Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Jake Shimabukuro Interview: "If everyone played the ukulele, the world would be a better place."

When you Google the word “ukulele”, the very first video that comes up is Jake Shimabukuro’s version of George Harrison’s classic “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” Posted to YouTube in 2006, the video, which has gotten nearly six-million hits to date, propelled Jake to international stardom and has helped make the ukulele the respected phenomenon it is.

Not that Jake will take any of the credit. Hooked on ukulele since his Grandmother introduced him to the instrument at the age four, Jake is more likely to peg his success on the ukulele itself. Perhaps it is his humility—his lack of taking himself too seriously—that has propelled Jake to the top of the ukulele world.

Whether playing along with Bette Midler for Her Majesty the Queen, working as a semi-regular in Jimmy Buffett’s band, scoring films, making CDs or delighting American and international audiences with his solo virtuosity, Jake has become synonymous with the ukulele. He has taken the instrument to places it has never been before and proven time and again that four strings can be better than a whole orchestra.

The response to Jake and his music is, itself, a phenomenon. Having seen Jake in person, I can attest to his universal appeal. I stood in line outside The Ark in Ann Arbor, Michigan last year with hundreds of other fans who ranged in age from teens to seniors, men and women representing diverse races and ethnicities. One man drove four hours from Ohio to see the show, and several others brought their ukuleles along in hopes Jake would sign them. He did, of course, as well as meet everyone who stood in line to shake his hand.

More than an evening of good music, Jake’s performances are a glimpse into the mind and heart and soul of a true musician who leaves his audience feeling privileged to have witnessed his work. One is not just entertained by Jake’s work, but uplifted as well. You walk out of that auditorium knowing you have been a part of something very special (Need proof? Check his calendar for a show near you, or get a copy of his latest CD “Live,” which has captured some of the best moments from his live shows).

I feel equally privileged that Jake has taken a few moments out of his hectic world tour to share his thoughts on the creative process, his upcoming song book, Bruce Lee’s lasting influence on his approach to life and music, and that “four string underdog,” the ukulele.

Mike Kassel: Jake, I understand you are in the middle of a rather extensive tour–what are some of the places you are going for the rest of the summer and into Fall?

Jake Shimabukuro: Just got back from France last night and will be heading to Japan for a six week tour in a few days. After Japan, I'll be heading back to the states for a few legs and then taking off to Germany for a couple of shows. Can't wait—it’ll be loads of fun!

MK: Your arrangement of popular songs always sound so rich and full, yet you are playing one instrument with four strings. How challenging is it to adapt a song for ukulele?

Jake: It's always quite challenging for me to arrange songs as solo, instrumental ukulele pieces. One element that makes it tricky is the absence of bass notes. Also, the limited range and sustain can be difficult to work with. I just try to keep things simple in the beginning and let the piece evolve naturally over time.

MK: Is there a difference in how you approach creating your original songs? Do songs or ideas just come to you while playing, or do you get an idea in your head and then go work it out?

Jake: Actually both methods work well. There are so many ways to inspire creativity. The key is to figure out what works best for you—but not get locked into that one system. Most of the time, I just try to relax—watch a funny movie or go to the beach, then pray that some interesting idea will come out of that experience.

MK: The documentary, The Mighty Uke, of which you are a part, explores the phenomenon of the ukulele—how do you feel about your role in expanding the popularity of the instrument?

Jake: I'm just thrilled to be alive during this time to experience the growth and maturity of the ukulele. People from all over the world are rediscovering the four-string underdog and appreciating it in ways they never expected. I have always been a huge fan of the instrument—so meeting other supporters of the instrument connects us in a very positive way.

MK: In your CNN interview this past March, you talked about the influence of Bruce Lee and his focus of being “there” with everything he has when practicing his art – in your case, you are not just playing with your hands or your arms, but the music is coming from everything inside of you. Can you elaborate on that a bit?

Jake: Bruce Lee was my hero when I was a kid—not just because he could knock a 250 pound man down with his one-inch punch—but his philosophy on life and the conviction that he had when he spoke about it really drew me in. I was so inspired by his teachings that I based my approach to music on the contexts of his personal diaries. I learned to be open to all styles of music and embrace everything in and around me as part of my art form. Lee also taught me that music is not just notes and sound, but like every form of art, it is simply human expression.

MK: Tell us about “Music is Good Medicine” and your work as their spokesperson.

Jake: “Music Is Good Medicine” is a program that believes in the positive influence of music. I work with a lot of young people, using music as a vehicle to inspire them to have passion and live drug-free.

MK: Going to one of your shows is unlike anything else, because there are teens, college kids, middle-aged guys, seniors—what is it about your shows and your music that has the power to unite such a diverse group?

Jake: I believe the credit there goes to the instrument I play. People of all ages can appreciate the ukulele. That's what I love most about it—it bridges all generation gaps.

MK: If you had a dream duet or small group, what would it be?

Jake: Playing in an ukulele band with George Harrison—and Steve Gadd on drums.

MK: So many people want to learn your songs—is there a Jake Shimabukuro ukulele book on the horizon?

Jake: Yes. I am slowly working on one. I hope to release it sometime next year.

MK: On the technical side, what are the woods in your Kamaka ukulele? And what sort of on-board electronics do you use?

Jake: I play a Kamaka 4-string tenor ukulele made out of koa wood. It has an ebony fretboard and bridge, and a mahogany neck. The pickup system that I use is made by Fishman—it’s called the Matrix.

MK: It looks and sounds as though you play high-G; do you ever play low-G?

Jake: I have always played with the high-G string because it's the traditional tuning of the ukulele. I also love the unique chord voicings that you can get with the 2 higher pitched strings positioned on the top and bottom.

MK: What advice do you have for the aspiring players out there? What do they need to focus on to improve their playing and their musicianship?

Jake: The most important thing is—have fun. Play songs that you enjoy and remember that there is no wrong way to play an ukulele. Encourage others to learn and attend ukulele jam sessions. If everyone played the ukulele, the world would be a better place.

Thanks for your support. Aloha,

To learn more about Jake, his current tour, and his albums, visit

Picture credits: Top and middel photo by Hisashi Uchida; all othr photos by Ryota Mori.  All photos courtesy of the media page at

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