The Ukulele has gone from zero to stringed- instrument hero in the past few years, and leading that revival is Hawaii's Jake Shimabukuro, who plays the uke in a style that's above from tradition as can be.
LA.COM: What inspired you to take the ukulele beyond its traditional role in Hawaiian music?
Jake Shimabukuro: I started out playing traditional Hawaiian music, but I guess when I was an early teenager I started listening to a different styles of music. You know, you turn the radio on and you hear all this cool stuff. All my friends were listening to all these pop tunes and I had friends that were listening to rock and roll so I got turned on to that music and I just thought it was the coolest thing. I just wanted to learn how to play all these other songs you know. I remember the first songs I learned how to play on the uke by Extreme, called "More Than words." And that song, everyone was playing it on the guitar (because its originally played on the guitar) and I can't play the guitar. I remember one day sitting with my ukulele and I started playing along and figured out that I could actually play this song on the ukulele. I went back to school the next day and played it for my friends on the uke and they all kind of freaked out. They were like ,'Wait that's a guitar song, not a ukulele song'. That's when I got the idea of playing things that you normally would not hear on the uke. So that when the ukulele got my attention. That when I started arranging, you know, pop tunes, and rock tunes and jazz standards and even classical pieces. Things that you wouldn't necessarily hear in a ukulele. I was working really hard are trying to make those things work.
LA.COM: You say you don't play the guitar? One would think that they are similar but not?
Jake Shimabukuro: The guitar is a lot harder to play for me, in my opinion, where you have six strings (on the guitar) and the ukulele has four strings, and then you have these B-strings, the bass notes. The fourth, fifth and sixth on the guitar really function as base tones. On the ukulele you don't have any bass tones at all. The string would function very differently on a ukulele than it would on a guitar.
LA.COM: Who are the musicians who most influenced you and set your musical path?
Jake Shimabukuro: There are so many, Bela Fleck was a huge influence on me. He's a really incredible banjoist player. Of course Jimi Hendrix, Yo-Yo Ma (on cello).
LA.COM: You tune the ukulele in the traditional way, not like a guitar, right? How do you think that tuning contributes to the music you make with the instrument?
Jake Shimabukuro: You know I use the traditional tuning, and it's with what we call a re-entrant tuning. The way the ukulele is tuned, your two highest-pitched strings are on the outside, so they are the first and the fourth strings. And then you have your two low strings in the middle. So it's very different from other stringed instruments because normally the first string is closest to the ground when you are holding the instrument. It's always your highest string, and when you work your way up, the strings get lower and lower. With the ukulele, you start high, and your second string gets a little lower, and your first string get lower, and then your fourth string jumps up again to a high G. So I think that tuning creates a very unique sound. And you are able to play chord that are very specific to the ukulele. That's why I love the traditional tuning, because it's what makes it sound different from other instruments.
LA.COM:You're known for covers like "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," your YouTube video with millions of views. Now that you are playing and recording more original compositions, are you moving in that direction, or will you always give a lot of time to your interpretations of popular songs?
Jake Shimabukuro: To me, covering the song of another artist is like wearing you favorite basketball player's jersey/shirt. It's a celebration of your love and admiration for a great artist, or a songwriter, or a singer. So I think that covering a song from my favorite artist will always be something that I pursue. I love all styles of music. There are a lot of great tunes out there that I wish I could play. Unfortunately there is just not enough time to learn all the songs that I want. I always make time to work on new arrangements. If I hear a new song that really catches my ear, I will always put in the time to learn it, or come up with an arrangement, or come up with my own interpretation. On the side, I love writing my own music, composing, being creative.
LA.COM: One of the tunes you play in concert in Chick Corea's "Spain." Do you see yourself playing more jazz in the future? Do you get a lot of offers to be a sideman on other's recordings?
Jake Shimabukuro: Recently I started performing in a lot of jazz festivals, and that has been a lot of fun. I didn't grow up with jazz but I love the music, the energy and the freedom and the spirit of jazz.
LA.COM: As a solo performer, I don't see you as a ukulele player, but as a musician whose medium just happens to be a ukulele. Do you feel limited, or freed by the instrument? Would you sound the same playing a guitar, banjo or even a piano?
Jake Shimabukuro: I think every instrument has its limitations. The ukulele has a very limited range. You have four strings and two octaves to work with. There aren't a lot of notes to work with. For example, the trumpet is only capable of playing one note at a time. To me that's going to be a limitation. You could never play a chord on a trumpet. If you wanted to play three-part harmony or four-part harmony, you need three or four other trumpet players. With the ukulele you have four strings, so you can play three-part harmony or four-part harmony if you wanted to. Sometimes it's not just musically, it's the physical limitations of an instrument. For example, the piano -- its so large, it's not a mobile instrument. You couldn't take the piano to the park and go and practice under the tree. With the ukulele it's very easy to do that. With the ukulele you can hiking up the mountain and sit up there and play for three or four hours, its very mobile. And with music, when your composing your music, it's all about inspiration, finding it, putting yourself in the right climate where you can write and where you can come up with things and new ideas. And a lot of times if you play a large instrument you have to practice, compose, write in the same place every single time. And that to me is another form of limitation.
LA.COM: And you have a lot of inspiration living in Hawaii.
Jake Shimabukuro: Oh definitely,yes.
LA.COM: There's been a ukulele explosion over the past few years -- how do you feel about the instrument's new found popularity -- and would you ever sing in public?
Jake Shimabukuro: (Laughs) First of all I'm a terrible singer. I would never sing in public. I think I would lose a lot of supporters if I did that. But going back to your first question, I think it's an exciting time for the instrument right now. I'm simply just a big fan of the ukulele. Seeing the instrument grow in popularity is exciting. The ukulele has always been the underdog of instruments, and now to see it really taking off the way it has been , I think it's great. I'm thrilled that people are discovering what an amazing instrument the ukulele is.
LA.COM: These days a musician can find fame on YouTube but not necessarily sell a lot of records. They make the money touring. How has the road been treating you?
Jake Shimabukuro: I'm starting my tour next month. I'm excited. We had a great run with the newest album. The tour is called the Grand ukulele tour. It started in the Fall and now we are picking it back up in the spring. I'm excited about the new record, especially because I got to work with one of my heroes Alan Parsons. He is such a genius I was honored to work with him. We have a huge tour that is going to Australia, Canada, Japan, It's going to be a lot of fun.
LA.COM: You have a played with a number of musicians including Ziggy Marley and Bette Midler who would you like to collaborate with?.
Jake Shimabukuro: There are so many musicians that I would love to collaborate with, I would love to do something with Eddie Vedder. He just came out with a ukulele record. It would be a dream of mine to do something with Paul McCartney.MORE INFO: