By Paul Alcantara
If Gibson – and later Epiphone – provided the archtop guitars favoured by most pre-war American jazz musicians, then the Selmer company, initially under the guidance of Italian luthier and concert guitarist Mario Maccaferri, offered European jazz guitarists an instrument ideally suited to their needs.
Below, we take a look at the development of the Selmer Modèle Jazz – an iconic instrument that is today associated not only with legendary guitarist Django Reinhardt but with the entire genre known as ‘Gypsy Jazz’.
Production of Selmer guitars began when Lew Davis, who together with his brother Ben ran the London branch of the Selmer company, presented Henri Selmer with Mario Maccaferri’s plans for an innovative new guitar design. Henri Selmer agreed to take on the project and Maccaferri set up a workshop in the Selmer factory at Mantes-la-Ville.
A promotional leaflet that was published in both London and Paris included the gut strung Modèle Concert, the Modèle Hawaïen and the steel strung Modèle Jazz. In addition, Selmer’s catalogue would include two other classical models, a harp guitar and two different tenor guitars, the Eddie Freeman Special and the tenor Modèle (a third tenor guitar, the four string Grand Modèle was essentially a prototype for the Eddie Freeman Special).
Production began in 1932 but at the end of the following year, Mario Maccaferri left the company after a disagreement with Henri Selmer regarding his contract.
The Modèle Jazz
1932 Selmer Maccaferri (images courtesy of Django Books)
The gut strung Concert Modèle was Maccaferri’s personal project, while the Modèle Jazz seems to have been introduced at the instigation of Ben Davis who wanted an instrument capable of competing with the American guitars that his rivals were importing. Though its cutaway body shape was similar to that of the Concert Modèle, the Modèle Jazz had a soundboard that was bent just behind the bridge – a feature that Maccaferri clearly ‘borrowed’ from the construction of the Neapolitan mandolin, with which he was doubtless familiar. In addition, curved top braces meant that the soundboard was also arched laterally. This construction enabled the guitar’s top to withstand the increased pressure of steel strings. As on a mandolin, the bridge was not glued to the top but held in place by the pressure of the strings, which attached to a metal tailpiece located at the bottom edge of the body. Like the Concert Modèle, the Modèle Jazz was fitted with an internal ‘soundbox’, though today this item is often missing. Other features included a zero fret and a treble-side fingerboard extension that offered a full two octaves range beneath the first string, At the time of its introduction, the Modèle Jazz was priced at 26 guineas in Great Britain (approximately £2,020 or $2,565 in today’s money)
The Modèle Jazz evolves
Following Maccaferri’s departure, Selmer continued to offer the Modèle Jazz but production of the remaining models was more or less halted.
In the mid 1930s a number of changes were made to the design of the Modèle Jazz and by 1936 the guitar had been radically revised with a neck that joined the body at the 14th fret and a small oval soundhole (petite bouche) in place of the earlier version’s large D-shaped soundhole (grande bouche). Around the same time, the internal soundbox was dropped. The transition from the earlier Maccaferri designed D-hole model to the later Selmer oval-hole design was not an orderly one and examples from this period can be found with various combinations of features.
1947 Modèle Jazz (images courtesy of Laurence Wexer)
Though Selmer manufactured few guitars during the last years of the war, production recommenced in 1946. In 1952 however, the guitar workshop was finally closed and its contents sold to Parisian luthier Jean Beuscher. Total production of all models from 1932 to 1952 numbered less than 1000 guitars.
Though Django Reinhardt played several different instruments through his career, he is most closely associated with the Selmer Modèle Jazz. Having adopted the original Maccaferri designed model in the mid 1930s, the gypsy guitarist later switched to the new 14-fret neck Selmer guitar with its small oval soundhole. His arrangement with Selmer was informal; in return for allowing his photo to appear in advertisements and other promotional material, Django would visit Selmer’s shop in the Place Dancourt in Paris where he would pick out guitars for himself and his accompanying musicians.
The Reinhardt model and Django’s last guitar
A small number of Selmer guitars manufactured from June 1939 to March 1940, had the legend ‘Modèle Django Reinhardt’ stamped in script into the central section of the headstock. Other than this inscription, these instruments are identical to the regular production model. Serial number 503, which was the last Selmer guitar that Django owned, displays the guitarist’s name stamped in capital letters. This iconic instrument now resides in the Musée Instrumental de Paris having been donated by Django’s widow in 1964.
Though Selmer ceased guitar production over seventy years ago, the influence of the Modèle Jazz is apparent in the work of numerous luthiers worldwide. The ‘jazz manouche’ style has never been more popular and guitar makers like Maurice Dupont and Jean Barault in France, John Le Voiin the UK and a host of others offer their own interpretations of Selmer’s classic designs. And don’t despair if you can’t afford a hand built Selmer replica! There are plenty of Asian imports that provide much of the Selmer character and sound at a more wallet friendly price.
If you have found this introduction to Selmer guitars interesting, we would suggest that you seek out a copy of ‘The Story of Selmer Maccaferri Guitars’ by Francois Charle. This exhaustively researched book takes an in-depth look at the story of the company, the guitars it manufactured and the musicians who played them.