Thanks to a 2005 YouTube video and, of course, heaps of talent and innovation, Jake Shimabukuro is one of the most widely heard ukulele players on the planet. Naturally, being one of the finest exponents of the instruments means that he’s also one of the most in-demand live performers having played and collaborated with the likes of Bette Midler, Tommy Emmanuel, and Alan Parsons.
It can’t have escaped your notice that the ukulele is in the process of taking over the world. For many people, the first time the uke entered their consciousness was in 2006 when, in one of YouTube’s first viral videos, Jake Shimabukuro changed everyone’s perception of the ukulele in an incandescent yet ironic take on ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’. Today, despite being in the company of such luminaries as Eddie Vedder, Jake remains the brightest star of the ukulele pantheon.
Some people say that you are responsible for the recent “ukulele boom”, others say the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain. Who would win in a fight?
Oh, the orchestra of course! I’m outnumbered 12-to-1. I’m a big fan of their stuff, I love their interpretations, their presentation, and their whole approach to the instrument. They’re able to bring so much colour, and utilise the instrument in very creative ways. When I first saw their arrangement of ‘You Don’t Bring me Flowers’, that was so amazing. They approach their performances not just from a listening standpoint, but from a really visual standpoint – they put on a great show.
You’re in demand a great deal and have collaborated with many greats, including Tommy Emmanuel. Who would you most like to collaborate with next?
Probably my dream collaboration would be with Eric Clapton, to play ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’. I always thought it would be so cool to do that and have the solo at the end. People like Yoyo Ma, Edgar Meyer, Pat Metheny, would be incredible, I just love listening to their music, I love listening to them play, and on every level they inspire me to work on my craft and to improve my playing. Every time I pick up Pat Metheny’s album Travels, I have a very emotional attachment to it because it’s the first CD that ever made me cry. I’ve been able to collaborate with some great singers like Cindy Lauper and Bette Midler; whenever you can add human vocals, people can immediately connect. When it’s all instrumental, it takes more time and maybe more effort to connect; even for me, most of my favourite albums are vocal albums.
Do you feel pressure to maintain your technical wizardry and virtuosity, and does that ever impede you from exploring new directions that are less technical?
Well, I guess it’s only recently that I felt pressured, because I didn’t know people were listening, but now I get a lot of comments from people saying: “You should try this” or “I love it when you do that”, or “I didn’t like the direction you took with this album”, and I always listen constructively, and I always want to improve my craft, and learn new stuff, and sometimes it’s frustrating, because it’s always hard to come up with new ideas. Honestly, though, I don’t know if anything I do is truly a new idea, because someone or something influences it all, it’s all coming from somewhere. As a musician, or any kind of artist, you have to expose yourself to as many things as you can, and then you interpret that in your own way.
Are you a one instrument man? What other instruments have you tried?
I took a few piano lessons when I was younger, and also some guitar lessons and I played drums in the marching band, too, but the ukulele seemed so much easier. I have friends who used to be guitar players, and who just took up the ukulele, and now they’ll get home from work, tired, and they’ll pick up the ukulele, because it’s just so accessible. I feel like there’s just so much more that you can do with the instrument, I just love sitting with the ukulele, and just finding more ways to express different ideas and emotions on the instrument.
How do you feel about the “ukulele bandwagon”? It’s started to seem like lots of artists are trying to throw in a uke number just to hitch their name to it.
Honestly, I think it’s fantastic. For me, I’m just a big fan of the ukulele, so the more I hear it in mainstream music and pop music, it’s just better for the instrument. There are a lot of people out there who still, when they hear of the ukulele, think of ‘Tiptoe Through the Tulips’ and, of course, that’s a big part of what the ukulele is, but when you hear Trane, or Eddie Vedder playing, it kinda blows them away, because it’s a side of the instrument they’ve never seen or experienced before, which makes it so much more accessible. John King, for instance, was an amazing classical guitar player, and he figured out ways to make those techniques work, and to really make the re-entrant high G string work. His tone and technique is so amazing, and I think it’s important sometimes to step away from your first instrument, and get in front of other instruments to explore new places.
When you want to explore musically, not try a different style, but really explore new spaces, how do you do it?
I try to use different techniques for that; sometimes it’s as simple as picking up an instrument that you’ve never played before. For example, there’s a song that I wrote once called ‘$5 Unleaded’, which I recorded on a previous album, but I wrote that song on the bass guitar. I couldn’t play it on the bass guitar, but I was playing around, and I found some notes, and then I ended up coming up with something, and then working it out on ukulele. There’s a song called ‘Missing Three’, and the way I came up with that song was by accident. I was changing my strings, and hadn’t fitted the third string, so I experimented like that with three strings, and wrote a song. There’s another piece called ‘Pianoforte’, which I wrote sitting at the piano, wrote the arpeggio part on the piano, and then figured out how to play it on the uke. The way the keyboard is laid out is so different, so that some things that are easy to play on the piano are really hard to play on the uke, so doing that gets you away from the muscle memory, and from you doing the things you’re used to.
What instruments and tunings do you use?
I use standard re-entrant tuning, because I was born and raised in Hawaii, and that’s what everybody plays here. I know that people who like to play more melody like low G, because that increases the range of the instrument, but I’ve always stuck with the high G, because that’s the sound I always grew up with, listening to Eddie Kamae and the Sons of Hawaii. I play a Kamaka tenor ukulele; my first ukulele was a Kamaka, and here in Hawaii, it’s considered the Excalibur of instruments. I started out with a soprano Kamaka, and I really wanted a tenor, and as a teenager I just saved and saved and saved to get the tenor.
What’s your advice to those about to brave the vast, confusing and ever increasing ukulele market?
I think when buying your own uke, you need to start out with figuring out your price range. Then you at least cut it down to the instruments you can afford to play. Kamakas are amongst the most expensive, a custom Kamaka could cost you $3,000 and up, but if you can afford it, I definitely encourage people to do it, because it will really encourage their playing. Their instruments are so sensitive, it’s like a really good grand piano; when you’re sitting in front of a good piano, you can hear the difference between playing the same note with different fingers. My Kamaka is like that, I can hear the change if I play the same note with a different finger, or with the side or back of my fingers. Otherwise, it’s all about trying a lot of different instruments in that price range, and finding the one that really appeals and speaks to you, because you want to find an instrument that you come home to and really want to play.