Putting in the Hours
by Hermon Joyner
“The mandolin has always been my main instrument. I have a strong connection to it,” said Jacob Jolliff.
This statement is a lot more literal that it might appear at first glance because Jolliff has been playing the mandolin for 18 years and he started when he was just seven years old. The mandolin has become the driving force in his life, taking him all over the world and opening up a host of opportunities for him. Life for this one-time prodigy and now virtuoso has been shaped by the mandolin and Jolliff’s sense of purpose. And Jolliff owes much of this to his father.
Bill Jolliff, an English professor at George Fox University in Newberg, Oregon, and his wife believed in home-schooling for their children. And as part of that education, all of the Jolliff children were required to learn to play an instrument. Bill, an accomplished bluegrass singer and musician who plays most of the bluegrass instruments, started Jacob out on the mandolin.
Jacob’s beginnings on the mandolin were simple at first. He said, “We were only required to practice for 10 minutes a day, which seems like an absurdly small amount of time, but I did my 10 minutes every day for about six months, and even with that amount of time, if you do it every day, you can make some real progress. It wasn’t something I loved at that point, I was just doing it because I had to, but then like all of a sudden, after six months, I went from practicing 10 minutes a day to practicing four or five hours a day. Some switch flipped and I’ve been on that train ever since.”
Not only did the mandolin become an obsession for Jacob, he also grew to love performing in public, first with his dad and then with other groups around the Northwest. But it was the practice itself that became an end in itself. And this musical life fit perfectly with his home-school schedule. Jacob explained, “I was always given the choice to go to private school or public school after a certain age. They wanted to start me in home school, but after the 4th Grade they always gave me and my siblings the choice to go to any school we wanted to, but I always wanted to be home-schooled because I was playing so many gigs with my dad and my musical friends around Oregon and going to so many festivals, so I wanted time for that and in addition to that, I wanted time for practicing. I would get up really early, as if I was going to school, but I would get up at 5:30 or 6 in the morning and sometimes I would do a couple hours of practicing and then tackle my schoolwork and then do more practicing in the afternoon, or other times I would just work through all my schoolwork first thing. I’d be done with my school work by noon or so and then I’d have all afternoon to practice. The extra time definitely benefited my musical education by having the time to put in serious hours.”
Jacob’s father, Bill, gave him his first lessons on the mandolin and also gave him an education in bluegrass. Jacob said, “He showed me a lot of fiddle tunes. He gave me some good approaches for playing bluegrass tunes, ways for outlining the melody and embellishing it, and then showed me basic technique as well. But he pretty much stopped instructing me by the time I was 9 or 10. Because mandolin was just one of the instruments he played and he felt like at that point that I had as much technique as he did. I don’t know if that was true, but he certainly got me going on the right path. A lot of the things he implemented are things I use with my students now.”
It wasn’t long before Jacob felt a need for more instruction and for a while, the only way he could do that was with instructional videos. They fit his home-school habits perfectly. Jacob said, “I took advantage of a lot of the resources I had, like the Homespun Tapes, the instructional tapes. I loved those things. I think the best thing about them is just getting to watch these great players play and really get to see the way their hands work. Not all of them are great at explaining what they’re doing, some are better than others, but just getting to see these up-close shots of my favorite players’ technique was great. I really do feel like the majority of my musical education just came through the shear amount of hours I was putting in combined with really paying close attention to videos of my favorite players and trying to figure out what they were doing. But it was a lot of trial and error, because you watch great mando players’ technique and you see such a variety; there’s no consistency in terms of right-hand or left-hand technique, so I really just had to figure out what would work best for me.”
Many of their travels and performances took them to bluegrass festivals up and down the west coast and it was there that Jacob would see modern masters of the mandolin and he always tried to make the most of these meetings. He said, “I sought out other opportunities, like when some great mandolin player came to town or when I had some chance to play with one, like David Grisman or Chris Thile or Ronnie McCoury, which are some of my favorites. I would usually try to contact them ahead of time and get a lesson with them backstage.”
When Jacob finished high school, he decided to pursue a degree in music at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, Massachusetts. It was a far cry from small-town life in Newberg and it was also the first real classroom experience for Jacob, but it was a formative education and pushed him to grow as a musician. At Berklee, working on a Performance Degree, he was able to indulge his desire for intense and dedicated practice. He said, “The main thing about it being a performance degree was that it gave me a lot of time at Berklee to practice there, too. I certainly learned a ton while I was there and in no way regret going.”
Though he had been interested in jazz before getting to Berklee, it was there that he found himself surrounded by this music, though at first, its effect on him was subtle. Jacob said, “When I was at Berklee, I didn’t play much jazz, but it’s really been in the last three years since I’ve been out that I’ve worked on it a lot more. I was certainly being influenced by it all at Berklee and I was exposed to a lot of jazz through my friends and by working with John McGann. But when I was at Berklee, I was working on mandolin technique a lot, which wasn’t even necessarily what John was instructing me in, but I was just obsessed with playing the mandolin and getting the right hand in shape. There were certain things I wanted to be able to do and I was just obsessed with being able to do those things, so I mostly just worked on sheer technique at Berklee. I just basically locked myself in the practice room for most of those years.”
This background of jazz has managed to show up in Jacob’s solos, which are free-ranging affairs that soar and flit around the melody. He doesn’t just restate the melody, he slyly references it and then takes unexpected directions that surprise and delight the listener. And even though it now sounds effortless, it required a lot of work on Jacob’s part to get it to that point. He also gives a lot of the credit to his teacher at Berklee, John McGann. Jacob said, “I’ve worked on jazz a lot and I’m always working on and trying to get better at it. I was really inspired by my teacher at Berklee, John McGann, who passed away a little over two years ago, and he was just a brilliant player and I think he had the best jazz vocabulary on the mandolin, like his knowledge of harmony and navigating changes. He was so amazing at that and he’s been a huge influence.”
It’s his emphasis on the right hand that distinguishes Jacob from other players. When he plays, his right hand moves in complicated rhythms that are sometimes too fast to see. For him, the right hand is the key to playing the mandolin. Jacob said, “ It’s about the single most important thing about mandolin technique. Obviously, it’s only one-half of the technique, but at the same time, it’s what’s creating the sound. A lot of tone is in the left hand, too, but you’re definitely not going to be pulling good tone without a good right hand.”
Though Jacob spent much of his time at Berklee practicing on his right hand, a great deal of the technique he uses now came out of his time playing with the band, Joy Kills Sorrow, which he joined while still at Berklee. Joy Kills Sorrow was an Americana string band with a standard bluegrass line-up of instruments and Jacob’s role in the band was being the percussion. It taught him a lot about accompanying other players. He said, “In terms of Joy Kills Sorrow, I was really the drum set in that band. So the first thing I would think about when we were arranging a tune is what the beat should be, like what my chop should sound like. And ‘chop’ not meaning like two and four in bluegrass, but what the mandolin drumbeat should be like. It just sort of evolved from that.”
Then he elaborates, “Being able to do it fast and even for a long time comes from doing it every night regardless of whether or not I was warmed up. I had to find a way of playing that was really relaxed, where I wasn’t getting tired, because we would play two or three songs back to back that are all 160 or 170 and I’m pretty much having to subdivide at least on rhythm the whole time and then also take a solo here and there. So my whole approach to the right hand has been finding ways to play that are sustainable for minutes on end, and that only comes out of being super relaxed.”
Being relaxed is the final key for Jacob and he can’t stress how important it is to him. He said, “A lot of what I was really working on at Berklee was trying to figure out how to relax more. I definitely still get tense sometimes, but I definitely had some breakthroughs in terms of relaxing while playing. I don’t want it feeling like I’m trying to force stuff out of the mandolin and fighting the instrument.”
Jacob has played a variety of mandolins since he started, from his dad’s Japanese-made Kentucky KM500S to his current Gibson Sam Bush model F5 that he won in 2007 at the RockyGrass mandolin contest. Until he got his Sam Bush, his favorite mandolin has been a blacktop Rigel G5. It still holds a special place in his heart. Jacob said, “Honestly, I wasn’t planning on switching to the Gibson. I was going to sell it to help me out with college, but for whatever reason, the way my tastes were changing, I started playing it instead of the Rigel. I was never really sure I was going to make the switch, but after a couple of months, I was so accustomed to that tone. But it was really a 180-degree turn, tone-wise. I really like the Rigel. I think it’s a great instrument. I still have it, but it’s really about as far from the Gibson Sam Bush as possible. The Rigel has this super direct sound and it’s super even and it does not sound like a Gibson at all. It does not sound like a traditional mandolin. It’s really responsive, but I feel like I can push the Gibson a little harder. And I was starting to dig in a lot more and the Sam Bush was working a lot better for that. I made the switch in 2008.”
Jacob has grown to love his Sam Bush F5 and its own strengths. He said, “It’s a cannon. The action’s pretty high and I’ve got those Ronnie McCoury J75’s, which are the heaviest set you can get, so it’s definitely set up to project. I don’t know of any mandolin that’s louder than it, other than one Nugget I’ve played that was insanely loud. It’s a loud mandolin, but a lot of that is the set-up, and I think tonally it’s pretty good, too. And it’s got thousands of hours on it, so that helps.”
It’s putting in the hours that is the key to success for Jacob. Sure, he has talent, loads of it, but he’s never been afraid of the work involved with being an accomplished musician. He loves the work and daily practice as much as anything else he does as a mandolinist. He doesn’t see playing the mandolin as a destination as much as it is a journey where he is always working to push himself to the next level, striving to get further along the path. It’s hard to say where he will end up, but it’s bound to be interesting, for as long as he chooses to stay there before moving along to the next adventure. And though he started out in bluegrass and still loves that music, he knows that he will be moving on to something else, something new.
Jacob said, “My favorite context for mandolin is probably still bluegrass, but finding effective ways of using it in pop music or jazz, that’s probably my main goal. Figuring out a way to make music on the mandolin that I really like to listen to. Finding my own voice on the instrument and not just sounding like a bad copy of some other player. That’s the most important thing.”
And somehow, when he says it, you know he’s going to do just that.
[The article was originally published in the Mandolin Magazine, Summer 2014 issue.]
Jacob Jolliff Discography:
Wide Awake – Joy Kills Sorrow (2013)
This Unknown Science – Joy Kills Sorrow (2011)
Darkness Sure Becomes This City – Joy Kills Sorrow (2010)
For the Beauty of the Earth – Mutual Kumquat (2011)
Let’s Get Fruity – Mutual Kumquat (2010)
Mutual Kumquat – Mutual Kumquat (2008)
Tone Poets – David Grisman, et al. (2005)
Technicolor Halo – Adam Sweeney (2007)
Places and Names – Adam Sweeney (2004)
Songs for Sophie – Matthew Arcana, et al. (2005)
In These Times – Jacob Henry and Bill Jolliff (2004)
Good Neighbors – Jacob Henry and Bill Jolliff (2003)