Just four short strings
Ukulele master Jake Shimabukuro is just getting started
Honolulu native Jake Shimabukuro has had a ukulele in his hands ever since he was 4 years old and capable of pressing the strings down on his own. As he mastered the instrument, he spent his 20s performing solo and with bands in Hawaii, making a name for himself in his home state as well as Japan.
Then, at the age of 30, thanks to a YouTube video of an extraordinary instrument-defying performance of The Beatles’ “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” that went viral (15 million-plus views), the rest of the world found out about him and he’s since gone on to become the most recognizable ukulele player alive.
And he’s still only 42 years old, putting out new albums (14 solo releases so far) and touring—currently in support of his most recent, The Greatest Day (2018).
“The types of venues we’re playing on this tour are all over the map,” Shimabukuro said in a phone interview. “Sometimes we’ll be playing dinner jazz clubs, sometimes they’ll be outdoor festivals, and then sometimes we’re playing in a symphonic hall.”
To accommodate the range of performance spaces, Shimabukuro is joined for many shows by bassist Nolan Verner and guitarist Dave Preston (for the Chico stop he will be solo, however), as well as an array of effects pedals, which Shimabukuro and Preston have traded back and forth.
“There are pedals that work really well for guitar players, but sometimes don’t work so good for the ukulele, because you’re dealing with acoustic nylon strings and a piezo pickup,” Shimabukuro said. “We’re always turning each other on to different things. The very first pedal I bought was in high school; it was a Boss and it … had delay settings on it. That led me down the rabbit hole, and now, about 1,000 pedals later, here I am.”
The Greatest Day came after Shimabukuro’s first all-original album, Nashville Sessions (2016), and he said it started out with a couple of off-the-cuff Nashville recordings that weren’t originally intended to turn into a full album. From that, however, came a 12-track double-vinyl release (six originals and six covers). The album includes an updated 12 1/2-minute version of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” (as a CD bonus track), as well as another Beatles tune, “Eleanor Rigby.” The band is obviously a big influence on Shimabukuro, but his path to the Fab Four wasn’t a straight one.
“I didn’t learn about The Beatles through The Beatles,” he said. “My dad had a couple of [jazz guitarist] Charlie Byrd’s albums and they were some of my favorite recordings. I’d listen to them all the time as a kid. And he covered a lot of Beatles songs, right? But I had no idea that they were Beatles tunes, so all the way up until I was a teenager, I thought songs like ‘Let It Be,’ ‘Here, There and Everywhere’ and ‘Yesterday’ were all Charlie Byrd originals. I remember just thinking like, ‘Charlie Byrd, man, he writes great melody lines!’ And I remember the first time I heard The Beatles’ version of ‘Yesterday,’ I was like, “Oh, someone wrote lyrics to this song.”
The Greatest Day’s covers are wide-ranging—from Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” to New Order’s “Bizarre Love Triangle”—and there are more on the way. Shimabukuro has already recorded tracks for an upcoming duets album. In the can are collaborations with Willie Nelson, Asleep at the Wheel frontman Ray Benson and Michael McDonald.
“Of course, all of Michael McDonald’s recordings sound great,” Shimabukuro said, “but to hear that voice with just my little ukulele behind it, it’s something else, man. I was just smiling ear to ear.
“I feel so fortunate for all the opportunities that I’ve had in the last 20 years,” he said. “It just kind of blows me away and so I’m very thankful. I just love playing—it’s my passion—and I just hope to keep going.”