John McGann

John McGann is a gifted multi-instrumentalist, and teacher from Boston, where he attended Berklee College of Music. John was the Winfield Mando Champion in 1985, but he is perhaps even better known as a guitarist. He's equally at home in any number of styles, fluently moving from bluegrass to Celtic to swing to oldtime (and rock and classical too). He was a member of a very cool old-timey band called the Beacon Hillbillies in the early '90s, and he is currently a member of Rust Farm and Wayfaring Strangers, with Matt Glaser and Tony Trischka, among others. In addition to recordings with each of those bands, he has a great solo album, Upslide, where he plays everything from mando to Hammond organ. He has performed with Celtic fiddlers Kevin Burke and Johnny Cunningham, and often appears with button-accordion legend, Joe Derrane. John has written for a number of magazines and contributed a jazz/swing column to Mandocrucian's Digest. He is the official transcriber for Acoustic Disc. You can see his work at their website and also in the "Shady Grove" book, with transcriptions from the Garcia/Grisman album. Mel Bay has recently published John's guitar book entitled "Developing Melodic Variations on Fiddle Tunes," and a mandolin edition is coming soon. He also has a book of octave mando tunes coming from Mel Bay this summer.

Oh, yeah: he plays a beautiful Zeidler 3-point mando and a Sobell octave mando.


Q - If I'm not mistaken you recorded "upslide" using a ziedler f5 mandolin. It's fairly unusual in Irish/Celtic to use these, though I'm a recent convert. What is your opinion on the oval hole vs. f-holed mandolin sound?

A - The oval hole has a different voice, which you can hear in Mick Moloney and Andy Irvine, as well as one of my favorite musicians, Andy Statman. I didn't have the money or desire to get a whole different horn for playing Irish music; in fact, I wanted to see if i could live up to the standards of F style tone set by Grisman and Reischman, to name two guys whose tone is to die for. And I will die trying!


Q - Playing rolls on the mandolin/guitar/bouzouki has come up as a topic on the mandolin cafe recently. Having heard your ragtime guitar solo on the "Celtic Fiddle Festival" CD, it's clear that you have got them sussed! What is your technique to do them, and do you do them on the mandolin?

A - It's just crosspicking, really. The roll depends on the line you want to play. We all know Jesse McReynolds is the master of this type of playing, and I learned a lot from Andy Statman's book on Jesse (Oak Publications, out of print). The basic forward roll on three strings, low to high: D D U/ DDU/DU. Most of what I do grew out of that basic pattern.


Q - Any tips for guitarists switching to mandolin?

A - The main thing is the fingering; once you deal with that, it's very related to guitar. Figure out what chord voicings you need and which ones sound good- don't take the "chord book" advice to much- they always teach a dom 7 chord with the tritone on top i.e. A D C F# (2032 low to high) that I think sounds awful- keep them tritones on the bottom! (i.e. C F# D A, 5455).


Q - When you are playing with Chris Moore, as Rust Farm, do you ever take the mandolin part, or do you always leave mandolin to Chris?

A - I leave it to Chris because he needs something to play :) (He doesn't play guitar).


Q - Have you ever done (or plan to do) any mandolin duo pieces with Chris?

A - Anything is possible!


Q - How would you suggest a bluegrass mandolin picker (with knowledge of major/minor/dom7th chords and basic music theory) step out and try to learn more jazzy chords/songs and soloing over these jazzy chords? I know it takes a lot of work, but can you suggest a method or process to start? I think what I'm asking for is a way to build up gradually. Or, should this not be attempted without a teacher or some instructional material?

A - Knowing some theory will help, and a good teacher can be invaluable (and a bad teacher can destroy you!) but why not dive in and try to figure out a Jethro or Don Stiernberg solo? Listen to one you like a bunch of times until you can hear it, hum along, etc. then hunt and peck until you find the notes. Learn directly from the masters! This requires lots of time, patience, and beer (or whatever you prefer) :)

Realize there are really only a few basic chord types in jazz:

Major 7
Minor 7
Dom 7
min 7 b5
Diminshed/Augmented (really extensions of the Dom 7)

Also check my mando page which has some ideas on chord voicings.

Of course, listen to other instruments, too. The Louis Armstrong Hot Fives and Sevens are essential, and for someone coming from bluegrass, you'll find the chord progressions aren't as "out there" as later jazz styles. Listen how Louis phrases. He said to imagine picking the ripest fruit from a tree- meaning, choose your spots and don't try to strip the whole damn tree! "Love them notes"!

My ear training teacher, Scott Free, at Berklee had a great quote:

"Remember, it all comes in through the ears!"


Q - Irish ornamentation - what's your preference? Fiddlistic hammer-on pulloffs, or do you like the Moloney.tenor banjo style 16th-note picked rolls?

Or do emulate other instruments (flute, pipes, accordion) for phrasing and ornaments) and to what degree?

A - Personally, I use both, but much more the fiddle type.

When I learn a tune, I try to do my homework and listen to as many versions as possible; the written page is so limited! I worked up some new reels recently and tracked down 4 to 6 versions of each tune (I have a big CD collection!) I pick and choose variations that I like and blend them together to suit what I like to hear.


Q - If you are doing the Moloney-style plectrum rolls, do you have a preferred "default" pick direction pattern? How about for the commone roll placements below?

(8th and 16th notes) Reel : -16-16-8---8---8----
Jig: 8---16-16-8---- 8---16-16-8----

A - It totally depends on the feeling of the line. I don't really do that much in melody playing in Irish, but yes, in the accompaniment it's a great texture.


Q - Do you do much singing? If no, do you think that lack of vocals has hampered you in selling your performances, putting a band together and booking it?

A - I don't sing lead but I love harmony singing and try to come up with inventive parts. That's a big part of what I do in Rust Farm ( I don't try to perform as a solo instrumentalist, there is no market for it as far as I can tell- the business is hard enough for established bands with singers!


Q - Do you listen to any rock and electric music anymore? (I admit to liking AC/DC and BOC) When you crank to volume up to 11 in your car, who's on the deck/cd player?

A - I do and I still love the great 70's Bong Era bands like Yes, Pink Floyd, King Crimson; The Band, Little Feat, The Beatles, Zep, The Who...some later stuff like XTC, Squeeze, Elvis Costello...and some of these young whippersnappers like John Mayer can play, too; I heard an acoustic piece of his in a whacky tuning that was really good!


Q - I have an A-style 1960-70s gibson. sounds okay but frets are worn and "A" string always seems out ---If you had around $1000 to spend what would you purchase--been playing about 3 years and finally getting to feel like I can master this instrument....or would you try to build a stew mac kit??? also how do these kits compare???

A - If you like your mando, you might find a good luthier and get a new fret job and new tuners. I am not that aware of great instruments in the $1000 zone, but your mileage may vary. A friend of mine built a Stew-Mac kit mando years ago, and John Zeidler did some work on it; it became a really great sounding axe! I am not a woodworker so i wouldn't bother, but if you are handy, it could make a neat instrument.


Q - Please tell us something about your strings and string adjustments, picks of your personally preference etc. In overall, how do you gain your unique sound and drive?

A - I use the D'Addario Grisman set on the mando and John Pearse strings on the OM, Stefan's recommended guages .012 .020 wound .032 .047 and i don't care much whether they are phosphor or 80/20. If I have a unique sound, it is because I have stolen from the best, from Monroe, Grisman, Sam Bush, Mike Marshall, Jethro, Andy Statman, and many other musicians on various instruments.


Q - How did you develop yourself to what you are at present as a musician? What kind of practise methods you have used and which have you found to be the most powerful and effective?

A - I tried to learn as much as I could about music which included theory and ear training classes, Berklee College of Music, and hanging out with great players in various types of music. Russ Barenberg was a direct influence as I used to go to his house and play with him a good bit when he lived in Boston in the 80's. He's a true master of tone and taste, and I learned a lot from him. Playing with a metronome is the #1 thing for me at this time.


Q - How do you divide your time between the different instruments you play? Do you have the same repertoire with the mandolin and the guitar?

A - No hard and fast rules, but fiddle music sits much more naturally on the mando fingerboard.


Q - How do you analyse the music you listen to and take influences from?

A - Sometimes I take a passage and work it through different keys, a great way to get mileage from an idea. i don't do real heavy analysis much anymore, but I when I hear and learn something, i am totally aware of the note functions against the chord, for example, a Django line against an Am chord that goes (descending) B A F# E C A G F# would be 9 1 6 5 b3 1 b7 6. At this point, that way of thinking is almost intuitive. "This point" is after 30 years of hard work!


Q - Are you perhaps working on a new mandolin record at the moment and if so could you please tell us something what to expect?

A - I have plans for an Irish recording featuring mandolin octave mando and guitar, but eventually I want to do a jazz mandolin recording and more original music as well.


Q - Seems to me one of your really outstanding achievements is the ability to improvise in wildly diverse styles: bluegrass, jazz, celtic, rock, etc., and be absolutely convincing in any of them without having to rely on the cliches that so often define styles. Somehow you're able to find the common ground as an improviser that does justice to all your eclectic sources without ever sounding strained or unnatural. Do you have any recommendations about improvisational systems of thought? Any recommendations about how to approach improvisation, for those of us who are interested in different musical styles?

A - Thanks so much! The main thing for me is research- to really immerse myself in whatever style I am trying to play. When I got into bluegrass, I listened to a LOT of it (and still do), playing a lot of attention to the "other" instruments as well as mando and guitar. You need to get a sense of the vocabulary of each style, which comes first from learning tunes (melodies) in each style, rather than applying some kind of one-size-fits-all approach to improvising. It's hard to verbalize, but I think you have to try to go deep and internalize whatever style you are in. Do a lot of listening. This is Andy Statman's influence on me!


Q - I've noticed you've recently been playing a lot of octave mandolin. How did this interest come about?

A - Curiosity, really...I always had it in the back of my mind that it would be cool, but the ones I played were not "it" in terms of tone and feel. Then, on a John Whelan recording session, I tried Robin Bullock's Sobell, and within 4 seconds I was sold.


Q - Could you comment on the history or traditions of this wonderful instrument? I'm not aware of much, beyond its use in Celtic music.

A - As far as I know, Stefan Sobell came up with the design which was based on a Portugese guitar Andy Irvine brought to him. The body shape is based on that instrument. It has only been around since 1980 or so to my knowledge, so not a lot of history there.


Q - I have a question for you in regards to the mandolin in Gypsy Jazz. A while back I used to jam frequently with a free jazz bassist-turned mandolinist (who subsequently turned BACK into a free jazz bassist) and he used to try and incorporate some elements minor of this style into his playing, but not really and his playing sounded bluegrassy to me. With the increasing popularity of this style with mandolinists, how would one adapt more to this style than to regular jazz or swing since Gypsy Jazz is it's own unique thing. I love the mandolin and really enjoy playing with mandolinists but I really like authenticity in sound. I guess my question is this - what would the best way be for a mandolinist to be more authentic in Gypsy Jazz even though there is no real precendent for that instrument in this style?

A - Well, since to me Django is the main source, I'd say steeping yourself in his music would be #1, and trying for a bit of his phrasing. One thing that sets Django apart as a giant from all his followers (to me) is that he had an incredible sense of phrasing and space- not all hot licks and athleticism, but some true lyrical and dynamic playing, and an amazing compositional sense. Listen to the 1949 solo on "After You've Gone"- the way he revisits and reshapes recurring ideas- the antithesis of "lick playing". Of course, he had his pet licks and ideas, but was so creative with MUSICAL ways of reshaping them. I think he is one of the greatest improvisor/ musicians of all time.

My opinion is that 100% authenticity is near impossible unless you abandon all other musical styles and delve into this music 100%, and probably hang out in the gypsy camps in Europe for a few years. I love playing that music, and I am not concerned too much with authenticity, since I am and will always be a mongrel- however, I try not to play Django stuff like a bluegrass player with run on eight note lines; I try to play like a jazz player and phrase in a manner true to the style. I have been listening to and studying Django since about 1976, which doesn't mean I wouldn't be laughed at at Samois (the big Django Festival in France), but I hear they laughed at Romane, Saussois and those cats too!

Bottom line- a mandolinist (or any musician) should really be in love with whatever style they are trying to play, whether it's free jazz, Django, or Lawrence Welk...otherwise, why bother? Passion is very important in life!

BTW I am having a blast playing Django repetoire on my Sobell octave mando- it has a very Selmeresque honk! I haven't even been tarred and feathered for it (yet?) Had a nice jam with Michael Horowitz yesterday...Michael authored a book on gypsy style right hand technique that would be very applicable to the mandolin- The right hand makes all the difference. I learned a lot from guitarist Stephane Wrembel about this peculiar and amazing world of downstrokes, rest strokes, and 3 note per string patterns.


Q - Your jazz related answers were interesting, do you have a certain book explaining some of your ideas on these subjects?

A - No, maybe I should do one! I have a basic explanation of dealing with extended chords at

Mostly I'd suggest listening to the music a lot and pay attention to the rhythmic phrasing.


Q - Could you tell what other books and also records you have available and if you have the ISBN numbers for the books that would be of help too?

A -


Q - I hadnít realized it until just now, but I have been working through one of your transcriptions for the past few weeks. Mandolin CafE had iA Place in the Heartî in PDF format, along with an MP3 recording of it. I am so impressed with your attention to detail. You included every grace note and nuance to the piece. I began playing guitar and learning songs by dropping the needle on my favorite music, so I know how difficult the process can be. I believe this transcription of that tune is perfect.

A - Thanks. I try!


Q - I am learning how to play mandolin and want to be able to transcribe a bit. (There ís the mandolin content.) Thank you for the transcribing tips you have on your website. They are quite helpful.

What do you find is most difficult in taking on a transcription task?

A - I have been doing it for so long at this point that the difficult things are big thick unusual chord voicings, like Allan Holdsworth's guitar stuff which is from another planet; very very fast things ( like Allan Holdsworth's lead work!). Within the acoustic world, open tuned guitar stuff is hard, and Jesse McReynolds crosspicking is challenging as the notes often appear in unusual place. TAB is harder to nail, because pitch (the actual note) is absolute, but that pitch can be played in many places on the guitar (a few on mando too!). But when I started, EVERYTHING was difficult! I really worked my way up to being able to do what i do by relentlessly wrestling with recordings.

Here's a little story- like so many guitarists, I spent a lot of time with Tony Rice solos, and I could get (eventually) the notes, but it never "sounded" right- it wasn't until i watched him play a bunch close up that I realized how much pick direction was responsible for the SOUND of his lines- these things that don't get notated (usually) are such a big part of the music- actually, notation is a very very feeble representation of what's really going on. This is one reason why I don't transcribe for myself anymore- when I learn something, i try to get it direct-to-fingers, just like I did before I could write music when i was a teenager- because I find I get more out of it. The written page can really help when you are learning, but remember that it is lust the diving board to launch you into that pool of playing!


Q - Where do you find that many transcribers (hobbyist or otherwise) get it wrong or miss the mark?

A - Yes, I have seen published books that were so wrong it's sad; including some Japanese Joe Pass books in the 80's that had wildly incorrect voicings and melody passages.


Q - Finally, and perhaps controversially, I have heard criticisms of using tab as a learning tool -- that learning by ear is the only way to go. Typically the comments have been so and so couldn't play Jingle Bells if it weren't written in front of him or it's impossible to get the timing right without having the tune in your head.

Can you discuss the benefits of learning by ear and of learning by tab / notation? How should these two methods be blended, if at all?

A - Check this page:

As I mentioned, written music can only give you the basics. What makes music Music is emotion, light and shade, nuances in rhythm, dynamics, all the magic stuff that comes in through your ears. I think if someone wants to learn tab I'm all for it, but developing your ear to hear and react to things around you when playing is crucial, too. No one method is right for everybody, but if you really want to learn, keep your mind as open as possible, be positive, and try as many methods and sources as you can. Today, we have SO many resources for learning at our fingertips, but they should be used wisely, because there is still no magic bullet to becoming a great player other than developing your musicianship both on and away from the instrument.

Thanks to everyone who asked questions, I really appreciate it!