View Full Version : Review: John McGann's "Fiddle Tunes for Mando" set

J. Mark Lane
Feb-16-2004, 1:46pm
First, to be clear, I have no financial or other vested interest in this product, its author, or its publisher.

In September 2002, I started learning mandolin. After a few false starts with instructional materials that didn't suit my fancy, I found comfort with the Roland White set, which includes two CD's and a book of tab/notation for a group of over 30 "fiddle tunes" and other bluegrass/oldtime material.

After learning a handful of those fairly well, I happened to pick up the Steve Kaufmann "Parking Lot Pickers" set. That set includes 20 tunes and six CD's. The multiple CD's is reflective of the fact that the Kaufmann set, unlike the White set, includes a good bit of "talking instruction" on the CD's, and includes three complete versions of each tune, from simple to more complex.

Over the last six months or so, I have mixed and matched the White and Kaufmann sets, picking from them based on what I wanted to play. This has been working well enough for me.

I recently ordered John McGann's set, "Developing Melodic Variations on Fiddle Tunes: Mandolin Edition" (Mel Bay). I tend to move with great reluctance once comfortable, and could probably spend a couple of years with the Kaufmann set. I like Steve's arrangements. They tend to add a certain amount of "bite" to the tunes. But I don't particularly care for the "backup tracks" of the Kaufmann set. The playing seems to me a bit "rushed" and "noisey." I much prefer Roland's backup, which is straight acoustic guitar at a reasonable pace (actually at two speeds for most of the tunes, a slow track and a "regular" track). Although there are some tunes in both sets (so I could use the Kaufmann arrangements over the White backup), that wasn't always the case, so some of my favorites leave me with no backup track that I like (Arkansas Traveler, for example). (I could record my own, but I am extremely lazy and haven't played much guitar lately.)

With the McGann set, I first just listened all the way through the CD. The set (book and CD) includes the following tunes:

1. Flop Eared Mule
2. Old Joe Clark
3. Soldier's Joy
4. Whiskey Before Breakfast
5. Billy in the Lowground
6. Forked Dear
7. Blackberry Blossom
8. Salty Dog
9. Arkansas Traveler
10. Ragtime Annie
11. Fisher's Hornpipe

All of these tunes are also covered by either the White or Kaufmann sets, and I was able to compare the arrangements. My initial reaction was that the McGann arrangements are much more "pleasant" in a sense. There is more of what I would call a "Celtic twist" to the arrangements, as opposed to Kaufmann, who adds more of a "jazz twist" or a "Dawg-like sound" at times. The McGann arrangements are easy on the ear, but not necessarily simpler.

Plus, McGann does five different arrangements of each tune. There is a method here, too. The first arrangements is a "barebones" one, designed to give you the basic melodic structure. (This is true of the Kaufmann "basic" arrangement, too.) Each successive arrangement is then designed to add a bit of complexity and variation from the basic melody. The idea is that you are not just learning tunes, but seeing how the variations are developed.

To facilitate the learning process, McGann has the note/tab placed so that each arrangement is directly under the others -- that is, each bar of the tune is lined up vertically for all five arrangements. At first, I found this annoying, as I wanted to just learn "Version 1" all the way through, and I had to turn the page ten times to read horizontally across the "Version 1" notation. My guess is that McGann intends the student to learn each phrase (each page tends to contain a phrase) by heart, then move to the next phrase, so that reading all the way through is not necessary. Still, I would like to ideally have the notation set out both ways, so that if I wanted to I could read the entire tune through, like I am used to doing. But the method does work, and it helps to see the successive arrangements in "over/under" form.

The CD is nicely set up, with no "fluff," just music straight through. All five arrangements are done for each tune. I quickly dumped the CD into my digital recorder, where I can set up markers for each section I want to work on, and do the auto-repeat etc., as I am used to doing. McGann has, like the others, separated the melody and rhythm tracks, so it is possible to turn off the melody and have a nice backup track. Of the three sets, I prefer McGann's backup tracks, easily. The guitar playing is nice, smooth, clean, at just the right pace. (Some of Roland's are either too slow (Blackberry Blossom) or too fast (Salt Creek). And as noted, I just don't like Kaufmann's backups.)

Bottom line: I kind of wish I had known about this set in the beginning. Although Roland's set is excellent, and has a greater "variety" of tunes (a couple of gospel tunes, some Monroe, etc.), the McGann set has the additional component of having a pedagogic purpose beyond merely "teaching tunes." I would highly recommend this set to beginners and intermediate players who want to expand their understanding of melodic variation, or who just want to learn a great set of traditional fiddle tunes.


Feb-16-2004, 3:08pm
I concur. I've gotten a lot out of McGann's book. He has even fielded a number of my asinine questions via e-mail!

I'm not too familiar with other similar sets, but I like this one. I really like his philosophical approach to traditional tunes and the flavour of his settings.


Feb-16-2004, 3:48pm
I also am a big fan of MCGann's fiddle tune variations book. I found the organization annoying at first too, but once you learn the tune, actually I think it facilitates remembering the variations, as it is such a pain to keep turning the pages I often choose to play the next page by memory. Wait till you get to the two fast versions at the end of the text. I have been working on Arkansas traveller for two months...phew, it's challenging, but fun to learn.

Feb-16-2004, 5:22pm
john is a great teacher in person. #mark, it is worth the drive to chestnut hill, mass just to take one lesson. #


Rod Freeland
Feb-17-2004, 12:52am
I concur in Mandobar’s statement about learning from John in person. I highly recommend attending “Groove Camp,” July 16-22 near Honesdale, PA where John McGann will be teaching along with a staff of other splendid musicians (see http://www.dhebert.com/groovecamp/). I went to last year’s camp (the 1st), and thoroughly enjoyed John’s teaching and encouragement. Regret that I can’t go this coming summer. Rod Freeland