Don Julin:
The Sounds Inside Your Head

by Hermon Joyner

 photo by John robert williams

photo by John robert williams

America honors the accomplishments that have been earned through the labor of your own hands. For Don Julin, who grew up and lives in the heartland of this country—in Michigan, the birthplace of modern industry in America and his dad even worked for the Ford Motor Company—this work ethic is part of how he defines his life and his music. Julin is a mandolin player, a commercial composer, recording engineer, and best-selling author, and he works really hard at everything he does.

Julin puts it simply, “I am a blue-collar player. I like working man’s music, whether it’s bluegrass or jazz or rock ‘n’ roll or blues. You know, regular folk’s music.”

Julin grew up in a musical family, though he resisted that inclination for many years. His three uncles on his mom’s side were all professional musicians and his mom enrolled him in accordion lessons when he was just 5 years old, but in his words, “It didn’t stick,” and that was it for him. It wasn’t until he was out of high school and had turned 19 that performance came back into his life.

Though Julin didn’t play an instrument when he was growing up, he was an ardent fan of music. Much of his spare time and money were spent on music. Julin explained, “I always loved music, and in high school I was the kid with the biggest record collection—I was putting every dime I made from whatever job I had into music—and it never crossed my mind as a teenager that I could or should play music. I always thought of myself as a music lover. I went to concerts all the time and listened to a wide variety of music.”

It wasn’t until after high school, when Julin was working in a construction crew with no real plans for his life, that a friend of his made a suggestion that changed Julin’s life. Julin said, “So one time, a friend of mine, who was a guitar player, said, ‘Hey, how about if I bring a mandolin over and I’ll show you a little bit and maybe we can play some songs together.’ And I thought, sure, I’ll try that. Why not? And that’s what it was. He brought over a little old Gretsch mandolin and showed me four chords and we played ‘Your Cheating Heart’ and I went, ‘Wow, this is so cool. I want to play music.’ And there it was, I met the mandolin and I’ve been chasing it ever since.”

 Don julin at the Mandolin Symposium 2013, photo by Maria camillo

Don julin at the Mandolin Symposium 2013, photo by Maria camillo

Aside from his normal, child-of-the-70s appreciation of rock music, the first genre that drew Julin’s attention was jazz. Julin said, “When I studied jazz, I really didn’t really study mandolin players, I studied horn players and piano players. They own that stuff. If you want to learn about jazz, check out Charlie Parker, check out Miles Davis. If you want to learn about sophisticated modern jazz compositions and sustained chords, check out Bill Evans. Those are the guys that are doing it. And then try to figure out how much of that you can bring over to the mandolin. There’s no manual for how to do this. As jazz mandolin players, even today, we’re blazing the trail.”

It’s only been in the last few years that Julin has been drawn into bluegrass music, and that is because of his partnership with Billy Strings, an exceptional singer-songwriter-instrumentalist in his early 20s. Together they strip down bluegrass classics and original songs to the bare essentials and deliver searing renditions of this familiar music in a fresh and energetic style. But to learn the bluegrass style, Julin knew he had to go back to the source of it, in much the same way he did when he learned to play jazz. Julin said, “I’ve studied jazz far longer, but maybe the big difference is that bluegrass was started by a mandolin player, so as a mandolin player, there’s a trail that you can follow to see how bluegrass is put together. You study Bill Monroe and that era of mandolin players. I find that it’s not only bluegrass music, it’s a way to play the mandolin. So it all comes together in a package. You learn these tunes, you learn these song forms, you learn this kind of playing style, and it sounds like that kind of music.”

 Billy Strings and don julin, photo by Tyler Franz

Billy Strings and don julin, photo by Tyler Franz

Now in his 50s, Julin finds himself immersed in bluegrass mandolin for the first time in his life. And he finds that he is enjoying himself. He said, “I know it seems strange, but after 30 some years of playing mandolin, the only mandolin player I really listen to right now is Bill Monroe. He’s the dude. You want to play bluegrass mandolin? All roads lead to Monroe. From a learning music point of view, I studied jazz first and then just did a variety of things for a bunch of years, and now I’m really studying bluegrass. I think I’m probably the only mandolin player in the world who is going through this backwards; moving from jazz to bluegrass. It’s usually the other way around. I think I’m lucky.”

It’s only natural for Julin to let other influences into the music when he is playing bluegrass with Billy Strings. All creative people are the sum of their influences, after all. It’s those influences that add spice to the mix. It’s how Bill Monroe came up with bluegrass music in the first place. Julin explained, “We add a rock element to bluegrass, but we also add a jazz element in that the solos are very extended. You don’t see extended solos in bluegrass bands. Sometimes, we can launch off into a five minute guitar or mandolin solo, and that comes from jazz. That has nothing to do with bluegrass at all. So I might be building a solo using Monroe-based licks, but it’s different trying to build a solo that goes five, six, seven, or eight choruses long. It’s a whole different animal than playing one chorus, playing mostly the melody, put a little lick at the end, and then get out and make room for the next guy. That’s traditional bluegrass.”

In his career playing jazz, Julin has used many different mandolins from a 1923 Gibson Snakehead to a Godin A8 electric-acoustic model. If anything, Julin has mostly been associated with A-model mandolins, finding the sound of them well-suited for jazz. But now that he is playing bluegrass full-time, things have changed and so has his choice of mandolins. At the moment, Julin is concentrating on two mandolins, a 1979 Nugget F-model that Mike Kimnitzer made as a faithful copy of a Gibson F5 (to the point that it even has “the Gibson” inlaid on the headstock) and a recent Northfield F5M, outfitted with two pick-ups and a clip-on microphone, for when he wants to run his mandolin through a sound system.

Julin explained why he switched over, “It probably comes as a shock to a lot of readers that I’m playing an F5 at all. But when you get a full-time gig playing bluegrass, an F5 in a bluegrass band is sort of like a cowboy hat to a country singer. You walk out onstage with an F5 and people have some idea about what they’re going to get. As it turns out, though, I’m a little bit of a convert. I actually really enjoy F’s. I’ve still got a bunch of cool mandolins—I’ve got a whole closet full of mandolins that I really like—but right now, I’ve switched over to playing only F’s. Wow, that’s weird.”

 don julin with  Mandolin for dummies , photo bt scott tichenor

don julin with Mandolin for dummies, photo bt scott tichenor

Besides his busy performance schedule with Billy Strings—especially since they recently signed a deal with the same booking agent who works with Del McCoury and Hot Rize—in the past few years, Julin has written two mandolin instructional books, Mandolin for Dummies and Mandolin Exercises for Dummies. Both have been enormously successful, but it all started with an email. Julin said, “I got an email a few years back from Scott Tichenor from Mandolin Cafe and he said, ‘Hey, those “Dummies” folks are sniffing around for an author for a Mandolin for Dummies. I think you’d be good for it, if you were interested in that kind of thing. I don’t know what they’re paying. I don’t know how much work it is, but just on what they told me, they need someone who can play a variety of styles, who is comfortable teaching, was pretty good with notation software, and was well-connected in the mandolin community, and could go find the answers that he didn’t know the answers to. And it seems like you might be interested in that.’ So I told him, ‘Sure, pass my name along.’ And I thought, what’s the chance of that? A major publication like that hiring a guy like me to do the book? Sure, put my name in the hat, but I’m going to get back to mowing the lawn, or whatever, because that ain’t going to happen. A couple of months later, I get an email from Wiley Publishing in Great Britain saying that they are putting together a Mandolin for Dummies and they are looking for authors and my name came up and they checked me out online and my instructional videos looked good and they wanted to talk to me about it. So I said, sure, and I got the job. It all came from a referral from Mandolin Cafe.”

Scott Tichenor had this to add, “They only got that one name out of me. Based on the success of the book I'd say he was the right guy.”

The two books are quite different from each other. The first, Mandolin for Dummies, is intended as a general introduction to the mandolin and the second, Mandolin Exercises for Dummies, is more focused on the techniques of playing the mandolin. Julin said, “The first one is like a little encyclopedia, because it not only has lessons and skills for how to play the instrument, but there’s a little bit of history about the instrument, there’s a chapter describing the different types of mandolins and how they’re built, and chapters on how to purchase your first mandolin or how to upgrade, there’s a chapter on changing strings and basic maintenance, so it’s more like a reference manual. The second doesn’t have any of that. The second one is just exercises, as the name implies. And I consider them to be kind of blue-collar exercises. I use that stuff; everything that’s in that book, I use that kind of stuff in my everyday playing.”

Julin feels that this level of practice and familiarity with the fretboard is essential to mastering the mandolin. It’s the technique you learn that frees you to express yourself through the instrument. Julin said, “Certain things are very connected. For instance, tone and timing require good technique, so technique then seems like the major thing you want, but when you look at musicality and expressiveness, those can exist in spite of technique. So how do you balance the technical stuff with the art, the feeling part of it? Musicality and expressiveness are more mental and they more have to do with imagination, or they may have to do with how closely you’ve listened to other musical masters. For you to sound musical like that, you have to know those sounds inside your head, and that has nothing to do with technique.”

 don Julin and david grisman, photo by Maria camillo

don Julin and david grisman, photo by Maria camillo

He continued, “But by practicing the technique and the theory and understanding your instrument and how to pull the sounds out of the instrument, it opens the door for your expressiveness and musicality. Maybe the musicality is inside you, but with enough practice, you will be able to play it so that the sound coming out of your mandolin is the sound you hear in your head. I think that’s what guys like David Grisman and John Reischman and Andy Statman and Sam Bush, all the great players that are out there, have done. They all practiced their butts off when they were younger and now they’ve got this thing where they’re singing, they’re speaking through their mandolins. You’ve got to be an artist. You have to have something to say to be driven hard enough to make all those scales and metronome practices make any sense. And then once you do, you have the tools to do it. You can play what you hear in your head.”

And when Don Julin plays, it’s clear that the song he hears in his head is, indeed, pretty wonderful, and it is a testament to his tenacious work-ethic and creative spirit.


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Don Julin Discography:
Wouldn't You Rather, (Big Swifty & Associates) 1999
Brite Lites, Big Insects (don Julin & Glenn Wolff) 1999
Mr. Natural (Don Julin & Ron Getz) 2000
Live at St. Andrews (Don Julin, Tom Bourcier & Glenn Wolff) 2000
Tractor (Don Julin) 2001
Lonesome Cactus Groove (Neptune Quartet) 2002
Without Words (Don Julin, Ron Getz & Wes Ivankovich) 2002
Neptune Quartet (Neptune Quartet) 2003
Prospero’s Project (Don Julin) 2004
The Great Thaw (Neptune Quartet) 2004
Live at Poppycocks (Neptune Quartet) 2006
So Long Gone (Rusty Blaides) 2006
Spinning (Claudia Schmidt) 2006
Steels Heal The World (Drew Howard and Joe Wilson) 2009
Promising Sky (Claudia Schmidt) 2010
Vibe (Don Julin) 2011
Rock of Ages (Billy Strings & Don Julin) 2013
Fiddle Tune X (Billy Strings & Don Julin) 2014