From the first strum of his mother’s ukulele at the age of four, to the life-changing explosion of a YouTube video, Jake Shimabukuro’s love of and affinity with the ukulele is unquestionable. Having finished his first UK tour in support of the new album Travels, Acoustic speaks to arguably the world’s finest ukulele player about ‘Stairway’, that YouTube video, and why the ukulele is “the iPad of musical instruments”
Words: Steve Harvey
Hot on the heels of a four-date UK tour, Jake Shimabukuro is back in his native Hawaii. When we ask him about his time in the UK he responds with typical humility, “I didn’t know what to expect, it was my first tour of the UK and I didn’t know if anyone was going to show up!” But show up they did, and they were treated to performances from a musician at the top of his game.
Such is his technical ability, feel and arrangement skills, Shimabukuro is fast becoming the world’s leading exponent of the ukulele – an instrument growing in popularity on our own shores.
“I had such a great time, especially because it was my first time in Liverpool. I’m such a fan of the Beatles, I went on the Beatles tour and I got to touch the front door of the house George Harrison grew up in! I got to go to the Cavern and was asked to play ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ while I was there.”
Jake’s tour was in part to promote his new album, Travels, which gently wanders from lilting, self-penned compositions to modern interpretations of beloved Hawaiian standards. His first album in four years, Travels, is nothing if not varied.
“The album showcases the different influences I’ve had over the years,” he tells us. “I feel like it’s my most diverse record. It covers very traditional music through to more progressive and modern sounding pieces – especially for the ukulele.”
He adds: “In part the concept was to create a way for me to be able to pay homage to a lot of my musical heroes growing up. There are a few tracks on the album chosen specifically to help me do that. One of those is the track ‘Kawika’. For me, it’s one of the most important tracks on the album. Growing up in Hawaii, ‘Kawika’ was to the ukulele what ‘Stairway To Heaven’ is to guitar. If you grew up in Hawaii and were serious about being a ukulele player, you had to learn the opening riff and solo to ‘Kawika’. I’d always wanted to record ‘Kawika’ but, like ‘Stairway’, it’s one of those sacred songs – you don’t just go and record it unless you have something fresh to bring to the table. I feel, like no other, that song captures my own personal evolution as a player – coming from the very traditional but evolving into the more modern player I am now. For the last third of the song, I bring in bass, drums and keyboards – there’s none of that on the original. I think that’s my rock influences kicking in there! It was a lot of fun recording that particular song.”
When recalling the recording of the 17-track album, Jake explains it’s not a drawn-out process. “To be honest, this album didn’t take too long to record,” he says. “In fact, it was probably one of the quickest I’ve ever recorded. I was in the recording studio for about two weeks getting everything laid down. We then spent about another week mixing and mastering. Obviously, that doesn’t include the time spent writing and arranging. I generally do that a little bit at a time here and there.
“It feels like I learn a lot from every album. I don’t know if I’m a better player, but during the process of recording this album I learned how to use a few more ‘tools’. I feel that I have a better sense of balance, knowing where to leave space.”