Vintage Guitar - June 2018 - open - 96
mid '35, they were finally available
in France, and Django played his
first riffs on a Selmer.
Django began using a Selmer
gut-string guitar, but Maccaferri
soon launched a louder steel-string
version that proved perfect for jazz.
With their large soundhole (better
for projecting sound), these became
known among musicians as grande
bouche guitars - large mouths. Or
better yet, loudmouths.
In 1936 or '37, Django began
using a revised Selmer with a small
soundhole and a longer neck with
14 frets to the body; soloists like
him were drawn to their morefocused, directional sound. And
with their elegant oval soundhole,
they naturally became known as
petite bouche guitars.
guitars! Listen to this, it speaks like
Artist endorsements are rarely
so vehement or heartfelt.
LIKE A CATHEDRAL
Django was on his way to becoming Europe's premier jazz star in
the mid '30s, when he entered into
an endorsement arrangement. It
was likely a handshake agreement
whereby Selmer provided Django
guitars when needed. And that
seems to have been often, given
the number of Selmers that were
reputedly owned by him. He
reportedly visited the Selmer shop and tried
new guitars as soon as they arrived, choosing
the best-sounding for himself. So, he literally
may have played every one. Meanwhile, his
accompanists - from brother Joseph to cousin
Eugène Vées, the Ferret brothers (Baro, Sarane,
Matelo, and cousin Challain), Marcel Bianchi,
and Henri Crolla - all had to pay for theirs.
After Django began using a Selmer, it was
rare to see a European jazz guitarist play anything but a Selmer, both for the guitar's jazz
qualities and in emulation of Django. Like the
Martin dreadnought, the Selmer-Maccaferri
soon became a style, if not a template, followed
by other European luthiers.
Django's Selmer No. 503 has back and sides
made of mahogany ply capped with a rosewood
veneer. The soundboard is fine-grained French
spruce. The fretboard and moveable bridge
were made of ebony with 21 frets running up
to the rosace. The tuners and tailpiece are brass.
Django played other brands of guitars over
the years, of course. These included Selmerstyle instruments made by Busato and Di
Mauro, as well as the Gibson ES-300 he bought
when he came to the United States in '46 as
guest soloist with Duke Ellington's band. But
he soon set aside the Gibson in favor of his
Selmer, telling erstwhile manager Charles
Delaunay, "All the Americans wish they could
This display at Paris' Cité de la Musique
includes the Selmer, Rámirez, and Stéphane
Grappelli's Hel violin. This mid-'30s ad for Selmer
(below) included Django's endorsement.
play on this guitar! At least it's got tone, you
can hear the chords like you can on the piano.
Don't talk to me any more about their tinny
In 1964, Selmer No. 503 was donated to the Musée de la Musique
by Django's widow, Naguine. How
long or how much Django played
this actual guitar is unknown. Reportedly, following French Roma
customs, Naguine and Django's
mother, Négros, burned his possessions immediately following his
death to protect themselves from
being haunted by his moulé, Romany for spirit or ghost. This pyre
reportedly included his clothes,
prized fishing poles and tackle,
homemade tapes of compositions
he was working on, and his "last
A couple days later, when
Django was buried at the cemetery
in Samois-sur-Seine, his brother,
Joseph - longtime sideman and
long-suffering porter of Django's
strings, picks, and guitar - laid yet
another last guitar on his casket
to be buried with him.
All of this is not to call into
question the validity of his ownership of Selmer No. 503. But Django famously
owned many a guitar. While his fellow Roma
traded horses, Django horsetraded guitars.
After Django's death, Naguine did the
same. She gave one of Django's Selmers to
Les Paul - or so Paul said - in thanks for
everything he had done to further Django's
career and for making sure she received
royalties due from American releases. Where
did all these guitars came from? Perhaps
Django had a guitar stashed in every caravan.
Two photos survive of Django's second
son, Babik, playing this last guitar, Selmer
No. 503, in the family's caravan after his
father's death. You can tell it's the same
guitar from the wear marks and old screw
holes that once held a Stimer pickup to the
soundboard. In the photos, even Babik, who
became a renowned jazzman with numerous
recordings to his credit, seems a bit stymied
in his playing and awed by the instrument
- and legacy - in his hands.
Today, Selmer No. 503 is on display at La
Cité de la Musique accompanied by a Julián
Gómez Rámirez guitar Django played, and
one of Stéphane Grappelli's Hel violins.
Thanks to Cité de la Musique, Musée de la Musique,
Marion Challier, Eric de Visscher, Philippe Bruguière, Joël
Dugot, Philippe Vieira, and Scot Wise.