Octave Mandolin - John McGann

John McGann (deceased) was Associate Professor of Strings at Berklee College of Music, the 1985 National Mandolin Champion and author or Mel Bay: A Guide to Octave Mandolin & Bouzouki.

He has recorded on Green Linnet, Narada, Rounder, and Flying Fish to name a few. He is also the transcriber of choice for publications such as Mel Bay, Hal Leonard, Acoustic Disc, Flatpicking Guitar Magazine, and many other noteworthy publications. John performs locally and internationally from his base in Boston, Massachusetts. More information about John is available from our feature interview with him from July, 2011.


In my Guide to Octave Mandolin and Bouzouki book/CD set I go into specific details about my approach to playing octave mandolin- fingerings, chord voicings, approaches to Irish style accompaniment, etc. There are 20 tunes included in the book, fully transcribed in tablature and standard notation, from Irish to blues and jazz, even a Venezualan waltz.

Adobe Acrobat File PDF This Train standard/tab

This Train MP3 audio file (458K download)

Here is an example of the octave mandolin played in an unusual setting: The Wayfaring Strangers. Actually, I am playing octave mando exclusively in the group at this time, as the lineup of piano, bass, drums, banjo and fiddle plus 3 vocalists presents a challenge of how to fit in with so much going on. The octave mandolin really finds it's own sonic space in the band, rather than guitar (which tends to get lost among the banjo, piano and drums) or mandolin (whose range is duplicated by the violin). My particular instrument, made by Stefan Sobell in the year 2000, has a nice combination of sustaining, round tone with a Selmer (the guitar favored by Django Reinhardt) type "honk". The band has been very supportive of my playing this axe, and Matt Glaser's credo of "All styles of music, all the time" has led me to play everything from straight bluegrass to bebop to who-knows-what-to-call-it.

If you are new to the octave mando, the first thing you'll find is that it is nearly impossible to use traditional mandolin fingerings without stretching your hand into oblivion. I combine guitar and mandolin fingerings, depending on the line. This means that I often play 5th fret notes with the pinky, and move the hand vertically along the neck if I need the 6th and 7th fret notes when I am in "open position". This solo is played entirely in open position, so it can provide some good material for fingering experiments.

I would point out that rather than taking a straight bluegrass approach, I phrased this solo a bit more in a traditional jazz mode- with rests, long notes and syncopation. The triplets starting in bar 11 are mostly phrased in the Sam Bush fashion- down/slur/up, which allows you to retain the flow of right hand alternate picking, while breaking up the articulation so every note isn't picked (and sounding like typing!) Later on, I get more eighth-notey, particularly in the last 4 bars. Don't worry about getting the Django style gliss at the end clean- I didn't!

I hope to hear the octave mandolin used in more styles of music- it is really a fabulous instrument with great potential.