Jake Shimabukuro still plays ukulele until his fingers hurt
Jake Shimabukuro’s fingers fly up and down his ukulele’s tiny, two-octave fretboard as nimbly as any rock guitarist with an ax. He’s more of a modest virtuoso—not one to lean on flashy over-embellishment of melodic phrases, but one who plays true to the song.
Indeed, much of Shimabukuro’s success over the years has been tied to his spot-on renditions of famous rock and pop songs. He shot to fame more than a decade ago thanks to his cover of the Beatles’ “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” one the first-ever viral videos on YouTube. Today, it has more than 15 million hits.
Some selections have been tricky to transpose to ukulele. For example, he struggled to arrange Queen’s rock-opera classic “Bohemian Rhapsody” for his 2011 album, Peace Love Ukulele.
“Finding the right key where all of the key changes and different parts would work dynamically, and getting the right timbre and tone color for each section—that was a real challenge,” he says. “But it was just so much fun; I love when I’m working on a piece, and I have no idea how I’m going to approach it. Through trial and error and sheer stubbornness, you just kind of get through it one note at a time, and the feeling at the end is just so good.”
The Hawaii-based Shimabukuro is at the outset of an extensive national tour—including a date at the Crest Theatre on February 23—to promote his forthcoming album, The Greatest Day. At this point in his career, he’s familiar with the grind of touring. On average, he plays between 110 and 130 shows a year. This inevitably results in some wear-and-tear on his hands.
“When we have a lot of back-to-back shows, sometimes my fingertips get a little raw,” he says. “You really want to dig in and give it your all. So there are times when the fingers get tender, but when you start playing the adrenaline kicks in, and you feel no pain.”
Shimabukuro’s previous album, Nashville Sessions, was his first collection of all-original songs. His latest release is roughly half originals and half covers: The track list includes Jimi Hendrix’s “If 6 Was 9,” “Eleanor Rigby” by the Beatles, the Zombies’ “Time of the Season” and an island-reggae version of “Shape of You” by Ed Sheeran.
Aside from that, he says the biggest difference between the two records was a more focused approach in the studio.
“On Nashville Sessions, we went in the studio and just kind of jammed,” he said. “On this one, we tried to take that same free feeling, but tried to arrange the tunes more, be a little more concise, and be a little bit more open to having other types of instruments … everything from marimbas to auto harps, horns and strings and all kinds of stuff.”
Of course, Shimabukuro’s first love is the ukulele. He likes to tell kids who come to his shows to “find a passion and pour your heart into it”—because that’s what he did.
“I picked up the ukulele when I was 4 years old,” he says. “I just fell in love with it and I never had any desire to do anything else. It’s been a really scary obsession with the instrument to this day.”