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From the June 2017 issue of Acoustic Guitar | BY ADAM PERLMUTTER
Last January, visiting the booth of the Eastman Music Co. at the annual winter NAMM trade show in Anaheim, California, I ran into Bob Bakert, whose title at Eastman is Rudder, a reference to the many hats he wears for the company. Though he’s been a professional musician and consultant in the music industry for decades, Bakert exhibited enthusiasm for Eastman’s latest steel-string guitars and mandolins, with their artfully distressed varnish finishes. But Bakert really lit up when he started telling me about a project in the works: a production-model Gypsy-jazz guitar.
“Before I came out of retirement to work here last October, I noticed an incredible phenomenon in which Gypsy jazz was just going crazy,” he said, excitedly. “And I approached Eastman with the idea of creating a high-end Gypsy instrument at a reasonable price. Now we’re in the middle of prototyping.”
Bakert and his team were finding this to be no small feat. “We’re still working on getting the voicing correct,” he said, with the slightest hint of exasperation. “It’s easy to make a guitar look like a Gypsy instrument, but it’s not as easy to get the guitar to have that great big, midrange-forward, loud tone that’s required for an authentic sound.”
French & Italian Origins
In order to understand that big, authentic sound, it’s helpful to have a sense of the Gypsy-jazz guitar’s history and construction. The instrument was conceived in the early 1930s through a collaboration between the Italian musician and luthier Mario Maccaferri and the French instrument maker Selmer. (Maccaferri later would pioneer the production of plastic archtops and ukuleles.)
The earliest Selmer-Maccaferri guitar was an oddball creature with its large D-shaped soundhole (grande bouche or large mouth); wide, floating bridge; fancy tailpiece; gently arched (not carved) French spruce soundboard; and ladder-braced top and back. The Selmer-Maccaferri was the first guitar with a cutaway and a steel-reinforced neck. Though the instrument is closely associated with guitar legend Django Reinhardt—and Gypsy jazz in general—it was originally intended for the classical guitarist. “The first examples were built with [Maccaferri’s] internal resonating chambers to be very present and loud guitars,” says Thomas Davy, the owner of djangoguitars.com, with two showrooms in the Los Angeles area, and a virtuoso Gypsy-jazz guitarist himself.
This type of instrument’s optimal setup differs from that of a regular steel-string.
As opposed to fine steel-string or classical guitars, with solid backs and sides, most of the Gypsy-jazz model Selmer-Maccaferris had laminated Indian rosewood backs and sides—for sonic reasons, and not cost-cutting measures. “The use of laminate was designed to isolate the top,” Davy says. “An arched/bent pliage top and laminated back and sides make the sound reflect outward as much as possible, so the attack of the guitar is quite immediate.”
Maccaferri only worked with the company for 18 months. After he left, his original design saw various modifications, among them the introduction of a smaller oval soundhole (petite bouche or small mouth) and a long scale length of 670mm (26.38 inches). Still, Maccaferri’s name is forever associated with the instrument whose defining sound is characteristic of Gypsy jazz.
One of the first things to consider when buying a Gypsy-jazz guitar is the type of music that you anticipate playing. If you’re looking to get into playing straight Gypsy jazz, whether as a hobbyist or a professional musician, it’s best to shop for a Selmer or Maccaferri copy. “For an authentic sound, you’ll definitely want to look for some of the things that were found on the original guitars,” Davy says.
You should look for a solid, arched spruce top; laminated rosewood back and sides; and a walnut neck. The most popular variation is the later-Selmer style, with a 14th-fret neck-to-body junction and longer scale length. This type generally has the most cutting tone and serves well as an all-purpose instrument. On the other hand, the earlier Maccaferri style has a 12th-fret neck junction and a slightly sweeter and more overtone-rich sound, not to mention a shorter scale-length fretboard, 648mm (25.5 inches), which will be more comfortable for some players.
If your aim is to be a great soloist and sound like Django as heard on such early recordings as “My Sweet” or “Sweet Georgia Brown,” keep in mind a common misconception: Reinhardt didn’t start playing the 14-fret model seen in photos until the late 1930s. “Django was actually using a 12-fret guitar, proving that it’s not just a rhythm guitar,” Davy says.
‘People describe [the tone] as nasal- or crunchy-sounding—or just weird. But that’s exactly how a Gypsy-jazz guitar should sound.’
Like any other style of guitar, the Gypsy-jazz guitar has seen a range of design variations over the decades. If stylistic rectitude is less of a concern for you, and you want the basic sonic footprint and feel of a Gypsy-jazz guitar, but with other timbral possibilities, don’t limit yourself to a Selmer- or Maccaferri-style guitar. Be open to features that aren’t necessarily historically correct. “If you’re going to be doing stuff other than straight Gypsy jazz—and you want a bit more mid- or high-presence, for example—you might try a guitar with solid back and sides,” Davy says.
A Certain Loudness
It’s one thing to hear a Gypsy-jazz guitar on a recording, but many musicians, upon playing one for the first time, are surprised and even taken aback by how they sound. “People describe it as nasal- or crunchy-sounding—or just weird,” Davy says. “But that’s exactly how a Gypsy-jazz guitar should sound. And it’s also why it’s best to first experience Gypsy-jazz guitars in person.”
Another surprise comes in the form of playability: This type of instrument’s optimal setup differs from that of a regular steel-string. “The action on a Gypsy-jazz guitar is generally three millimeters above the 12th fret on the low-E string and around 2.8 on the high-E,” noticeably higher than on a standard steel-string, Davy explains. “If you set the action too low without enough tension, like many novices do, the guitar will have no projection or power.”
While you shouldn’t confuse high action with a poor setup, you should know that entry-level Gypsy-jazz guitars often take a bit of work out of the box to ensure the best playability and sound. So if you must order an instrument online, factor the cost of a good setup—generally as much as $200, Davy says. “Many of these import models require fret dressing, adjustment of the bridge feet to properly contact the top, notching the bridge to ensure proper string spacing, and making sure that the tailpiece insert is fitted to ensure that there is no rattle,” he notes.
Something else to consider when auditioning your first Gypsy-jazz guitar: You can’t just slap regular medium phosphor-bronze strings on the instrument. To get the proper sound and tension from a Gypsy-jazz guitar, the best choice is silver-plated copper on a steel core, like Savarez Argentine Gypsy-Jazz Acoustic Guitar Strings. “The standard gauge for these is .010 on the high-E string,” Davy says. “They’ve been used by every famous guitarist in the genre, including Django.”
Then there’s that tiny, but all-important, accessory: the plectrum. Chances are the medium flatpick you use on your steel-string won’t quite cut it in terms of tone and volume on a Gypsy-jazz guitar, which is best played with a specialized type of pick, up to 6 mm thick. “You’ll really benefit from a Wegen or Djangojazz, the handmade picks that most Gypsy-jazz players use,” Davy says, adding that his shop also makes its own plectrums out of Galalith, a synthetic derivative of the milk protein casein and formaldehyde whose sound resembles tortoiseshell.
The bottom line is that when buying your first Gypsy-jazz guitar, it’s best to manage your expectations as to how it will sound and feel. In many respects, it’s a different instrument than a steel-string flattop—one that will require new techniques and patience to master. “You have to learn to play these guitars,” Davy says. “It’s an acquired skill that comes with time and experience.”
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Just as there’s a learning curve with buying and taking up the Gypsy-jazz guitar, there’s apparently one when it comes to designing and building the instrument from scratch. I checked back with Bob Bakert a month after NAMM. He told me that Eastman’s factory in China—with input from luthier Otto D’Ambrosio, who heads the company’s custom shop in California—had produced a pair of prototypes that were edging closer to the desired sound. “We could put these guitars into production now and sell them,” he says, “But we’re waiting until we’re able to really get that beautifully loud sound coming out of the instrument.”
Here are five straightforward Gypsy-jazz guitars starting at under $500.
Gitane Cigano Series GJ-10 ($449 street)
This Selmer copy, a 14-fret model with a 26 5/8-inch scale length, will get you in the door to playing Gypsy-jazz guitar.
Altamira M01 ($899)
Here’s an imported Selmer-style guitar with an impressive bark. It’s available with an oil-varnish finish, for an antique look, or a standard polyurethane lacquer finish.
Dell Arte Manouche Latcho Drom ($1,350)
Like the Gitane and the Altamira, this Dell Arte is made in China. But it’s set up at the company’s US workshop with excellent fretwork and upgraded components, giving it a superior feel and build quality, similar to a European-built guitar.
Geronimo Mateos Jazz B ($2,200)
One of the leading Spanish luthiers of Selmer-Maccaferri-style guitars, Mateos makes a Selmer copy with a European spruce top and a figured bubinga body for a relatively affordable price.
Dupont Nomade ($2,200)
The French luthier Maurice Dupont offers a beautiful Selmer-style guitar with a spruce top and sapele back and sides. Its nontraditional bolt-on neck is removable, allowing for easy travel.