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You may have never heard the term “jazz manouche”—but you would undoubtedly be drawn to the signature electric, liquid sound if you heard it. Jazz manouche is a genre of jazz that is characterized by a swing-style rhythm and played primarily on an acoustic guitar.
Learning how to play jazz manouche guitar isn’t only expressive and fun; it can also provide a solid foundation for playing other types of music, including bluegrass, rock, pop, and modern jazz. In this guide, get an introduction to the jazz manouche style of music and a step-by-step guide for how to play.
Jazz manouche is a genre of jazz originally developed by Romani guitarist Django Reinhardt. Reinhardt aimed to combine elements of American jazz with European and Romani music. Over time, the style became more popular, and Reinhardt eventually played with jazz legends such as Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington.
In jazz manouche, the acoustic guitar takes center stage, filling multiple roles: rhythm, harmony, and lead. Rhythm guitarists use a strumming technique called “la pompe,” which creates the style’s signature bouncy swing and replaces drums or percussion. Soloists (typically on guitar, but also sometimes on clarinets, saxophones, or trumpets) will emerge from the background with improvised rhythms, harmonies, and trills.
The first jazz manouche guitar was created in the 1930s by Mario Maccaferri, an Italian musician and luthier, and the French instrument maker Selmer. The first iteration of this instrument had a large D-shaped sound hole, but later versions were created with a small O-shaped sound hole. While classical guitars are made from pieces of solid wood, jazz manouche guitars are crafted from laminate wood, which helps the sound resonate outward.
While you can select a traditional Selmer guitar with a D-shaped or oval hole, it’s not a requirement—you can use any acoustic guitar to play jazz manouche. The style comes more from the way you approach and play the guitar.
To produce the most authentic sound, choose strings made of silver-plated copper on a steel core. You will also need a thick, sturdy pick. Select a pick that has a pre-worn edge to add a warm, swooshing sound to your rhythm.
Even if you are familiar with the acoustic guitar, learning how to play jazz manouche requires a shift in thinking and technique—and a lot of practice. That’s because jazz manouche is primarily about feel and expression, rather than following sheet music or notation. While this style of jazz is traditionally passed down to young musicians through family or friends, you can also learn how to play jazz manouche in this step-by-step guide.
Step 1: Learn the Proper Stance and Strumming Motion
Playing jazz manouche guitar requires a different posture and technique than a traditional acoustic guitar. Skillshare instructor Alex Simon shares that the number one rule in his jazz manouche guitar lessons is that everything must feel loose. There should be no tension in your body or your mind when you’re playing. You will also use a loose wrist technique to strum, focusing on using the power of your arm to get the most sound out of the instrument.
Because of that dynamic strumming motion, you need to hold the guitar in a way to keep it stable. Rest the guitar directly on your leg, with the neck of the guitar parallel to the floor. Then, prop the elbow of your strumming arm on the guitar, so you can swing that arm freely.
Step 2: Master Jazz Manouche Rhythms
The main rhythm in jazz manouche is called “la pompe,” which translates to “the pump.” This is a strumming method that emphasizes beats two and four. There are three parts of the la pompe rhythm to master: an upstroke, a downstroke, and a downward whipping motion (or, in Simon’s terms, a “thwack”).
Practice this rhythm by laying the fingers of your left hand flat against the strings to mute them. This allows you to master the strumming motion without worrying about the note. Then, once you feel comfortable, you can add in jazz manouche guitar chords.
Once you master la pompe, you can move on to additional rhythms, including:
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Step 3: Learn Single Note Picking
To play single notes, you’ll use the same loose-wrist technique that you learned for playing rhythm. Just like the strumming technique required you to swing your arm loosely, you will swing your hand into each single note. This is quite different from the traditional way of picking notes, in which you pluck the string outward and away from the guitar. To achieve the classic jazz manouche sound, you play into the guitar.
Another unique aspect of jazz manouche is the use of rest strokes. In this style of picking, you don’t just pluck the string, but instead, play through the string and let the pick land (or “rest”) on the next string. It will take practice to master this type of picking, so take time to go through some basic, slow exercises.
Step 4: Get Comfortable Soloing
In general, soloing means stepping out from the background of the music—like the rhythm or accompaniment roles—to make a musical statement in the foreground. While the rhythm guitarist plays jazz manouche guitar chords, for example, the soloist might play a progression of single notes.
There are many different ways to approach soloing. One common method is to hone in on the chord that the rhythm guitar is playing and break it apart into single notes. By alternating between those notes in different patterns and arrangements, you can create a unique sound that stands out from the rest of the ensemble.
While jazz manouche guitar lessons will provide a solid foundation for this style of jazz, you will also need to put in the time to practice. The beauty of jazz, however, is that you can practice by jamming with a group of musicians—and by immersing yourself in this style of music, you will naturally expand your technique and style.
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