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Saga Gitane John Jorgenson "Tuxedo" Guitar

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Saga Gitane John Jorgenson Tuxedo Guitar

Session musician, solo artist and guitar cult-hero John Jorgenson has a signature ax for every facet of his playing: a Takamine acoustic for countrified strumming, a Custom Fender Telecaster for the fleet-fingered chicken-pickin’ he performs with the Hellecasters, and not one, not two, but three Selmer-style Gypsy-jazz-boxes by Saga Gitane. This latest model is called the “Tuxedo,” and it’s essentially a slightly modified version of Jorgenson’s Gitane model DG-300 finished in black-a dream finish of sorts for Jorgenson, who, according to Gitane’s Web site, saw a photo of a black Selmer-style guitar from the 1950s and just had to have it (or something like it).

With Django-mania in a perpetual state of renaissance-Gypsy jazz is a global, historical phenomenon rather than merely a fad or even period music-Gitane found a need and filled it several years ago: As reported in The Music Trades [Oct. ’06], there were plenty of Gypsy-jazz guitarists emerging but no affordable Hot Club-worthy axes around. The Holy Grail-like prospect of finding an original Selmer was always looming, but that’s sort of like telling a player he or she needs to recover an original Segovia just to play “Bouree.” Perhaps most important, Gitane manufactured these quality instruments in China, a move that, while turning off collectors, kept production costs down and the guitar in the reasonable $900-$1,400 price range.

And although Gitane could’ve reinvented Gypsy-jazz-box design and created something that kind of looked like a Selmer and sort of played like one, the company paid close attention to recreating and modernizing the archetypical Selmers. The results are genuine instruments that Django-philes can pay just a grand for and still feel legit: That’s certainly not something traditional archtop players can say about the budget instruments in their niche. If you want to sound like Bucky Pizzarelli or Jimmy Bruno, get ready to fork over some dough for a custom archtop.

The Tuxedo is the latest of Gitane’s genuine fake Selmers, and it’s a jewel. With its high-gloss black finish, white pearloid body binding and elegant headstock inscription (“Modele John Jorgenson”), the Tuxedo feels closer to something a custom shop or independent luthier might turn out than a factory in China (the cheap-looking silver-plated tailpiece, however, screams “mass production”). The small “oval” soundhole provides excellent volume and resonation, though it lacks the singularity and style of the D-hole, available on Jorgenson’s 14-fret DG-320 model.

Where the past two Jorgenson models featured figured Brazilian rosewood sides and spruce tops, the Tuxedo boasts mahogany sides and back and a spruce top. The mahogany is a decidedly more conventional dreadnought construction approach, and although that doesn’t add a very noticeable tonal difference, it does lend the guitar the dark, rumbling lows and mids associated with your standard steel-stringed acoustic. The spruce top retains the light, velocity and snap indicative of the Django sound, but because of the mahogany, the Tuxedo also handles the strummed open chords of folk and country surprisingly well (although the “0” fret right in front of the nut takes some getting used to). Of course, I doubt too many players are going to fork over $1,395 retail for a Gypsy-jazz guitar to play Dylan covers.

You’d most likely purchase this Gitane to shred through “Nuages,” feverishly comp the changes to “Shine,” and cry yourself to sleep with a lyrical solo arrangement of “Tears.” (Admittedly, it sounds best when engaging in sledgehammer Hot Club-style rhythm work, a perfect exercise for the guitar’s mid-heavy tone). The guitar feels right in all these contexts, with a hearty, U-shaped neck underlying strings supported by a high-sitting moustache bridge. The standard 26 5/8-inch Gypsy-Gitane scale length provides steady intonation and 21 frets; both assets when sweep picking like Django around the 12th position. As with Gypsy-jazz guitars in general, the action is purposefully high and heightens rapidly as you approach the bridge. Gypsy guitars aren’t the easiest instruments to play, but that’s kind of the point: Many of Django’s signature bends and inflections-as well as those moments when his mind seemed to move faster than his hands-were simply moments when his mastery struggled against an unforgiving instrument.

Guitar technology eventually caught up to Django’s playing; nevertheless, it’s fun (and historically interesting) to explore what the original shredders played. The Tuxedo affords guitarists that opportunity.

Originally Published