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Prometheus Unchained, Gypsy Jazz Guitar Virtuoso Joscho Stephan         



Exclusive JGT Interview: Jazz guitarist Barry Wahrhaftig talks to gypsy jazz guitar virtuoso Joscho Stephan.

Above photo credit: Manfred Pollert

Gypsy Jazz guitarist Joscho Stephan must be heard to be believed, and that’s not an overstatement!  Joscho Stephan’s debut CD “Swinging Strings,” (recorded at age 19), was Guitar Player Magazine’s ‘CD Of The Month’ in 2004. His current discography of 14 CDs includes ‘Guitar Heroes,’ (2015), which features collaborations with fellow Guitar Gods Tommy Emmanuel, Biréli Lagrène, and Stochelo Rosenberg.

I was able to catch up with him in the Spring of 2024 after his recent US tour, which included an All-Star Django tribute night at Birdland-NYC hosted by Frank Vignola. The sold-out show was one for the ages and featured such luminaries as John Jorgenson, Vinny Raniolo, Arnt Arntsen, rising star Henry Acker, and bass stalwart Gary Mazzaroppi. 

Trio Live: Ernst Müller

JGT. It was great to see you in NYC, and thanks for taking the time for an interview! Let’s start with the basics of your story for our readers. You were born in 1979 in Mönchengladbach Germany near Cologne and started playing guitar at the age of 6. Were you inspired and supported by your father, who played in a rock cover band?

J.S. That’s right, the Beatles’ music was the first thing I was consciously aware of, and of course, the Beatles offer lots of good songs and basics for learning the chords on the guitar. Shortly afterward, my father enrolled me in music school, where I continued with classical guitar, but at the age of about 10 or 11, I started to focus exclusively on rock music, and even at that age I was already improvising, so it wasn’t far to gypsy swing, which I discovered at the age of 13. 

JGT. During my research, I saw that you wanted to play drums first.

J.S. That’s right, but apart from the size and volume of the drums, which of course put my parents off, it was also important to my parents that I learn the basics of the instrument, and as my father played the guitar himself, the decision to take up the guitar was the logical step.

JGT. Your father taught you some basic chords, and when he saw how serious you were, did he later set you up with guitar lessons?

J.S. I took classical lessons at the local music school. That’s where I learned to read music, but actually only badly, as I was much quicker at copying, which of course my teacher at the time quickly noticed. Listening and looking were always the most important skills for me when learning new music or new techniques.

JGT. When did you discover Django Reinhardt, and what music did you listen to at home?

J.S. As already mentioned, I didn’t grow up with classical or jazz music, but rather with pop and rock music. I discovered Django by chance on one of my uncle’s mix tapes and was fascinated by his playing. The first number was Minor Swing, that was when I was 13, and that’s what finally brought me to  Gypsy Swing. 

JGT. If I remember correctly, you taught yourself to play Gypsy Jazz by watching videos?

J.S. Online wasn’t possible at the time, (I’m older than I look :-), joking aside: I had a video of Stochelo Rosenberg that helped me a lot, as the camera captured Stochelo’s right and left hands beautifully, that helped a lot to explore how sweeping and other things work.

JGT. That’s quite an achievement when you consider all that’s involved!

J.S. Of course, I’ve made a lot of “mistakes” that aren’t really mistakes at all but are part of my personal style today. Today, a lot of things are easier due to the huge number of videos available on YouTube, but the risk of copying is also greater.

JGT. Did you also teach yourself how to improvise?

J.S. That’s right, I transcribed a lot of solos and then found out the important connection between the lines played and the chords. That opened my eyes to the fact that swing is always based on chords and that the music is played more with arpeggios rather than scales. 

JGT.  By the way, I’ve heard that Django started out playing music with his father and uncles, mainly waltzes and light classical music, and so on. But when he first heard recordings of American hot jazz players like Armstrong and Ellington, it moved him deeply. It was as if he had found his musical home in swing and improvisation. He was inspired to improvise and especially loved the freedom that came with it.  What influences or players inspired you to teach yourself to improvise?

J.S. It actually started with rock music, i.e. people like Gary Moore or Santana were of course close to their studio recordings live, but still never played the same solo note for note. In principle, it was also too tedious for me to learn every rock guitar solo by heart (as I had previously done in classical music), so I tried my first attempts at improvisation early on, first with the pentatonic, of course, and then through people like Django, George Benson or Paco de Lucia with other stylistic devices such as arpeggios, scales and similar things.

JGT.  Did you figure out the basic technique of gypsy jazz picking on your own? That’s pretty impressive!

J.S. More or less, I’m still of the opinion that you can’t explain or fathom someone like Django 100%, but the most important thing was that I understood his rest-stroke technique straight away, which of course he needed as an acoustic guitarist to be able to assert himself in terms of volume. This of course ensured that he almost always used downstrokes (except when it got technically too fast or too demanding). That wouldn’t have been necessary on the electric guitar and wouldn’t have suited the sound either. His technique is also due to the time in which it was played. 

JGT. You could say that you developed your own style, inspired by the groundbreaking style that Django created. A nice way to pass it on while doing your own thing, so to speak.   

 J.S. On the one hand (as mentioned often enough) I have listened to and played a lot of other music, so I don’t want to hide that fact, and on the other hand, I wanted to create my own voice within the many wonderful Gypsy Swing guitarists. It is always difficult to renew a style that is strongly connected to tradition. You can’t be afraid of purists. I’m just relaxed about it and happy to have found an audience worldwide that likes my music. You certainly can’t expect much more if you decide to pursue niche music seriously. 

John Jorgenson & Joscho Stephan. Birdland NYC Feb 28, 2024. Photo credit Barry Wahrhaftig

JGT. Well said. Gypsy swing would become stagnant if players weren’t adding their own modern influences. 

By the way, I attended a master class a few years ago led by David Reinhardt, Django’s grandson. It was amazing to hear some inside stories about Django. David said that Django completely evolved stylistically after the war, listening to bebop players like Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, and had no interest in revisiting what he had done with the original Hot Club of France. So maybe you could say that Django would approve of what players like you, Biréli, etc. are doing to move things forward.

J.S. That would make me very happy of course. But I’ve also always seen Django as very innovative. He always had his finger on the pulse of the times, both musically and in terms of equipment.

JGT. Absolutely! And to that point, when Bill Millkowski, [Jazz Times, Downbeat], interviewed you for Acoustic Guitar Magazine, he said, “J.S. embodies the future of Gypsy Jazz Guitar.” Quite a statement! Can you share your feelings about that?

J.S. I can only say that I was (and still am) very happy to share the stage with my father for a very long time. He was not a father who was out for mere success, he just wanted to be part of the ensemble and let me make all the musical decisions. However, he always made sure that I stayed grounded, and that’s often not easy when you’re praised as a musician at a young age. I was very happy about Bill’s statements then and now, but they didn’t create pressure or delusions of grandeur in me, but always reminded me that you’ve got to keep working on yourself when you look back on such a headline in 5 or 10 or 20 years. I’ve been at it for almost 30 years, and in principle more successful than ever before, so I’m very happy with myself and my work, and will continue to try to do my best, and of course have the most fun you can imagine. I love my job. 

JGT. I wanted to touch on the issue of what to call the style Django developed, at times perhaps a bit controversial. Maybe because we live in “politically correct” times, but some players or fans have objected to terms like “Gypsy Jazz”. Could you share your thoughts on this with our readers?

J.S. I always find it very difficult to answer this question because you can’t give a definite answer. I have always referred to the music as Gypsy Swing and will not deviate from that. The closest you could get is European Swing.

JGT. Can you talk a little about your involvement with Frank Vignola’s Big Jersey Guitar Camp and playing at Birdland again?

J.S. It’s fantastic to be friends with such great people like Frank Vignola, John Jorgenson & Vinny Raniolo (who were all part of the camp). It’s almost like a family reunion where you get to see your cousins again. This also boosted the atmosphere of the camp because none of the instructors put their ego in the foreground, and all had a wonderful time with the camp participants. It was very exciting that we mainly jammed with the students, which has been very well received by other camps and will definitely be repeated next year. Just like our joint performance at Birdland (which you can also find on YouTube), the whole thing was so successful that we will play a few days in a row at Birdland next year. 

JGT. You’re always quite busy, touring, recording, and adding content and videos for your Gypsy Guitar Academy. Can you tell our readers about your online lessons?

 J.S. Again, I’ve tried to find a way to set myself apart from other online lessons. This means that I don’t just play songs that are then transcribed, but I really explain each number note for note, and for each song there is the sheet music, a lead sheet, backing tracks and a ‘Play with Joscho’ track where the students can practice the rhythm guitar.  

Gypsy Jazz guitarist Joscho Stephanphoto credit Udo Theuer

JGT. And what are your future goals and plans?

 J.S. At the moment I’m working on a new trio CD with Sven Jungbeck on rhythm guitar and Volker Kamp on double bass. We will have Jerry Douglas, Tommy Emmanuel, and John Petrucci as guests, and as always, we are touring intensively and are very happy that many shows are sold out worldwide far in advance. I hope that we can continue to pass on Django’s legacy to young musicians and many other enthusiastic listeners. 

JGT. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask what equipment/instruments you’re using these days.

My main guitars are still my Jürgen Volkert guitars. Abroad I also use my Joszi Lak guitar. I also have a large collection of archtop guitars that I often play in my Academy videos. As far as amps, I still use AER for my acoustic guitars and Henriksen for my archtops. I also use Daddario strings (on all instruments), Wegen picks, and Seymour Duncan pickups. I only endorse what I actually use.

Author’s note: I made very slight edits to Joscho’s responses for clarity. His English is quite good, way better than my German!

Barry Wahrhaftig, [War-hof-tig], guitarist specializing in Gypsy Jazz, contributor to ‘Jazz Guitar Today.’  Leader of the Hot Club of Philadelphia band. For bookings, masterclasses, lessons, transcriptions, etc., please use the online form at  

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