Jake Shimabukuro is a ukulele virtuoso. He's played stages throughout the world, from Japan to Russia to France. Inspired by Jimi Hendrix, Eddie Van Halen, and George Harrison, the Hawaiian-born musician has redefined the way audiences hear that small instrument in a big way. Jake came by the WFAE studios and spoke with reporter Tanner Latham.
A ukulele player from Hawaii is not that big a deal. A ukulele player from Hawaii who plays rock and roll, well Jake Shimabukuro (pronounced She-ma-boo-koo-row) is a rock star, and not just in ukulele circles. He dips into numerous genres with his ukulele- bluegrass, rock, classical, jazz, blues, even funk. He's gotten 9 and a half million hits on YouTube for his rendition of George Harrison's "While My Guitar Gently Weeps."
Like the well-traveled piece of luggage it is, his ukulele case tells the story of his trips around the world. In the past few years, he's played five continents with performers like Yo Yo Ma, Les Paul, Cyndi Lauper, and Jimmy Buffet.
So, I had to ask him if he is the most famous ukulele player in the world. "Most famous ukulele player in the world?" he answers. "No. No. Definitely not. There are a lot of ukulele players out there like Bill Gates, he loves playing ukulele. Warren Buffet. He's a huge ukulele enthusiast. Francis Ford Coppola."
But those guys aren't touring like Jake. "Oh, Eddie Vedder. Eddie Vedder just came out with a ukulele record," he says of the Pearl Jam frontman. "And I was so thrilled that he did that. Because, when Eddie Vedder does something, you know it's cool. If Eddie Vedder plays the ukulele, you know the ukulele is cool, man."
Jake's modest. He accepts compliments, but reluctantly. Graciously. And he's quick to deflect any praise back to the instrument itself. Talk to him long enough, and he begins preaching the gospel of the ukulele like he's a minister. He says that anyone can play it. Jake even has this idealistic, pie-in-the-sky tagline that if everyone played the ukulele, the world would be a better place. And he genuinely believes that.
"When someone picks up the ukulele, even if they don't know how to play it, when they pick it up, they want to do something silly, right?" he says. "They want to try to make you laugh. And, to me, that's the charm of the instrument. That's what makes it so special. "When I hear the ukulele, it reminds me of children laughing. Or like a child's voice."
Jake Shimabukuro started playing the ukulele when he was four years old. Call it the Tao of the Ukulele. Jake has effectively elevated the instrument far beyond the performance art-type stylings of Tiny Tim. Google the word ukulele, and Jake's right there on the first page.
He's on tour crisscrossing the country until November, including a stop tonight in Newton. But even when you point out his popularity, he still speaks with visionary reverence about what the ukulele could be, not what he could be. "I want there to be the Yo Yo Ma of the ukulele," he says. "Or the Pat Metheny of the ukulele." Perhaps somewhere there's someone working night and day to become the Jake Shimabukuro of electric guitar.