Many a career in music these days has been launched using the internet. Live streaming of bedroom-gigs, YouTube channels, Soundcloud et al are now considered ‘standard’ platforms for self-promoting aspiring performers. But back in 2005 things were very different. In the mid-noughties, the word ‘viral’ was only used in medical circles. In 2005, Jake Shimabukuro was an established artist in Hawaii, North America, Australia and Japan. But a chance posting on a new website was about to change all that. Jake had recorded a stunning performance of his arrangement of ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’, set in New York’s Central Park.
“The video went up without my knowledge or permission,” explains Jake. “It was originally recorded for a TV show. It aired on TV and that was that.” But in 2006 someone took a clip of the TV show and put it up on a website popular only on college campuses: YouTube.
“I only found out about the video because a friend of mine saw it. He called me up and told me there was a video of me circulating our campus. I distinctly remember he used the word ‘circulating’ because there wasn’t even a term for it at the time. The expression ‘viral’ came later on. He sent me a link and it took me through to YouTube where the video had already had over three million views. The video didn’t even have my name on it, it was called, ‘Asian Guy Shreds on Ukulele’!
Today the extraordinary video, complete with a corrected title to include Jake’s name, has been views over 14 million times. “That four and a half minutes of video had a massive impact on me and my life. I was blown away by the response. It single-handedly started a touring career for me. So many people from other musical genres connected with the video; from Béla Fleck to Jimmy Buffet, from Bette Midler to Ziggy Marley. I started getting phone calls and emails from bands and artists wanting me to open shows for them. The first band I went on the road with was Béla Fleck and the Flecktones – and that all came from that YouTube video.”
Another video of one of Jake’s arrangements is set to go a similar way; that of him playing ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ in its entirety. “That was born out of my own curiosity,” reveals Jake. “I just wanted to see if I could do it and, if I could, what it would sound like on ukulele. I don’t ever want to do a song if I don’t feel the ukulele itself is adding something. I’ve found there’s always something, whether it’s a chord voicing or something where I feel like I’m utilising that high fourth string, the ukulele can always bring something to the arrangement.”
“When arranging ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, the first thing I tackled was the line, ‘Thunderbolts and lightning, very, very frightening’. When I’ve listened to other arrangements of that song and they get to that part, I always feel like it’s not complete, that there’s something missing. If you really analyse that part of the song, there’s so much going on. So I told myself, before I start work on any other part of the song, I need to get that section right, because if I can’t get that to sound how I want it to sound, then I’m not even going to start work on the rest of the song.”
The list of artists with whom Jake has collaborated or performed with is growing fast. Most recently, Jake recorded with one of his long-time heroes, Tommy Emmanuel. We ask Jake who’s at the top of his wish-list of artists to work with. “Well, I wouldn’t be able to keep up with him,” Jake responds with typical humility, “But to work with Pat Metheny would be amazing. Just to play next to him and learn from him, that would be tremendous. Calling my album Travels is a nod to Metheny’s live album of the same name. The first time I heard that record it completely changed my perception of jazz. I remember after hearing that album it literally made me cry. The first track, ‘Are You Going With Me?’, Metheny doesn’t come in for three or four minutes but when he does, it’s just this massive impact. It just knocked me out. The range of emotions he took me through via the album was just incredible.”
“Of course, George Harrison was one of my greatest heroes. He is one artist that I wish I could have played with. I always wanted to ask him if some of his songs
were inspired by the ukulele because the way his songs are arranged, the chord voicings, the melody lines, they work so perfectly on the ukulele.”
To conclude, we ask Jake to summarise why players of the acoustic guitar should consider migrating to ukulele. “The ukulele is a great instrument to get ideas from.” Jake answers enthusiastically. “If you’re a singer-songwriter it’s perfect because you can still have a good representation of harmony via chords, but it’s so compact and easy to travel with. For me, the environment in which I’m in helps me to create music. Sometimes you just want to head out to the country, up a trail and the ukulele is so easy to take with you – it fits in a backpack! It’s kinda like the iPad of instruments.” n
Travels is out now on Hitchhike Records.