by Danny Carnahan
The buzz caught Jake Shimabukuro completely by surprise. It had been just another videotaped interview in Central Park and then he was off to his next tour stop. But one year and one viral video later, two million people were enthusing about his ukulele rendition of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”. The internet buzz accellerated what nearly a decade of steady touring in America and Japan had begun for this 31-year-old Honolulu native. Suddenly, Jake Shimabukuro was the best thing to happen to the ukulele since ragtime and everybody was talking about it.
Under Shimabukuro’s fingers, his tenor uke is capable of an astonishing range of textures, emotions, and dynamics from tender to thunderous. His repertoire runs from traditional Hawaiian to originals to Led Zeppelin. And in front of his rapt audiences, Shimabukuro practically dances with his instrument, playing it all with unabashed joy.
Shimabukuro got his start in Hawaiian bands, releasing his first CD with the band Pure Heart in 1997, then going solo six years ago. We chatted before his sold-out run at Yoshi’s in Oakland, the first stop on a national tour to promote two new CDs, his solo “Gently Weeps” and his soundtrack to the hit Japanese film “Hula Girls”. He touched on what he’s trying to accomplish and some surprisingly un-Hawaiian influences.
Though he first gained youthful notoriety adapting Hendrix licks to the ukulele, Shimabukuro doesn’t use a pick now. Instead, he’s developed nearly as many different finger-picking styles as songs in his set list. “The guy who inspired me most to go back to my fingers was Jeff Beck,” he says. “You don’t hear anybody else get sounds like that out of their guitar, and I thought, hey, it’s all about the fingers. I didn’t like the sound of acrylic nails. So I learned to play with my nails real short.”
He also abandoned his effects, becoming an admitted tone freak. “I was getting too caught up in making things fast or flashy, which is cool once in a while. But when I started playing solo, it really helped me with my technique.” Shimabukuro loves the unique quality of the “my dog has fleas” tuning (GCEA), explaining, “Some people use the low G for the first string but I’ve never really liked voicings that become identical to a classical guitar.”
Shimabukuro likes to reveal his personality as a songwriter through performing popular covers along with his own originals. “What I love about covering songs,” he says, “is that the audience immediately has a reference, and they can see what I’m doing with it. When I listen to an artist for the first time I like to hear a cover, so I can understand what this person thinks is important. Is his focus on melody, or complicated chord changes, or reharmonizing the whole song, or is he breaking it down and keeping it simple? So I throw in a couple of covers, and then when I do my original stuff it seems easier for the audience to get into it.”
The fluidity and grace of his current arrangements owe a lot to the influence of his mentor, Japanese pianist Ozone Makoto. “He taught me the power of space in music,” says Shimabukuro. “He would play a little passage and let everything ring out and then he would play and let go of the sustain pedal and just stop. That little jolt of silence was really powerful. The next note you play after that really means something.”
“Hula Girls”, a film about an anxious community facing a mine closure in the ‘60s, opened in America in December 2007. The Japanese producers had approached Shimabukuro despite knowing he’d never done soundtrack work. “It’s in Japanese, which I don’t speak, so when they sent the video clips I sort of had to guess what was going on. I had no idea what I was in for, like making a tempo map for a scene. I’d get weird phrases like three measures here with a fermata, then seven counts of something. It was really tricky to get all that working. Then you try different tempos to see if all those parts will fall on a one-beat, but that never happens. Still, it was fun.”
While his musical influences range from Eddie Kamae to Eddie Van Halen, Shimabukuro reserves his deepest awe for basketball star Michael Jordan, saying “I was a huge fan. I remember watching him play, thinking about how he must focus, and I’d watch him get in ‘the Zone’. At first, when I was playing music, I thought being in ‘the Zone’ was like when you block everything out and you’re just doing your thing. But Michael Jordan takes it to another level. When he’s in ‘the Zone’ he becomes completely aware of everything around him, effortlessly.”
Is that ‘Zone’ what Shimabukuro is trying to find with his uke? He smiles, “To me that’s the ultimate.”
WHAT HE PLAYS
Ukulele: One-year-old custom Kamaka Hawaii Inc. 4-string tenor, koa top, back and sides, made by Casey Kamaka. This is the fifth similar ukulele Casey has made Jake during the past ten years. Jake ordered the petrified mammoth bone saddle off the internet. “It’s very dense, very hard, and the tone is warmer. The nut is just regular bone. I don’t know how to shape nuts yet, but I shape all my own saddles. I’m kind of a tone freak.”
Strings: D’Addario EJ46 Extra Hard Tension.
Amplification: Fishman undersaddle pickup and active DI by Australian company Leon Audio, replacing his former DI, Radio Engineering’s flagship JDV model, for this current tour. “I’m very excited about this DI. It’s very true and pure and doesn’t overcompensate for the bass. The other cool thing is that the ground lift is supposed to be a true 100% lift, so under any conditions, it cuts it out completely. We’ll see.”
Cables and Effects: “I totally got rid of all my effects pedals. I’m just trying to get the purest signal. Even my cable (Analysis Plus Pro Oval Studio cable), I never run more than ten feet. I’d go shorter if I could but then I couldn’t move around on stage.”
PRACTICAL TIP—CHORD VOICINGS
“Recently I’ve been studying string quartet arrangements and that has really helped me a lot, not to just think of moving from a 1-chord formation to a 4-chord formation. Now I ask: what really has to move? I don’t want to move anything that doesn’t have to move. That’s how I find some really cool voicings. Whenever you come across that one subtle little movement, the light goes on and you say, ‘That’s cool!’”