The Brilliant Playing of Biréli Lagrène

French guitar sensation Biréli Lagrène began playing guitar at age 4, schooled by his father in the “gypsy jazz” style of Django Reinhardt (a highly improvised style typically featuring three acoustic guitarists, bass and lead violin).

Young Biréli was declared a prodigy before he’d entered his teens, winning a prize at a prominent festival in France, his shocking abilities filmed as far back as 1978, when he was only 12 years old! Lagrène’s solo performance two years later at 1981’s Montreux Jazz Festival is legendary, that video (which you can find on YouTube) shot shortly after he released his recording debut, Routes to Django.

Now, approaching age 50, the guitarist’s playing is more ferocious than ever (he also wails on electric, whether it be Joe Pass–tinged jazz or rock/fusion shredding, on par with players like Frank Gambale, Paul Gilbert and Yngwie Malmsteen.) His most recent album (issued in late 2015) is D-Stringz, featuring Stanley Clarke and Jean-Luc Ponty.

FIGURE 1 shows a Django- and Biréli-style “ii-V-I” chord pattern in C—Dm7, G7 and Cmaj7 chords, “jazzed up” as Dm9, Df9 (a substitute for G7) and C6/9. Strum as indicated, choking each chord (at each staccato dot, relax your fret-hand’s grip immediately after strumming, shortening each chord’s duration), using accents (strum harder at each “>”) on beats two and four.

Bars 3 and 4 show the same chord shape sliding up in half steps, capped off with a thumb-fretted C6/9. FIGURE 2 shows another approach Biréli uses to breathe life into jazzy chords, using three downstrokes and an upstroke to economically arpeggiate Dm9, Df9 and C6/9 grips. For practice, isolate and repeat bar 1’s picking pattern, picking with an arched (and relaxed) wrist, striving for precise timing—no easy feat, considering the distance between the up-picked second string and down-picked fifth string, as the pattern repeats.

Watch five minutes of any “live” Lagrène performance and it becomes obvious that it would take several lifetimes, and thousands of transcribed music pages, just to scratch the surface of this brilliant picker’s soloing vocabulary. But the remaining figures should provide a taste. FIGURE 3 utilizes a time-tested “passing tone” maneuver over an A chord, whereby, on each beat, one of its chord tones (A C# E) is played along the first string, surrounded by other notes—those that are a scale step above (using notes from the A major scale: A B C# D E F# G#) and one half step below (the distance of one fret).

For a sampling of Lagrène’s linear arpeggios (movement along the strings, instead of “in position”), check out FIGURE 4. Bar 1 is a multi-octave version of Em (spiced up with harmonics way up near the sound hole); bar 2 is a giant A major arpeggio. Biréli’s pick strokes are included throughout; each downstroke is a rest stroke in which the pick “rests” up against the next higher string (this also serves to stabilize the picking hand), before engaging in a two-string sweep. Biréli’s show-stopping, mostly chromatic line (bar 2) is shown in FIGURE 5, which starts in open position and, by bar 3, involves the fret-hand’s middle finger sliding up the neck in half steps, while quickly alternate picking.

Acoustic Nation June 2016 FIGURE 1

Acoustic Nation June 2016 FIGURE 2

Acoustic Nation June 2016 FIGURE 3

Acoustic Nation June 2016 FIGURE 4

Acoustic Nation June 2016 FIGURE 5

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Dale Turner

A singer-songwriter/multi-instrumentalist/film composer, Musician's Institute instructor, and author of 50+ transcription/instructional books, Dale Turner is also Guitar World's "Hole Notes"/"Acoustic Nation" columnist, and the former West Coast Editor of Guitar One magazine. Some of Dale’s old, weird, rare, and/or exotic instruments are featured in his score for WEEDS, the first animated short completed within the Filmmakers Co-op at Disney Feature Animation. His most recent CD, Mannerisms Magnified, was praised by Guitar Player magazine for its "Smart pop tunes that are crammed with interesting guitar parts and tones ... Like what the Beach Boys might do if they were on an acid trip that was on the verge of getting out of control. Yeah!"