It was Jake Shimabukuro who proved that the ukulele could be played in virtuoso fashion.
Before Jake came along, the ukulele was mostly associated with luaus and comedians.
Shimabukuro did for ukulele players what Eric Clapton did for guitarists or Ginger Baker did for drummers. He became the ukulele world’s first (to appropriate a rock guitar term) ukulele god.
Shimabukuro would be embarrassed by such talk because he is one of the nicest and humblest guys you are likely to meet in the music business.
Shimabukuro’s humility should not distract us from the fact that he has continued to put the ukulele in environments where we don’t expect to find it and make us glad to see the ukulele thus rehomed.
One such environment will be in Fort Wayne on Jan. 26 when Shimabukuro will perform at the Embassy Theatre with full Fort Wayne Philharmonic accompaniment.
It is interesting to consider that the man who proved that Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” could be played creditably on a solitary ukulele is now performing the song with symphonies across the country.
Going small and going big
Shimabukuro impresses us by going small and going big. In the early days, Shimabukuro said he got puzzled looks from people when he told them he was a ukulele player.
Nowadays, people are picking up ukuleles in droves. Droves of people picking up droves of ukuleles. Many of those nascent ukulele players are (no doubt) inspired by Shimabukuro’s unconventional playing.
Shimabukuro said the ukulele is easy to pick up because it is the least intimidating of instruments.
“One of the beautiful things about the ukulele is that you can learn a few chords in a matter of minutes and you’re immediately playing songs,” he said in a phone interview. “That immediate gratification excites people.”
The ukulele is a wonderful “gateway instrument,” Shimabukuro said. It eases people into a lifetime of playing music, rather than just listening to it.
Shimabukuro’s success was very much assisted by social media. Roughly a decade ago, his dazzling renditions of cover tunes began to go viral on various video-sharing services.
Because he became widely known as an interpreter of others’ material, Shimabukuro said he was (and still is) trepidatious about writing original songs.
“It was quite scary,” he said. “I’m still not comfortable. I’m still not confident about composition. It’s scary to write a new piece and put it out there.”
Shimabukuro released his first album consisting entirely of original songs, Nashville Sessions, in 2006. His latest album, The Greatest Day, features six originals and six cover tunes.
Porting the hits to the uke
Taking a meticulously and elaborately produced rock or pop hit and finding a ukulele equivalent for it that won’t make people sneer is no easy task. It’s a fun task, Shimabukuro said, but not an easy one.
“I like to sit with the tune for a little while,” he said. “The first thing I usually try to do is I try to hum the tune. That’s what I did with ‘Bohemian Rhapsody.’ There’s so much going on in that song. I was like, ‘Gosh, where do I even start?’
“If I can just hum the song from beginning to end,” Shimabukuro said, “that will at least give me a single-line melody as a guide. It’s not always in the vocals. I think of it this way. You know how you watch those track runners and they pass the baton? In the song, the piano hands the baton to Freddie Mercury’s vocals. Then the baton is passed to the guitar solo. If I can hum one continuous line from beginning to end, that usually give me a good starting point and skeleton to build around.”
Sometimes Shimabukuro has to pass these batons from himself to himself, in a way. The songs on The Greatest Day were composed with a full band and beefy studio production in mind. So he had to turn around and figure out how to play his own tunes in more modest settings.
“I don’t often get a chance to tour with a full band, so it is sometimes a challenge to try to recreate what we recorded in the studio,” he said. “I try not to get too fixated on that. I just try to play the song in a way that I hope people enjoy. I just try to bring the right energy and feeling to the song.
“I hope they don’t ever say, ‘I liked the record better. It didn’t sound anything like the record,’” Shimabukuro said, laughing.
On the road
He has been touring as part of a trio of late and he said he wants the next record to capture the trio in such a way that the recorded and live versions of songs are not so far apart.
Shimabukuro’s work keeps him on the road a lot and away from his Hawaii-based family: a wife and two young children.
He said he gets to spend more time with his family than some touring musicians, but he also wants to set an example for his children.
“I want my kids to see me doing something I am passionate about,” he said. “I hope that they can find something that they love. Even if it takes them outside of Hawaii. I want them to find something that fulfills them.”