In the past decade Jake Shimabukuro has changed the perception of the ukulele. Originally linked with the entertainment found at a Hawaiian luau, his mastery of the four-stringed instrument has displayed infinite possibilities.
“It’s funny when people tell me things like, ‘I didn’t know the ukulele could do that or sound like that,’ I totally understand because I was in the same boat,” said Shimabukuro during a recent interview. “When I was a kid, I never thought I would be doing the things that I am doing today.
“I remember feeling the same way when I would hit a wrong chord voicing or play a lick and be like, ‘That reminds me of a banjo’ or trying to figure out new ways to strum the instrument and then think, ‘That reminds me of a flamenco guitar strum.’ I have those epiphanies all the time.”
Hearing Shimabukuro, particularly in concert, reinforces every description of him as a ukulele virtuoso. Alone onstage, he effortlessly shifts from rock, pop, classical, jazz and bluegrass.
At last November’s EJ Thomas Hall performance, he mixed originals with covers of Adele (“Rolling in the Deep”), Sting (“Fields of Gold”) and Queen (“Bohemian Rhapsody”).
Discussing his version of the iconic Queen number he said, “Whenever I cover a piece I don’t like just learning the melody and the chords. I want there to be something unique to the arrangement that is very ukulele specific, whether it’s a chord voicing that I’ve never done before or a new technique that I’ve never used.”
It was his interpretation of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” that became an internet sensation. Already a star in his homeland and Japan, the 2006 viral video spread awareness of his talent around the world. Since then, Shimabukuro has not only toured globally but he’s appeared at major music festivals such as Bonnaroo and collaborated with Jimmy Buffett, Yo-Yo Ma, Earl Klugh, Bela Fleck, Ziggy Marley and Cyndi Lauper.
His 10th solo album, “Grand Ukulele,” mimics his concert persona wherein he effortlessly moves stylistically from one musical genre to another.
Always looking to explore new directions, he found an ideal collaborator for the album in producer Alan Parsons (the Beatles, Pink Floyd, Alan Parsons Project) whose best advice was when to pair him with other players (“Ukulele Five-O”) or an orchestra (“Missing Three” and “Gentle Mandolin,”) and when to leave him on his own (“Gentle Mandolin,” “1 4 3” and “More Ukulele”).
Shimabukuro has been on a long journey of personal and artistic discovery to arrive where he is at today. Chronicled in the documentary, “Life On Four Strings,” he learned ukulele basics from his mother. As a teen, he tried approaches that went beyond traditional playing. Music theory classes followed, and an interest in rock ‘n’ roll influenced him as well.
“I discovered the electric ukulele sound and experimented with amplifiers and distortion pedals and things like that. Then, coming full circle, I got rid of all the effects and back to learning my instrument again, appreciating the natural sound of the ukulele and learning to use my hands and my fingers to manipulate the timbre and the tonal qualities of the instrument.”
“A lot of the things that I do that are unique I stumbled on by accident or trying to mimic something but didn’t really know how. It’s almost like being a baby and just sounding out things in the beginning and then all of a sudden you can say your first words.”
In Shimabukuro’s hands, the ukulele speaks with the drama, humor and depth of classic Shakespeare. It’s the result of his patience, tenacity and dedication to refine his technique on the formerly maligned instrument.