Jake Shimabukuro

You've never heard a ukulele player like Jake Shimabukuro. Or maybe you have. At last count, the view total for Jake's YouTube performance of "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" was more than 2.1 million -- roughly the same number of notes and moods he flawlessly conjures from just four strings. No wonder the humble, 31-year-old Honolulu native is no longer just a tour and studio favorite of legends like Ziggy Marley, Bela Fleck and {{{Jimmy}}} Buffet, but the undisputed master of Hawaii's most classic instrument. In fact, just last week, Conan O'Brien hosted Jake, calling the performance one of his all-time favorites in the history of the show. See it here. Better yet, see him for yourself. Check Jake's site for spring tour dates, including a full Australia run in March, followed by US stops including Louisiana, Florida, Chicago and California.

SURFING: You've been called the "Hendrix of the ukulele." Are you a guitar player trapped in a uke-player's body?
Jake: Well, I grew up listening to a lot of guitar players, but for some reason I never had the urge to play the guitar. I wanted to play the uke and get different sounds out of the uke. And play things that people never really played on the instrument before. I went through my phase of running the ukulele through all kinds of effects like distortion and wah-wah pedals, playing it through a Marshall stack and all that. And after that you kind of come back to the instrument; you want to hear the pure sound of what you're playing. I've always loved the sound of the uke. Now it's pretty much just me going off the pure ukulele sound. No effects or anything.

When you were in the effects stage, was there anyone else doing that? Or were you sort of on your own?
Well, it's really strange because I didn't know of anyone else doing it, but you would think that somebody would have. To me it seems like a natural thing. And I'm sure some people have done it as a novelty. But for me I really went through the whole process of experimenting with tons and tons of different effects to figure out what kind of effects work best: what pick-up, what amp, what compression to use, what delay works good, what tubes to use to make the tone warmer to get a little big more sustain and a little bit more bottom end in there. So I went the extreme route where I spent thousands and thousands of dollars. Every paycheck was basically going to something new. But that was great because I learned a lot about the whole process. Because when you're playing with effects and amplifiers and any kind of electronics that's a whole new instrument and learning process in itself. On my second album, Cross Currents, there's a whole bunch of distorted stuff and it's funny because a lot of people would ask, "Hey, I notice there's guitar on this album -- who did you use?" And, I'd say, "No, it's me." And they'd say, "I didn't know you played guitar!" And I'd be like, "No that's all uke." And they'd be like, "What?!"

Do you still have fans s how up wanting to hear that stuff?
Well, so far, everyone's been pretty supportive, pretty open to whatever I want to do on stage. I remember when I first started touring, toward the end of the set, someone would always yell some sort of request like, "Play Freebird! Play Stairway to Heaven!" Now everyone's pretty cool. They just let me play whatever. Or they shout out requests for tunes that I wrote. Which is kind of a nice feeling.

Even with the stripped down approach, it's really diverse. You hint at everything from flamenco to bluegrass. How unique are you compared to other uke players?
I think especially now, there's so many different people picking it up and trying new things. And even ukulele makers now are being more innovative -- you'll see solid body ukes, steels-string ukes, it's definitely changing. Or you see more and more people picking it up. Like Paul McCartney on his last tour playing one song as a tribute to George Harrison. He was just basically strumming and singing, but, still, when someone like that picks it up, it inspires millions of people to pick it up. And they go "Wow, this a cool instrument."

How motivated are you to change that image of the ukulele as this, light, strummy, easy-to-play instrument?
I think for people who aren't familiar with the instrument, I want to show how fun it is and how much fun you can have with it. Because that's what I've always appreciated about the uke. The instrument was always like my best friend. And music is like that. You get in a groove, or you play with a bunch of people, or you have a performance where you execute something that just feels REALLY good. And I'm not a very good surfer, but it's kind of like that feeling where you catch that nice wave and everything goes really well. You get up at the right time, you catch it in the right place, and at that moment - you don't think about anything else. And music is like that. When I'm performing and I'm in the middle of a song and I'm just getting into it and improvising, and you don't know where you're going it's one of the coolest feelings. I love that. And that's why I do it. And I want other people to get turned onto it. Because it really has changed my life. If I'm going through any difficult times, I need to pick up my uke for five or six hours and just play. The same way someone needs to drop everything and go out into the ocean. So I really encourage that--and it doesn't have to be the ukulele, but when I perform and when I travel I want people to see how passionate I am and how much I truly enjoy what I do. And hopefully that inspires them to find that one thing. Or to spend more time doing the things they enjoy.

You record a lot, you've done soundtracks, you tour, what do you enjoy more?
The live performance is my favorite because you're there with real people. And you're crating something for the moment. And after it's done you can always think back and reflect on how you felt when you're actually there in the moment. That's the best feeling.

You record a lot, you've done soundtracks, you tour, what do you enjoy more?
The live performance is my favorite because you're there with real people. And you're crating something for the moment. And after it's done you can always think back and reflect on how you felt when you're actually there in the moment. That's the best feeling.

It also lets you collaborated with a lot of big players. Is that something you can't get back on the island?
Oh definitely. Musicians like that don't stay in one place. They're constantly traveling and touring, so for someone like me to get those opportunities, I have to make sure I stay mobile too. I love Hawaii, but as much as I want to stay here all the time, I have to sacrifice and go out so I can learn. I can't expect guys like Victor Wooten and Mike Marshall or Bela Fleck to come to me.

Those are some heavy hitters. Do you think you've left any people scratching their heads? Like, "whoa - that's a ukulele player?"
It's funny, because, actually, I've found that when playing ukulele you experience moments like that because, first of all, whenever someone goes to a ukulele concert, they're expectations are already very low [laughs]. So anything you basically do that's out of the norm or anything that's just a little bit above their already low expectations, they're gonna walk away smiling, right? So to me, that's one of the greatest things about playing the uke. It's such a humble instrument and people don't expect much from it. So anything that you do that's different, they're gonna at least get a kick out of it. like, Whoa that was cool. Whereas if you play guitar or piano or violin, the expectations for those instruments is already at such astronomical levels. With ukulele, most people still just think of it as this simple, I'll just strum these there chords and sing these tunes. But you can really take it beyond that.

The one big uke tune people think of is Iz's remake of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" from a few years back.
Oh yeah. And I think that shows another side of the ukulele. Because he took that song and completely simplified it in a way nobody else would think of. The harmonic structure and chord progression was completely changed, but it was still so tasteful, and so pure and so beautiful. And it makes you realize that sometimes the most powerful form of music is it's most skeletal or fundamental form. Like, sometimes you think that, okay if I play a song, I need a rhythm section, I need drums and bass, I need these voicings, I need this bottom end, I need background vocals. And you start adding and stacking -- and sure, it sounds huge, it sounds full. But then you hear that version of "Over the Rainbow," and it's just stripped of everything: it's just one ukulele and his voice. And it's like, "There's absolutely nothing missing from this." And it just takes you back; you see that music doesn't have to be everything that we think it should be. Music is really everything and anything as long as it's done from the heart and done tastefully.

Was he an influence?
Well, I never got to play with him because by the time I started performing he was very ill. And he passed away a while back. But I got to meet him once when I was in high school he was just the nicest man. So much aloha. And I think that reflected in his music.

So are there any other uke stars out here? Anyone battling you for the title of uke champion of the world?
[laughs] I don't know. I'm sure there's so many guys out there. That's another thing, when you travel, you run into these amazing musicians who just like to play in little coffee shops. They don't make any recordings or go out and tour, but they're just phenomenal. So I'm sure there's some closet ukulele players out there who are burning just crazy Yngwie Malmsteen licks or something [laughs]. And that's' the thing with music - or anything - you always know there's people out there who are {{{100}}} times better. That's why you keep practicing and keep learning and keep moving forward.

For many, you were that closet guy before the YouTube. How big of an impact did that clip make?
Oh, that thing has been just miracle video for me. [laughs] that video has really changed my life. And it's incredible. I have to pinch myself every now and then. I can't believe how many people have looked at it. It's insane. And there are like crazy videos now. I don't even know where some of them are from. And they look like maybe camera phones or something because they're kind of grainy. But it's really cool that someone would actually take the time to post them to share with people. I'm so appreciative. Like that one of me playing "While My Guitar Gently Weeps in Central Park." But when I look at it I freak out. And I don't know who originally posted that, but whoever did I just want to thank them over and over and maybe, I don't know, treat them to nice Hawaiian luau or something [laughs].