Hawaii’s Jake Shimabukuro elevates the humble four-stringed instrument to jaw-dropping levels
Ukulele maestro Jake Shimabukuro is too nice to be famous, too demure to have a PBS documentary devoted to his life, too quick to deflect credit, and too willing to downplay his skills, which are nothing short of jaw-dropping. Perhaps that humility stems from the fact that Shimabukuro was 30 years old before anyone outside of his native Hawaii noticed him and his talent.
All it took was one 2006 YouTube video of Shimabukuro doing a stunning ukulele rendition of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” to turn his world upside-down. Since then, the video has been viewed 11 million times, Shimabukuro has performed with Bette Midler before the Queen of England, and he’s now universally regarded as the world’s best ukulele player, with comparisons to revolutionary talents like Jimi Hendrix and Miles Davis.
Folio Weekly: Your last album, 2012’s “Grand Ukulele,” was recorded with Alan Parsons, who produced The Beatles’ “Abbey Road” and Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon.” What was that experience like?
Jake Shimabukuro: So inspiring. Alan’s been my hero since I was a kid, and I never dreamed that I’d ever have the opportunity to work with someone like him. I went into the studio with the mindset that I was going to be a sponge and learn everything I could. I loved the arrangements that he came up with, and listening back to the record, everything he suggested — some songs solo, some with an orchestra, some with just bass and drums — was right on. And the coolest thing is that everything was recorded live, even when we played with the full orchestra. There are absolutely no overdubs on that record.
F.W.: What inspired you to first pick up the ukulele?
J.S.: My first teacher was my mom; when I was 4 years old, she started teaching me basic chords. As I got older, she sent me to ukulele lessons, but I definitely wasn’t a natural. I played all the time, but I remember being intimidated by other kids who could play so much better. I had fun with the ukulele, though, and always loved it, and in high school, something happened. I started looking at the instrument and feeling the music in a different way.
F.W.: Did that coincide with you embracing the rock ‘n’ roll, jazz, and classical covers you’ve become famous for?
J.S.: It did. When I was a teenager, I got into all those different genres, and that’s when I figured out that I wanted to play that stuff on the ukulele. It helped me come out of my shell and really push the boundaries of the instrument.
F.W.: You didn’t get your first big break until you were 30. Before that, did you ever dream of the success you’ve achieved today?
J.S.: Never. When I started, I was always the sideman to a singer. So after my first two bands disbanded, I didn’t think I’d have a future as a solo player — especially because I’m a terrible singer. But seven years ago, when the video clip of me performing George Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” went viral, my life completely changed. I started getting calls from people all over the world asking me to open for them, tour with them, record with them, or play at their festival. I couldn’t believe all the opportunities that came around because of this one video clip. I’ve performed with Yo-Yo Ma, Jimmy Buffett, Bette Midler, Cyndi Lauper, Ziggy Marley, Béla Fleck … these people are all my heroes.
F.W.: How important is it for you to balance reinterpretations of classic songs, original tunes and even Hawaiian traditionals?
J.S.: I love music, and I’m a big fan of the ukulele. So whenever I record an album, I like to show the instrument’s different sides. I want people to know that the ukulele is capable of exploration — of creating various sounds and tone colors. That’s what really drives me to play and to perform. Sometimes, I’ll start an arrangement of a song, and even I am not sure if I can pull it off. Like Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” — there were so many times that I just wanted to throw in the white towel on that one. It’s one thing to play the chords and the melody, but when I cover a song, I want to capture the spirit and essence of the tune. I want to bring energy, emotion and feeling to the arrangement. I want people to forget it’s being played on a ukulele and instead just think of it as music.