The Sounds Inside Your Head
by Hermon Joyner
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.”
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.”
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.”
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 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.”
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.