Gypsy Jazz Guitar Buyers Guide: A Primer

Posted by Tommy Davy on Nov 11th 2023

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, saxophones 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 and jazz musicians. The first examples were built with Maccaferri’s internal resonating chambers to be very present and loud guitars. One might draw a paralel to the tornavoz found on many iconic classical guitars built in the latter half of the 19th century.

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. An arched/bent pliage top (much like Neapolitan mandolins) 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 small oval and round sound hole (petite bouche or smallmouth/ bouche ronde) 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 Django Reinhardt.

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.

You should look for a solid, arched spruce top; laminated rosewood or birdseye maple 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).

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 grande bouche guitar, proving that it’s not just a rhythm guitar.

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 performing 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 or a cedar top.

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. 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 2.1m on the high-E. Noticeably higher than on a standard steel string. If you set the action too low without enough tension, as 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. 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. All the guitars in our shop undergo an involved setup process before shipment.

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. 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 flat pick 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 DjangoGuitars pick, the handmade picks that most Gypsy-jazz players use. 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. It’s an acquired skill that comes with time and experience.

We have invested a considerable amount of time living and working with instruments and players in Europe to give you a truly authentic experience....the way it should be done. We look forward to assisting you on this journey. Please reach out to us for a discovery call. 

-Tommy Davy

Owner, DjangoGuitars USA


Important Care Reminders:

-ALWAYS keep the guitar in the case when not in use! Invest in a strong protective case. Most guitars are damaged in accidents involving guitar stands! 

-DO NOT allow the instrument to get hot, cold, damp, or dry as this type of guitar is built extremely thin in construction and is prone to suffer from this type of misuse. DjangoGuitars cannot guarantee the instrument if the owner does not care for their own instrument. As with all other makes of acoustic guitars; humidity is vital. We recommend using a humidifier such as an Oasis.

-There will be an initial "settling in" of the top that occurs over the first week or so with new guitars. During this time the action may shift to your environment. Keep a measurement tool handy and keep track of your action height in a logbook. 

-Carry a soft microfiber or low-lint cloth to keep your instrument free of oils from your hands and sweat. Wipe your guitar down after you play. Your guitar will thank you. 

A few notes on playing Gypsy/Selmer-style guitars:

-We often provide instruments to musicians who have many years of experience playing other types of guitars but, are new to playing the Selmer style guitar. The setup of these guitars feels quite a bit different than your flat-top dreadnought or arch-top guitar. You need to invest the time to learn techniques to play these guitars properly rather than modify the guitar to suit your level of ability.

-Your guitar has been set with an action that is traditional on this style of guitar. Do not be tempted to overpick as this will kill the higher register. If you choose to raise the action a little more power and tone will be forthcoming but, it will of course make playing that bit harder. Light gauge strings are set with high tension to provide a clear and full sound.

-You should use a rigid pick at least 2mm in thickness.

-Picking should be done close to the bridge. Not above the bottom of the sound hole is also important to keep the right hand clear of the bridge as this allows the top to move freely and increases the power of the instrument. The guitar has a natural reverb that will be inhibited if pressure from the hand is placed on the bridge. Spend a bit of time learning to create quality to the tone you are producing.

-Try as many guitars as possible and learn what to look for in terms of quality of materials and workmanship. Familiarize yourself with the instruments and the makers themselves. It is important to understand the way the vintage guitars sound and how that compares to modern instruments.