Django’s Hand

BMJ 2009; 339 doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmj.b5348 (Published 16 December 2009) Cite this as: BMJ 2009;339:b5348
  1. David J Williams, consultant anaesthetist and senior clinical tutor1,
  2. Tom S Potokar, consultant plastic, reconstructive and burns surgeon, and senior clinical tutor2
  1. 1Department of Burns and Plastic Surgery, Morrison Hospital, Swansea SA6 6NL
  2. 2Swansea University Medical School, Singleton Park, Swansea SA2 8PP
  1. Correspondence to: David Williams davidj.williams{at}swansea-tr.wales.nhs.uk
  • Accepted 16 November 2009

The jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt, limited by burn injuries, developed a musical technique that created a new musical genre. David Williams and Tom Potokar analysed archive photographs to construct a three-dimensional computer model of his injuries.

Jean-Baptiste Reinhardt, better known by his gypsy name “Django” meaning “I awake”, was a Manouche Gypsy born in a “roulotte”, a wooden caravan, near Liberchies, Belgium, on 23 January 1910. He was the son of a travelling musician and learnt to play the violin aged nine before teaching himself to play a banjo guitar, with which he soon supplemented the family income by playing the popular accordion “musette” waltzes. He had exceptional natural talent and a promising future as a professional musician. Although almost illiterate and unable to read music, he had an incredible ability to play a tune perfectly after hearing it once, and could improvise tirelessly for hours at a time.

However, on 26 October 1928 disaster struck. A carelessly dropped cigarette ignited a bunch of highly flammable celluloid flowers, turning Django’s roulotte into an inferno. He grabbed a blanket to shield himself from the flames and managed to escape, but sustained burns to the left side of his body as well as to his left hand, which had been holding the blanket.

He was admitted to the Hôpital Lariboisière in Northern Paris, but fearing that the doctors would amputate his leg, on 22 November he fled back to the gypsy encampments where he was treated with traditional remedies. His wounds became infected and he was admitted to the Hôpital Saint-Louis on 23 January 1929 for debridement and cautery with silver nitrate under chloroform anaesthesia.1 2 3 4 5 6

The burns slowly healed, but resulted in severe contractures of the left ring and little fingers which made conventional guitar technique impossible. Despite these devastating injuries Django painstakingly re-learnt the guitar during an 18 month convalescence.


Figure 1 Photograph of Django’s left hand showing dorsal scarring and contractures. (Photo credit/copyright: Michel Descamps, 1950)

His novel technique, combined with influences from musette, flamenco, bebop and swing jazz, as well as classical influences from the composers Bach, Debussy, and Ravel, defined a new genre of music known as “Gypsy Jazz” that has influenced many generations of classical and popular musicians since then.7 8 9 Django returned to public performance in 1930 and from this point he enjoyed worldwide acclaim as a musical pioneer and performer until his untimely death from a cerebral haemorrhage in the picturesque village of Samois-sur-Seine on 16 May 1953. He was aged only 43.

Musical technique

Only a few minutes of film footage of Django’s playing exist,5 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 but analysis of this gives us some insight into the innovative techniques that he developed to overcome the limitations imposed by his injuries.

Django devised a highly efficient system of three note chord shapes, each of which encompassed inversions of several different chords. He developed unorthodox techniques to play these, including the use of his left thumb to fret the lower one or two strings, one fingered “double stops”—where two strings are fretted simultaneously by placing the tip of one finger midway between both strings—and employed his contracted ring and little fingers on the upper strings, where they acted like a single finger. The last technique particularly suited ninth or minor sixth chords rather than the more conventional major or minor chords of the time, and introduced his audience to a new range of tonal colours.

It is difficult to play standard scales with just index and middle fingers, so Django adopted an arpeggio-based rather than modal approach to soloing. He adapted arpeggios so that they could be played with two notes per string patterns which ran horizontally up and down the fret board instead of the usual vertical “box” patterns, enabling him to move around the fret board with great speed and fluidity. Influenced by his childhood violin lessons, he often oriented his left hand so that these fingers were almost parallel to the strings instead of perpendicular to the fret board. His injuries also defined his phrasing and ornamentation—he often incorporated open strings into his solos, along with his trademark chromatic glissando runs, for which he used his middle finger braced by the index finger—and the considerable strength that he had to develop in these fingers enabled him to achieve wide string bending and vibrato effects.

As a result of the relative immobility of his hand, 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—a technique subsequently popularised by Wes Montgomery.

Anthropometric analysis

Django’s technique was only possible because of the remarkable length and span of his index and middle fingers.18 Photographs show that he could play a “barre” across the full width of the fret board using just the distal two phalanges of his index finger,19 and a half barre with the distal phalanx of his middle finger20; and analysis of film footage11 shows that he could effortlessly span a distance of at least 120 mm between the tips of his index and middle fingers.

The authors used Luthiers’ blueprints of Django’s guitars to find the fret and fingerboard widths at each point on the necks of his instruments.21 22 23 By using these values for reference and comparing them with 14 rare archive photographs and images captured from video footage, it was possible to derive rough measurements of Django’s left hand. Corresponding measurements from the right hand were also taken to confirm the measurements where appropriate. Software (Adobe Photoshop CS2, Adobe Systems Incorporated, California) was used to correct for the effects of perspective and scale, but it was impossible to fully compensate for distortion because of parallax or the focal length of the original camera lenses. These data were compared with anthropometric reference data,24 25 26 and used in combination with 3D modelling software (Poser 6, Curious Labs, California) and texture map rendering of scar tissue (Photoshop CS2) to create a virtual model for visualisation.


Fig 2 Computer model of Django’s hand illustrating the deformity and effect of contractures

Table 1

 Anthropometry of Django’s left hand derived from analysis of 14 photographic images.

View this table:


Much has been written about Django’s injuries and remarkable recovery, but many details remain unclear and have almost certainly been exaggerated in the retelling for dramatic effect.

It is reported that Django had extensive full thickness burns “from knee to chest”, and that his hand was “grotesquely charred”.2 3 4 However, from the mechanism and records of his injuries,1 the reality is that he probably sustained mixed thickness burns of 7% to 15% body surface area.

The instinctive response when threatened by assault or fire is to protect the face by raising the arms, which exposes the dorsum of the hands to injury. The thin subcutaneous tissue and superficial tendons in this region make it vulnerable to subsequent deformity.

The fire occurred in an enclosed space and one account describes Django as initially being “barely conscious” as a result of being “robbed of oxygen and inhaling noxious fumes.”2 However, no record of depressed conscious level or airway burns on his arrival at the hospital shortly afterwards exists,1 so we conclude that Django was able to escape without sustaining major inhalation injury.

In the acute phase of severe hand burns, swelling occurs which can result in compartment syndrome and irreversible damage to the intrinsic muscles of the hand. This was unlikely in Django’s case, as shown by the remarkable agility and span of his index and middle fingers.

The ability to play a musical instrument also requires an intact nervous system to provide motor fibres and sensory feedback from cutaneous touch receptors and joint proprioceptors. Nerve damage was unlikely in Django’s case—the burn injury was on the dorsum of his hand: the digital nerves run deep on the volar aspect. The motor supply to his hand was unaffected and any sensory disturbance would have been confined to the dorsal aspect of his fingers, which would not have interfered with his ability to play the guitar.

Django initially stayed in hospital for 28 days,1 11 by which time any areas of superficial partial thickness injury would have healed. Early excision and grafting of burn injuries was not practiced in this era, but debridement was often performed to remove necrotic tissue and reduce the risk of infection. This was a very painful procedure, requiring general anaesthesia with chloroform or ether, and the granulating tissue would bleed profusely, requiring cautery. In Django’s case this procedure was performed nearly three months after the original injury, which indicates that these areas had sustained deep, almost certainly full thickness, burns.

As a result of conservative management, Django was left with an ovoid mass of scar tissue on the dorsum of his left hand measuring about 30 mm by 20 mm, overlying zone six of the tendons of the ring and little fingers, and fixed contractures of these fingers. Film archives show no evidence of contracture or limitation of movement at the elbow, wrist, thigh, or knee, and so it is likely that these areas healed completely.

Delayed healing of a burn wound often results in chronic recurrent infection. Although the traditional remedies Django received would have included antiseptic herbal poultices (“drab”),27 28 these would not have been sufficiently potent to treat this. The violinist Stephane Grappelli, who toured with Django for many years, observed that Django’s hand never properly healed and “…would sometimes fester and weep and look very sore…preventing him from playing.”29

Hand injuries can be devastating for musicians, for whom music is their means of self expression and livelihood.30 31 Specialist treatment, intensive rehabilitation and adaptation are often necessary if they 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.30 32 33 34 Where possible, management should be conservative with early mobilisation and return to playing. Surgical management should prioritise reconstruction of the playing position over the anatomical “position of function” or cosmetic appearance.30


Disaster can also be a positive catalyst for innovation. Modern reconstructive surgery would have dramatically improved the function and cosmetic appearance of Django’s hand, but would have perhaps changed the course of jazz music forever. The enduring popularity of Django’s music is testament to his innate genius and determination.

The music of Django Reinhardt and other gypsy jazz musicians can be heard free of charge via the following links




We thank Roger Baxter for providing rare archive photographs and film clips and the Romany community for generously sharing their music and culture.


Cite this as: BMJ 2009;339:b5348


  • Competing interests: David Williams and Tom Potokar are dedicated guitarists, and members of the gypsy jazz trio “Swing Bohème”.

  • Provenance and peer review: Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.