitars to start out with and get a feel for the style. Even within these budget brands, they may offer various models with a fairly wide price range. Remember, more expensive does not mean better! In fact, in blind tests, I’ve sometimes chosen a more basic model over the pricier one.

Furthermore, you can play Gypsy Jazz on just about any decently set up guitar! A big part of the genre is the way you approach the instrument. We’ll talk more about that in a bit but to start with, watch these videos for instance:

Jimmy’s dad is playing on a cheap 12 string acoustic converted to a 6 string!

Here, Dorado Schmitt is playing on a cheap Ibanez archtop guitar (which he gave to me at the end of the tour!).

 

Before talking about which guitar to choose, we have to talk about playing styles and the purpose of the guitar.

The problem for most people around the world is lack of access to high quality instruments, and lack of exposure to the wide variety of playing styles that exist within the genre. The latter is very important, because the style can be approached in so many different ways, and in which case, one particular sound or setup might be preferable than another. There are various styles of Gypsy Jazz guitars and setups available for the contemporary player.

However, I should say that traditionally, these guitars were meant to be played unamplified. If there was any need for amplification, it was a minimal setup. Unfortunately, I feel that this is a bit of lost art. Most modern players come from a background where extensive use of technology is the norm. This basically means that a tremendous amount of tone is coming from technology. In Gypsy Jazz, tone traditionally came from the hands and fingers. In order to get the best possible tone, guitarists played a certain way, and in order for the guitar to resonate in the best possible way, it had to be set up a certain way. This usually meant a bit of a higher action than what most contemporary guitar players are used to. Remember the term “high action” is relative. For most acoustic Gypsy Jazz players, low is considered high to people coming from other styles.

Unfortunately, a lot of the mass-produced guitars or even luthier built guitars cater to people who complained that traditional Gypsy Jazz guitars were too hard to play. It created a bit of a rift in the instrument market. These “easy”, “low-action”, thin neck instruments make it much easier to play incredibly fast lines at the expense of tone and/or volume, which is then often compensated by technology.

This is certainly a valid way of playing, but in a more traditional world, certain players dig into the strings a bit more to get a more powerful tone out of the guitar. You’ll find players in both extremes of the spectrum, and everything in between.

The easy guitars are generally much more forgiving for the average guitar player. The traditional guitars require a strong technical foundation that most players new to the genre are not used to. The rest stroke technique used in the style involves an arched and floating wrist with an attack that comes from the weight of the hand. Of course, the same technique can also be used with a less heavy attack but that would fall more into the “easy setup” side of the spectrum.

I have seen the following scenarios many times: X player who is new to the genre tries a vintage guitar but does not like it because the tone is not good; there’s no volume, and it’s too hard to play. Thus, X player favours the easy to play guitar. Y player, who comes from the traditional background tries the easy guitar but finds that the tone is non-existent; the action is so low that the heavy attack doesn’t allow the strings to resonate freely. Y player then tries the vintage guitar with the big neck and higher action, and suddenly, the tone is full and round, and the volume explosively loud! Please note, I’m not saying vintage guitars are better, I’m just saying that traditionally vintage guitars were not built with the modern playing style in mind.

These are two extreme examples that I’ve seen so many times throughout the years! Again, I’m using extreme examples here, and I must repeat that you’ll find everything in between. What kind of player are you? I find myself to be somewhere in the middle, but leaning towards the traditional way of playing. I’ve been playing Gypsy Jazz for a long time now, and I’ve had the opportunity to try many guitars from all over the world.

Assuming that there are no structural flaws, one can say that there is no such thing as a bad guitar, only the wrong kind for your needs; a shoe that doesn’t fit is not a bad shoe, it’s just the wrong size for you. Remember also that setup goes a very long way. The same instrument, if well built, can be made to feel and sound different, so before you completely dismiss an instrument, try to find out if it can be set up to your liking.

This is particularly tricky for newcomers, as they struggle to find their identity in the genre. For some, it takes a while to figure out what’s right for them, which is why the mass-produced guitars are ideal. They’re generally on the thin neck/low action side of the spectrum, but for the price, they’re great to start with. You can play them, and experiment with your technique to figure out what style of Gypsy Jazz you like best. Remember, that for many years, these guitars were far beyond the price range for many players in the actual Gypsy communities. Many of these Gypsy musicians were not wealthy. Some saved up to get an actual luthier made guitar, and then shared it with the whole extended family whenever possible. They played on whatever they could get their hands on, a beat up classical guitar strung with steel strings, or the 12 string guitar in the above Jimmy Rosenberg video. If they can get by with such bad instruments, don’t complain that your budget model Asian made Gypsy Jazz guitar is no good!

However, a good set-up is more than a question of action or neck size. The string tension that one feels is incredibly important. I’m not a luthier, so I’m not informed enough to talk about it. I’ve also spoken to many reputable luthiers who had different things to say about it too!

Every guitar is different, certain guitars respond well to high action with heavy gauge strings, others respond better to a lower action with light gauge strings, and any combination you can think of. While it’s true that high action and heavy gauge strings require a bit more effort, it should not be the kind that really puts enormous strain on your technique!

Therefore, a good luthier should know how to build a guitar with a specific setup in mind. I’ve tried guitars strung with light gauge strings and a low action that crippled my hands after 5 minutes, and I’ve tried guitars strung with heavy strings and high action that played like butter. Why is that? That’s for the various luthiers out there to chime in.

The climate of your city can also affect the instrument. In the east coast of Canada, we experience dry and cold winters, and hot and humid summers. Although I keep my instruments humidified in the winter, and I manage the humidity during the summer, I still find myself having to bring my guitar to my luthier every now and then for an adjustment. These things happen.

You should also be asking yourself what you expect to do with the instrument. Do you want to play it at home or in the studio only? Play gigs? If so, what kind of gigs? Do you just want to play in quiet cafes? Loud bars? Are you going to be touring the world with it? How do you plan to amplify your instrument? This last question gets asked a lot as well. I feel I have to address it as it also affects one’s choice of instrument.

For starters, if you’re playing in noisy environments, you’ll be dealing with wanting to get heard over a crowd that will generally not paying attention to the music. In which case, quite frankly, having the most authentic acoustic tone is not the most important thing. Psychologically, having a good tone helps us and inspires us to play better, but the truth is, if most people are not listening or being very noisy, you can only do so much with tone. In which case, you should forget about using your fancy microphone setup! Any system of amplification that doesn’t result in feedback will work. I try to use a minimalist setup in such instances, as I don’t like to be a slave to technology. I’ll generally use a Stimer type pick-up with a small tube amp in these situations. It’s hassle free, and fits the noisy environment quite well. The tube amp isn’t necessary, but it does have that nice growl that Django had back in the day. You can certainly use any other amp or run it straight to the board through a DI. This is what I would do in extremely noisy situations such as an outdoor music festival where tons of bands are playing in proximity.

You can certainly invest a lot of money into getting an EQ pedal, a special pickup and all sorts of other pedals to manage the feedback and maintain a quasi-acoustic tone, but really, are you going to go through that kind of trouble for a bar gig where half the people are wasted?

Furthermore, if you’re mainly playing bar gigs, having the greatest acoustic tone or the loudest acoustic guitar isn’t going to do much for you since you will be relying mostly on technology. Yet another reason, why I love the mass-produced guitars; they’re affordable, sturdy, and get the job done.

On the other hand, maybe you play in cafes or venues where there is still a bit of a noisy environment, but not as chaotic as a noisy bar/restaurant. In such situations, I ask myself, will the people be listening, or will I be providing background music? If it’s the latter, you don’t want the music to be too loud. Depending on the size of the venue, I might choose to play 100% acoustically, or just put mics in front of the instruments, assuming they have a sound system. If they don’t, you can bring a small acoustic amp with your fancy little lavalier microphone. Again, I personally always go for the setup that relies the least on technology.

In such situations, if you have strong technique and can get an explosive tone from your guitar, I wouldn’t amplify myself too much. If on the other hand, your picking is quite soft, be careful not to set the amp too loud or you may end up getting feedback. If that’s the case, you either work on your technique, or use an amplification system that doesn’t result in feedback. You won’t have a pure acoustic tone, but it’s the sacrifice you’ll have to make.

Quite honestly, I rarely play in bars/cafes these days. I mostly play festivals or concert halls. They’re generally equipped with decent sound systems. I try to play acoustically whenever possible, and if not, we just put microphones in front of the instruments. We rarely even need any kind of monitoring!

In my experience, the vast majority of sound guys are usually not experienced in this field. They’re used to dealing with pick-ups, DIs, etc. In their defence, a lot of musicians have fallen into the trap of playing this way. Even some of the best musicians don’t know how to deal with sound checks. My sound checks are always easy, and last 10 minutes, if not less! It took many years of experience to learn how to do sound checks for the style of music! I’m not playing a rock concert, and it’s very simple.

The secret is to get the musicians to position themselves strategically, so that everyone can hear each other comfortably. Each musician should know how to play dynamically as well. If the lead instrument is softer, than the rhythm section needs to back down a bit. Sometimes, these guitars sound louder from the perspective of the audience than from the perspective of the player. In which case, each musician needs to be aware of this and use the necessary compensation. The lead player should play the way he/she normally plays. The rhythm player should sit next to the lead player, as close as possible. He/she should then tilt the chair in such a way that there is a nice a balance of volume between the players’ perspectives. If the rhythm guitar player’s instrument is loud, facing it against the lead player might make it difficult for the lead player to hear him/herself. The rhythm player will just have to slightly tilt away until everyone is comfortable.

The bass player ideally, should be slightly between the lead and rhythm guitar player, and a little bit behind. He/she should be close enough so that he can hear what’s going on, and especially can make eye contact with all other players, especially the rhythm player with whom he/she will have to be in sync at all times.

Generally the lead player is the leader. If there’s a secondary lead instrument, I personally like to have him/her across the rhythm player, so that both are in my line of vision; this is important for visual cues. This is my personal setup for a quartet, but you may, of course, adjust certain things according to your needs. Remember, if playing with a drummer, the drummer should know that he/she doesn’t have to play too much or too loud. He/she should be careful with his choice of drums as well.

With such a setup, playing acoustically or with minimal amplification is extremely easy. My sound checks are extremely fast this way. Soundmen usually want to run the bass through a DI, or use heavy amplification, but I must always insist that amplification be kept to a bare minimum, just enough so that everyone can hear the music, and that the musicians can control 100% of the dynamics through their playing. Unless there is something wrong with the room, this means that once the sound check is done, the soundman should not touch the mixing board for the rest of the concert! I’ve played numerous concerts this way without any monitoring system whatsoever!

This, of course, assumes, that each player has, not only, the necessary technique to get a strong tone and adequate volume, but also the common sense to adjust their dynamics according to context. It’s in these situations that having a good instrument really helps!

In this video, we are playing 100% acoustically in a big church, the sound is being captured by a zoom recorder, 10 feet away from us. Everyone in the room heard us clearly!

Of course, I realize that certain Gypsy Jazz bands have a bit of a rock feel, nowadays, and that’s perfectly fine. Some of the virtuosic players don’t pick as hard, and have lower action on their guitars, so they would definitely greatly benefit from a bit more amplification. In concert halls, this is usually easy to accomplish.

In outdoor festivals, where there may be a loud crowd and some wind, you might have to find a compromise using a combination of the above suggestions. Remember, you can’t always have everything perfectly the way you want it, and it’s good to be able to psychologically deal with the necessary compromises.

I mentioned touring the world with the instrument. If you’re used to taking your guitar on flights, you probably know that airline policies are deeply flawed. Air travel problems don’t happen all the time, but they certainly happen often enough to make us worry. Until airline policies are fixed (if ever), you will always be gambling with your instrument. A flight case might not even be safe, if airline/airport security decides to inspect your instrument while it is in their care. If they don’t know how to handle the instrument or how to properly reseal the flight case, you might be in for an unpleasant surprise. This is a topic worthy of its own article, but suffice it to say, travel at your own risk. In which case, once again, the mass-produced guitars come to the rescue. They’re built sturdy and affordable enough that if somehow damaged, it’s not the end of the world. They may not sound as good as your holy grail luthier built guitar, but remember, musicians in the Gypsy community have played and recorded with the worst guitars in the world. An actual Gypsy Jazz guitar, even if mass-produced is usually a significant upgrade from a nylon string converted to Gypsy Jazz guitar! Furthermore, your fragile hand made guitar might be extremely sensitive to climate change, and the feel of the instrument can change drastically from city to city. Without naming luthiers and names, I know of many high profile touring artists who have had to switch guitars during a tour just to survive a gig! We’ll talk about these issues in the next part.

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