From Mandolin Cafe

10 Questions For John McGann
By Ted Eschliman
July 24, 2011 - 7:30 pm

John McGann - Professor of Strings, Berklee College of Music. Photo credit: Helen Norton-Russell.

John McGann - Professor of Strings, Berklee College of Music. Photo credit: Helen Norton-Russell.

John McGann is a remarkable musician and one of the most grounded and diverse that I know. I've had the privilege of knowing him for nearly 30 years. He wears many hats and is heavily invested in a variety of approaches, styles and techniques which make him unique in my experience.

He's deeply grounded and extremely knowledgeable in Celtic, bluegrass and jazz, a remarkably well versed arranger, composer, and an articulate teacher. It's hard for me to think of any other individual in music who I can say all of these things about who is so passionately involved in all these different styles, understands the connection between them and can verbalize to students what makes these styles tick, how to approach them, and how to understand the inner workings of music — something I think is extremely important!

There is often a weakness in great musicians in that they may be virtuosos on their instruments, but limited in their understanding of the inner workings of music and the history of that music. John can hip our students to all of these things.

He's a wonderfully funny and relaxed human being who is one of the guys you want to be in your band. Regardless of whatever kind of band you have, you want John in that band. I feel very privileged to have had the opportunity to work with him all these years and can't imagine my musical life without him. I've learned an enormous amount from him over the years and continue to do so.

The mandolin community is very privileged to have John McGann in it and frankly I can't think of anyone in that community who can do half of what he can. I'm honored to call him my friend and colleague.

 — Matt Glaser
     Artistic Director, American Roots Music Program
     Berklee College of Music

The Stage/The Western

John McGann on mandolin and octave mandolin playing two traditional Irish hornpipes learned from fiddlers James Kelly and Michael Coleman. Recorded in 2005.

Ted Eschliman: Jazz instruction for mandolin at the collegiate level really is pretty rare. How welcome has this been, and was it hard pitching to faculty at an institution as prestigious as the Berklee College of Music?

John McGann: The success of the mandolin program at Berklee proves the legitimacy of the idea that the mandolin is as serious an instrument upon which to study music as any.

Under the pre-2004 regime at Berklee, certain factions were opposed to "folk instruments at a 'jazz college'," and people like The Infamous Stringdusters' banjoist Chris Pandolfi had to slip under in the guise of a guitar player. However, Roger Brown, the current president of Berklee is a big fan of all kinds of music including American roots music. In fact, he told Matt Glaser that Nickel Creek was at the top of his iPod playlist when he started in 2004. Berklee had just accepted Joe Walsh as the first mandolin principal and I got a phone call about three weeks before the semester began asking if I'd like to teach there which was a great honor. I began with 1/2 hour a week and built from there. I started a Celtic music ensemble and a Django Reinhardt/Gypsy Jazz ensemble, several mandolin labs such as a chord lab, mandolin for non-principals, etc., and over time we began to attract more mandolin principals. My estimate is that we've had well over 40 since then — not all performance-based students. I've had mandolin playing film scoring majors, music business majors, music therapy majors, etc.

I was surprised to hear that the mandolin is an accepted (if grudgingly) principal instrument at many German conservatories, so Europe seems to be a bit ahead of the U.S. in that regard.


The John McGann composition Julian, dedicated to Cannonball Adderley. John McGann, mandolin; Billy Novick, clarinet; Jim Kelly, guitar; Dave Hollender, bass; Casey Scheurell, drums. Recorded February 5, 2008 at the Berklee Performance Center, Boston, Massachusetts.

Ted Eschliman: You are a strong advocate for the importance of the ability to read standard notation. What does a player gain with this skill, and do you have students at the collegiate level that either don't have this ability or struggle with it greatly?

John McGann: I'd like to make clear that reading ability is of secondary importance to the ear. They are two skills that are often greatly unbalanced, and as one of my teachers, the great John LaPorta (who recorded with Charlie Parker and Mingus) once said, "You should hear what music looks like, and see what music sounds like."

Beyond Bluegrass Mandolin: Etudes and Ideas for the Modern Mandolinist, from 2011. Click to purchase.

Beyond Bluegrass Mandolin: Etudes and Ideas for the Modern Mandolinist, from 2011. Click to purchase.

To truly understand theory (which is another word for "musical fact") on all levels, and to have it live up to the ideal of dependability, fluency with notation is very important. Chord/melody relationship in Western music is of critical importance, so knowing what notes are in a chord (not just a mandolin voicing, but the raw spelling of a chord) is a first step. Knowing where the notes are on your instrument, knowing what they look like on paper, knowing the different positions where those notes occur, this is second nature to many musicians, but not so much in our "mandolin culture" (also true for most guitarists). Hearing the relationships is the crucial component. A true improviser (as opposed to a "lick-reciter") really needs this kind of information.

Reading enhances your understanding of rhythm and rhythmic subtleties as well.

Many mandolinists (and guitarists) coming into Berklee have 6th grade music reading skills, the kind that wouldn't be tolerated in a 7th grade band room! They may be able to play their hearts out, but the reading skill just hasn't been developed. I do work with them on this, but we only have one lesson a week at Berklee (either 1/2 hour or 50 minutes for performance majors), so unless they are self-starters and really work on their own, there won't be much advancement of skill. They do need to know how to read to deal with their core music classes such as harmony and ear training, so they do get to develop some chops in that area. Classical musicians develop a fabulous skill set that usually doesn't include improvisation. Folk musicians develop a fabulous skill set that usually doesn't include reading. I advocate a balanced diet for complete nutrition!

Just A Little Lovin'

Ray Charles' Just a Little Lovin' with Wayfaring Strangers: Matt Glaser, fiddle; Tracy Bonham vocals, fiddle; Margaret Glaspy, vocals, fiddle; John McGann octave mandolin; Jim Whitney, bass; Casey Driessen, fiddle; Larry Eagle, drums, percussion. From WCPN radio, Cleveland Ohio, May, 2011.

Ted Eschliman: You have some well-developed thoughts on the issue of wasted energy in "flying fingers," and have documented your own personal journey early in your career gaining control over left finger height above the fretboard. Is this a common issue with students you work with today?

Wayfaring Strangers - This Train, from 2003. Click to purchase.

Wayfaring Strangers - This Train, from 2003. Click to purchase.

John McGann: It is, although when I taught Sierra Hull and Annika Lückebergfeld, a virtuoso who left her conservatory post in Germany to study improvisation at Berklee, I mentioned to them that I usually suggest leaving fingers down while ascending the strings, but wasn't about to insist on it for them, since they seem to be doing quite well with the way they approach the fingerboard! I do believe in the physics of "the less wasted movement, the more efficient and easier the playing," but they prove there are (rare) exceptions to the rule. For almost anyone else, I feel that making this change can have a really positive effect on legato (smooth connecting from one note to the next, as a voice would) and timing issues. I know that when I fought through 13 years of various bad habits to adopt this technique, it made a very significant change in my playing.

Here's how it works: play an Ab major scale starting on the 1st fret of the G string- Ab (1) Bb (3) C (5) Db (6). By the time you play the Db, all 4 fingers should be down. If you lift after each new note, you are creating twice the work for yourself. If you leave the fingers down, they can all come off in one motion to go to the next string; or if the line descends, there will be a finger already waiting for you. You can see this is a key to both legato and speed.

Unless your name is Sierra Hull or Annika Lückebergfeld, I wouldn't recommend lifting your fingers ;).

Ted Eschliman: Along those lines, what other player weaknesses are common problems with mandolinists in your teaching studio, and how have you addressed them?

Rhythm Tune Up With John McGann DVD. Click to purchase.

Rhythm Tune Up With John McGann DVD. Click to purchase.

John McGann: Time. Almost no one has as strong a sense of rhythm and time as they think they do. Work with a metronome is great here, as is playing along with recordings.

Tone. By playing with the pick "down toward the top," using rest strokes rather than letting the pick fly up into the air, the string can vibrate more efficiently, making the bridge, top, braces, back and sides (the box) do its thing in creating a warmer, richer, darker sound. For most people, this is as good as or better than buying a new instrument. Time after time I see faces light up when this revelation is made.

Technique. See the question for left hand. Also, people who say "my hands are too small" usually need to simply adjust the angle at which the hand comes into the neck and to spread the fingers out at the base of the hand.

Right hand technique. Anchoring does you no favors, and unless you are Adam Steffey, you probably should think about the mechanics involved. Mobility of the hand, so you can deliver the pick to each string at the same relative angle, without twisting which will compromise tone and attack, is one of the keys.

Other general problems are people just not knowing tunes. I've had students tell me "I'm really into bluegrass!" and when I ask "What tunes do you play?" I am told "Oh, I don't actually play any tunes." This is mind boggling to me. Repertoire development seems so obvious!

A bunch of scales and arpeggios and licks does not create a player, but someone who can play (memorized!) 100 tunes (chords and melodies) well is automatically playing scale and arpeggio material in a musical fashion.

Wanna play jazz? Learn tunes! Wanna play bluegrass or Celtic or Macedonian music or rock and roll or blues? Learn tunes! Improvisational vocabulary doesn't come from chords, scales or licks. It comes from the tunes themselves! Memorized!

Don't Put Off 'Til Tomorrow

Wayfaring Strangers at Merlefest 2005. Tracy Bonham, Ruth Ungar and Aoife O'Donovan, vocals; Tony Trischka, banjo; Laszlo Gardony, piano; John McGann, octave mandolin; Jamey Haddad, drums; Corey Dimario, bass; Matt Glaser, violin.

Ted Eschliman: You've achieved an expertise at two very different styles of music, jazz which is arguably more vertical and complex in chord construction, and Celtic, with its more technically intricate and involved linear melodic nature. How has this contrast developed you as a musician?

John McGann's Developing Melodic Variations on Fiddle Tunes, Mandolin Edition, from 2003. Click to purchase.

John McGann's Developing Melodic Variations on Fiddle Tunes, Mandolin Edition, from 2003. Click to purchase.

John McGann: Each label "jazz" and "Celtic" really are umbrellas covering many dozens of different sub-styles. Both areas of music require a particular sense of rhythm and timing, a variety of tone color, etc. I feel that the styles of jazz I'm drawn to are more traditional, probably developing up to the day I was born in 1959 or so. I'm not really a modern jazz musician in the contemporary sense of players like Michael Brecker or George Garzone, players who I love to listen to and learn from. But to answer your question, both styles have made me a better listener in responding to my environment. In jazz, that give-and-take between players is very important for creating music that is "alive," and the very same is true for the Celtic styles, bluegrass music, or any style.

I have worked a lot as an accompanist in Irish music and there is nothing worse than melody players who are unresponsive. The late Johnny Cunningham was amazing to play with. I always felt that we were both very tuned into each other, and that dynamics and tempo could really flow and would make each performance (of the same tunes) unique. This creates music that is a result of a cooperation, rather than a hierarchy of "King of Melody (and backer)."

Jazz requires, among other things, a knowledge of harmony, and an understanding of how it affects the melodic line. Celtic music is more of a drone/modal music from a harmonic perspective, and a jazz harmony approach would be wrong for the style. In fact, the majority of melody players in Celtic music are often blissfully unaware of chords at all. They'd know when you played a "wrong one," but are often off in their own world. Harmony in the Western sense is not really part of the Celtic music tradition. It is a music that has been first and foremost a melody music with drones and partial chords being much more stylistically satisfying in creating the "modal" sound, than the kind of "block chord" approach used in jazz or bluegrass.

I see the situation a bit like relationships. You have different friends, all unique, who have their own unique things to offer. You can't get the feelings that you get in jazz from Irish music, and vice versa. There are both expressive vehicles with their own personalities, traditions, and endless possibilities.

American Roots Music Program

This year's American Roots Music Program at Berklee College of Music, featuring Mark O'Connor. Click image for larger version.

American Roots Music Program

Ted Eschliman: You have some astute ideas on understanding jazz, using plumbing as a metaphor. Review this for us, and how did you ever come up with this slant?

John McGann: Spontaneously. Responding to someone's post on the Mandolin Cafe forum I said something like "theory only seems like rocket science until you know it. Then, it's more like plumbing!" The idea of plumbing seems pretty complicated, but there are some simple elements that combine to make a system that is reasonably easy to understand. I feel music theory is the same, but the jargon often puts people off. As an educator, one of my goals is to demystify theory and help people see that much of it is fairly simple. It's important to be very clear at the outset, and work slowly, making sure that the concepts can be actualized in sound, and not remain "theoretical."

John McGann's Rhythm Mandolin From Bluegrass to Celtic to Swing instructional DVD from 2007. Click to purchase.

John McGann's Rhythm Mandolin From Bluegrass to Celtic to Swing instructional DVD from 2007. Click to purchase.

Music theory is merely a way of labeling and categorizing sounds. There are different styles of music theory as well. Classical theory often uses totally different terms and concepts than jazz theory. I have learned both at different times, and prefer the jazz approach, which tends to cut to the chase a bit more directly, rather than having more obscure layers of meaning, IMHO!

Some people bristle at the notion of music being approached like a science, but science is the notion of a "repeatable experiment proving a truth." Theory won't make you a less soulful player. Your soul is impervious to anything as non-cosmic as theory! It won't make you a mechanical player if you aren't already a mechanical player, and it won't help you be less mechanical either. That's not theory's job. Theory is getting under the hood and understanding how the car works, what all those belts do, why there are pistons, what actually makes the wheels go around, why the car doesn't start, etc. Yes, you can drive without knowing all that stuff, but if you want to design a car (or some music...)

Again, I'd like to emphasize the primal importance of the ear in all this.

Ted Eschliman: What's it like maintaining a professional music career in the Boston area? Do you branch out geographically farther up and down the East Coast for performing?

John McGann: Boston is a great city with a thriving musical community, and some nice venues for performance. I have never pursued performance for 100% of my time; I've always taught and transcribed to have a more reliable income (especially as a family man). I do enjoy performing very much, and am glad that I can do it more or less on my own terms. I've played across the US, Canada, Japan and much of Europe at various times. I've been working a lot with some players from the Boston Symphony Orchestra, playing community outreach gigs, and other freelance gigs; playing bluegrass every few months at the beautiful Cantab Lounge in scenic Central Square, Cambridge; Gypsy Jazz with Jason Anick, Club Passim, Johnny D's, a few gigs at the Berklee Performance Center.

I did play a few gigs in Cleveland last month with The Wayfaring Strangers, including an evening at Severence Hall, home of the Cleveland Symphony and one of the most beautifully restored Art Deco era buildings on Earth, but the past few years have been mostly local performances. I expect to do more traveling in the second half of my century on the planet (with any luck).

John with Irish button accordion legend Joe Derrane

John McGann with Irish button accordion legend Joe Derrane

Photo credit: Jack Vartoogian.

Ted Eschliman: You've almost single-handedly pioneered the use of the octave mandolin as both an accompaniment and a soloing instrument in jazz. What is it about the register that makes it work so well and do you see others following in your path?

John McGann: The OM has nearly the range of the guitar combined with the fifths tuning, so I see it as the best of both worlds. Outside of bluegrass, the range of the mandolin is a bit high, and I often hear lines lower than the mandolin's low G string, maybe more in the baritone sax register (I'm a big Pepper Adams fan!). Again, I don't think of jazz as being instrument-specific, and try to play the attitude as much as the jazz vocabulary when I am playing in that style.

The Boston Edge: Joe Derrane, accordion; John McGann, guitar and mandolin; Seamus Connolly, fiddle. From 2004. Click to purchase.

The Boston Edge: Joe Derrane, accordion; John McGann, guitar and mandolin; Seamus Connolly, fiddle. From 2004. Click to purchase.

The Sobell I play has a wonderful Django-esque quality. I love to use it in Gypsy Jazz settings as it blends really well with all those guitars. I'm currently the only chordal instrument in The Wayfaring Strangers and it works great in that setting. We've had some amazing pianists in that band as well and the OM finds it's own sonic space in the mix.

Danny Williams in Lexington, Kentucky, comes to mind as someone playing jazz and other styles on electric OM. He has a group called the Barry Mando Project playing some great stuff. I'm sure more people will get into the OM over time. It's really a very young instrument, and it is still seems to be found mostly in Celtic music, although folks like Sarah Jarosz and Chris Thile are also getting it out there. Let's face it, even the soprano mandolin is not accepted (among most jazz musicians) as a "real jazz instrument." In fact, there are still people grumbling that guitar isn't a jazz instrument! That's all silly. Jazz is not about a particular instrument, but about attitude, style, history. In other words, musical content.

Ted Eschliman: Always need to ask this, who are other mandolinists that have inspired your playing? Who do you like to listen to and observe today?

John McGann's A Guide to Octave Mandolin and Bouzouki, from 2003. Click to purchase.

John McGann's A Guide to Octave Mandolin and Bouzouki, from 2003. Click to purchase.

John McGann: The first mandolinist I heard live was Barry Mitterhoff with Bottle Hill. Around the same time I discovered Andy Statman playing the most fantastic stuff on those Tony Trischka Rounder albums in the mid-70s, introduced to me by my dear departed pal John Zeidler (who was a multi-instrumentalist as well as world class luthier). I loved those guys, but it was hearing the original David Grisman Quintet and the sound of Grisman's playing my first week as a Berklee student in 1977 that made me say "I gotta try that!" Although I was also on the floor over the ridiculously amazing guitar artistry of Tony Rice as well. That band really steered me away from the electric guitar and into the idea of really going for a good acoustic sound, something that took me years to develop. Dawg was the Chris Thile (or, if you like, the Bill Monroe) of my generation, in terms of sweeping influence.

Soon after that I got a cheapo Harmony mandolin and started trying to figure out some of what I heard on recordings. Sam Bush was probably the last mandolinist I tried to copy by learning as much of his stuff as I could, especially the Sam and Alan Together Again For The First Time on Ridge Runner Records. Sam is a genius at melodic variation in the Texas and southeastern fiddle traditions as well as a great Monroe stylist (as are all the other players mentioned). He played several great Howdy Forrester pieces on that album which were a blast to learn, and I think many guys of my generation like Paul Kramer learned from that album. Of course I spent a fair amount of time with Bill Monroe's music and will always continue to do so. Also the late great fiddle legend Kenny Baker, but it's been a very long time since I learned anyone else's mandolin solos (though I have transcribed tons of them... in one ear and out the pencil!)

John McGann - Upslide, from 1995. Click to purchase.

John McGann - Upslide, from 1995. Click to purchase.

I knew I didn't want to copy Don Stiernberg, Jethro or Mick Moloney. I love their playing but figured I should go deeper into what made them tick rather than emulate their styles and mannerisms. So, for Irish music, I dove into recordings by Michael Coleman and Andy McGann (no relation) and continued expanding my jazz record collection and transcribing lots of non-guitar jazz.

As far as today goes, I listen to other mandolinists much more for pleasure than to steal things from since I am still trying to develop "my own voice" and I try to hear EVERYBODY. Aaron Weinstein and Jason Anick are both stellar young lion jazz violinists who are also way too excellent on the mandolin for my own good. Those guys both have a wonderful sense of both the jazz line and of chordal possibilities.

It would take all day to list the phenomenal players around who I love to hear. I've had the pleasure of working with some great young phenoms at Berklee like Sierra Hull, Jacob Jolliff, Eric Robertson, Bryce Milano, Dominick Leslie, David Goldenberg, Joe Walsh, Dan Bui, Matthew Witler, Suzanne Oleson, just to name a few that Mandolin Cafe members might know. All just wonderful individuals (great people!) who already have their own signature styles and sounds and I love following what they are doing.

Ted Eschliman: Since you are breaking new ground with jazz, it seems obvious you've been influenced by horn and guitar players. Who are these musicians, and how have they shaped your playing?

Joe Derrane: Grove Lane - with John McGann, from 2010. Click to purchase.

Joe Derrane: Grove Lane - with John McGann, from 2010. Click to purchase.

John McGann: First, I'm flattered by the phrase "breaking new ground," but the only real new ground would be the instrument that I play on. The vocabulary that I use in jazz is actually quite mainstream, although I hope that I have my own personality and take on the situation.

I started as a guitarist and really didn't play mandolin until around 1981 or so. I spent a lot of time with Django, Tal Farlow, and Wes Montgomery learning their amazing lines and solos, and I feel that going directly to the source is the best way to develop a vocabulary. I also feel that the kinds of lines played by Louis, Bix, Django, Charlie Christian, Charlie Parker, Cannonball Adderley, Pepper Adams, Jackie McLean, Eric Dolphy, Coltrane, Lee Morgan, Clifford Brown, Bill Evans, etc. are the soul of the jazz tradition and it was not satisfying for me to approach playing on that music with a bluegrass vocabulary. It's the same alphabet but a different language.

When I play bluegrass, I don't want to sound like a "jazz player slumming," and the same goes for playing jazz. You know, showing up at the barbecue in a wet suit! When I was in my twenties, Andy Statman advised me "get rooted in a style and don't be a dilettante." Frank Zappa warned in an interview about imitating "the freeze-dried mannerisms of a style," and between those two I figured I'd better dig deep and not just do a drive-by!

Gear Facts

John McGann's Sound Fundamentals: Touch, Tone and Technique for Mandolin DVD. From 2007. Click to purchase.

John McGann's Sound Fundamentals: Touch, Tone and Technique for Mandolin DVD. From 2007. Click to purchase.

1997 JR Zeidler Carrara Mandolin (Fishman pickup)
2000 Stefan Sobell Octave Mandolin (Baggs pickup)
2009 Lawrence Smart 10-string Mandola
1991 JR Zeidler Excalibur Dreadnought
2002 RJ Aylward Maccaferri style Petite Bouche guitar
Raven Labs preamp

I prefer the Dunlop 1.5mm Tortex for everything except the mandola on which I use a Blue Chip 60 (also 1.5mm)

All D'addario:
J74 on mandolin
.012 .020 .032 .047 on octave mandolin
.010 .014 .023 .034 .052 or .053 on mandola
medium 80/20 or Phosphor on dreadnought
Argentine strings on Aylward

KM 184 or Oktava MK-012 mics in home studio. If I can get a condenser mic on stage I'm happy. Sometimes an SM57 will have to do.

Walnut Valley Festival Mandolin Contest

John McGann on stage at the 1985 Walnut Valley Festival in Winfield, KS after winning the mandolin contest. In 1984 he placed second in both the guitar and mandolin contests.

John McGann - winner of the Walnut Valley Mandolin Contest, 1985

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