A Burn and a Banjo

When he was 18 years old, Jean-Baptiste Reinhardt, better known as “Django,” critically injured his ring and pinky fingers in a fire; 18 months later, he picked up a guitar.

Past and present

Django was a Manouche Gypsy born near Liberchies, Belgium in 1910. He was the son of a traveling musician and learned to play the violin at age 9 years before teaching himself to play the banjo guitar.

According to “More with less: A comparative kinematical analysis of Django Reinhardt’s adaptations to hand injury,” published in Prosthetics and Orthotics International, he had “exceptional natural talent and a promising future as a professional musician.”

But in October 1928, his life changed. The ember from a discarded cigarette ignited Django’s home. He grabbed a blanket to shield himself and managed to escape, but sustained burns to the left side of his body and his left hand. His wounds became infected, according to the study, and while the burns eventually healed, the injuries led to severe contractures of his left ring and pinky fingers.

Despite his new challenge, Django relearned the guitar and went on to achieve international fame. His novel technique, combined with influences from jazz and classical composers, defined a new genre of music known as “Gypsy Jazz,” which has influenced generations of musicians.

Michael Wininger, PhD
Michael Wininger

Now, researchers are trying to find out how. “The purpose behind our study was to learn how Django did it,” Michael Wininger, PhD, assistant professor of Rehabilitation Sciences at the University of Hartford and coauthor of the study, told O&P News. “We are trying to get upper limb prostheses to perform, especially on a limited number of detectable degrees of freedom. How did Django get such a great sound with such little anatomy?”

Stringing together the pieces

Wininger and David J. Williams, MD, MBChB, FRCA, DipDHM, consultant anesthetist at the Welsh Centre for Burns, Morriston Hospital, Swansea; associate professor in the College of Medicine at Swansea University; and coauthor of the study, found Django initially stayed in hospital for 28 days, in which any areas of superficial partial thickness injury would have healed.

David J. Williams, MD, MBChB, FRCA, DipDHM
David J. Williams

In this era, debridement was often performed to remove necrotic tissue and reduce the risk of infection. In Django’s case, it was performed nearly 3 months after the original injury, indicating these areas had sustained deep, full thickness burns.

As a result of conservative management, Django was left with a mass of scar tissue on the dorsum of his left hand, measuring 30 mm by 20 mm, covering the tendons of his ring and pinky fingers.

The researchers reviewed archive film footage and used novel motion analysis software to compare movements of Django’s hand with that of six modern-day guitarists of the same genre. They used blueprints of Django’s guitars to find the fret and fingerboard widths at each point on the necks of his instruments. Corresponding measurements from the right hand were taken to confirm the measurements. Software was used to correct for the effects of perspective and scale, but it could not fully compensate for distortion because of parallax or the focal length of the original camera lenses.

The data were compared with anthropometric reference data and used in combination with 3-D modelling software and texture map rendering of scar tissue to create a virtual model for visualization.

Technique for art

Wininger and Williams concluded Django devised a highly efficient system of three-note chord shapes to play his instrument, each encompassed inversions of several different chords.

He developed techniques including the use of his left thumb to fret the lower one or two strings, where two strings are fretted simultaneously by placing the tip of one finger midway between both strings and employing the contracted ring and little fingers on the upper strings, where they acted like a single finger.


He also incorporated open strings into his solos, along with chromatic glissando runs, for which he used his middle finger braced by the index finger. “The considerable strength that he had to develop in these fingers enabled him to achieve wide string bending and vibrato effects,” the study found.

In addition, Django often moved fixed shapes up and down the fret board which produced intervallic cycling of melodic motifs and chords, and played octave runs with the index and middle or ring fingers.

The researchers noted Django’s technique was only possible because of the remarkable length and span of his index and middle fingers. Photographs show “he had sufficient flexibility and dexterity so as to sound a note from all six strings within a single fret at once with a single finger, and utilize his second finger to play one or multiple notes forming a harmonious sound,” Wininger said. Analysis of film footage showed he could effortlessly span a distance of at least 120 mm between the tips of his index and middle fingers.

“[He] compensated for his injuries by employing increased abduction between index and middle fingers, and by using a more parallel alignment of fingers to the guitar neck,” Williams told O&P News. “Both findings were statistically significant compared to the control group. This is of interest from a historical and musical perspective, as well as suggesting potential application to clinical practice.”

Modern-day impact

According to the researchers, hand injuries can be devastating for musicians. Specialist treatment, intensive rehabilitation and adaptation are often necessary if musicians are to continue to perform.

Adaptation may include the use of splints or prostheses, modification of the instrument or technique, and adoption of a completely different musical style or instrument. But there also should be the consideration of simplicity.

After injury, Django employed greater abduction of index and middle fingers and more parallel alignment of fingers to the guitar neck compared to controls. He developed quantifiable compensatory adaptation of function of his remaining functional fingers with an original playing technique.

“Patients show a remarkable ability to adapt to circumstance and to adopt compensatory strategies that work for them as unique people, with unique interests,” Wininger said. “Clinicians everywhere know this already, but this study provides objective evidence by way of precision analytics.

“This study has a big impact in questioning the central dogma of modern day prosthetics, [for example,] ‘more is better.’ Some patients can do more with less, as Django has shown. I believe many patients would accept a two-fingered prosthesis if they knew they could play as well as Django, vs. a four-fingered prosthesis with limited ability to control it.”

Both Wininger and Williams agreed the study of adaptation strategies may inform prosthesis design – by Shawn M. Carter

Disclosures: Wininger and Williams report no relevant financial disclosures.

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