Jake Shimabukuro Hears the World on His Strings

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Jake Shimabukuro picked up the ukulele when he was 4 and spent most of his teenage years playing it constantly. Now that he’s in his 30s, he’s one of the most prominent professional ukulele players in the world — although he’s quick to joke that there isn’t much competition.

The Hawaii native is touring heavily this year behind his latest album, Grand Ukulele. He’s also the subject of a PBS documentary, Jake Shimabukuro: Life on Four Strings, which debuts Friday (May 10). After finally persuading him that he was a worthy documentary subject, the film crew followed Shimabukuro around the world for about two years, hitting New York City, Los Angeles and Japan along the way.

On a recent trip through Nashville, Shimabukuro cheerfully chatted with CMT Edge about his life, his mom and his beloved ukulele.

“Outside of Hawaii, people don’t see the ukulele as a serious instrument. People think of it as a toy or as a comedic prop. But I embrace that,” Shimabukuro says. “People ask me all the time, ‘Do you get offended by that?’ No way! I wish every instrument was looked upon that way because more people would be open to playing it or trying it.”

CMT Edge: I understand there is footage of you as a teenager in the documentary.

Shimabukuro: Yeah, I was practicing, just this dorky little kid.

What was going through your mind when you saw that earlier version of yourself?

It brought back a lot of great memories. The thing is, I don’t think much has changed since then. I’m just as passionate about the instrument today as I was back then. It still brings me the same kind of joy. I still have that same enthusiasm and drive when it comes to playing.

A lot of teenagers have that enthusiasm and drive, but you’ve stayed the course to become a professional musician. What kept you involved over the years?

I think when I first started playing the ukulele, I loved that it was so easy to play. Immediately, I could pick it up. My mom played when I was a kid. And, of course, I grew up in Hawaii, and all the kids played ukulele in Hawaii. But that’s what drew me to the instrument — it was so easy. The first time I picked it up, my mom taught me three chords, and I could immediately play. I joke around with people that with those three chords, you can play 300 traditional Hawaiian songs already.

So I started playing that, and it brought me so much joy, so I would keep playing it all the time. As I got older, I got turned on to different styles of music, and I think that’s when I really started to branch out and find different ways of playing the instrument so I could express rock tunes, a blues tune or a jazz concert or a classical piece. It’s been this incredible journey discovering this instrument. I’ve always felt there is so much potential with this instrument.

Also, the other thing is, I’m a horrible singer. Traditionally, when you play the ukulele, you would normally strum chords and sing over those chords. But because I couldn’t sing, if I were to just strum chords, nobody would know what song I was playing, right? So I had to learn how to not just keep the chords going, but I had to incorporate melody so the song would be recognizable. But then to keep it interesting, I was coming up with different voicings for chords and rhythmic things to make the song exciting and fill it up in other ways.

Did you feel like you were a bad singer, or did someone gently suggest that you should stick with the instrument?

I think I’m a great singer. (laughs) It’s just that no one else agrees with me. (laughs)

Fair enough. Did you learn to play from teachers? Or did you forge ahead on your own?

I had a lot of different instructors growing up. Of course, my mom was my first teacher. There were several ukulele schools in Hawaii that I learned from. I realized at a pretty young age that I didn’t have to just listen and learn from ukulele players. I could learn from guitar players, I could learn from horn players, I could learn from a pianist, I could learn from singers.

To take it even further, I realized that I don’t have to just listen to musicians. … I could find inspiration and get ideas from watching Bill Cosby or studying Bruce Lee and some of his philosophy. So anyone that excels in their art, I can learn from them. That’s what was interesting because it really broadened my horizons and opened up my mind to all of these other avenues.

Did your mom give you any specific advice that helped you learn?

Yeah, the best advice that my mom ever gave me — and it’s stuck with me to this day — is that she said she doesn’t care what I do in life as long as I enjoy it and try to be the best at it.

Has country music influenced the way you play?

Oh, yes, definitely. Chet Atkins was a huge inspiration for me. I would listen to all of his albums and all of his Chester/Lester stuff with Les Paul. That whole bluegrass and country music scene is kind of similar to Hawaii. Like in Hawaii, we have this native word, kanikapila, which is basically like a jam session. It’s very much like what they have here in Nashville, in the country music scene, where people get together and just jam.

Back in Hawaii, in the old days, that’s how people would learn. They’d all get together, take out their guitars and start playing. The younger ones would have to watch in the beginning. They weren’t allowed to play. You had to watch the masters play. Then, later on, they’d say, “You can bring your instrument. Come play.” It’s a cultural thing.

When you look out at your audience, do you see a lot of kids? Or adults or a mix?

Oh, yeah, there’s a mix. It’s crazy, the demographic. You’ll have three generations of a family coming to the show — the grandkids, the parents and the grandparents. They all come, and they all enjoy the show in their own way. The kids will come and say, “I discovered you on YouTube!” and “I watch you on YouTube all the time!” And the parents will say something like, “Oh, we got married in Hawaii, and we love the ukulele, then we discovered you.” And the grandparents come and say, “I remember when Tiny Tim would play the ukulele!” They’ve always been fans of the instruments. It’s incredible because I can’t think of a lot of concerts where three generations like that can go and all enjoy it in that way.

I would imagine if a big family comes to see you, occasionally you’ll notice somebody out there who doesn’t really want to be there. Can you win them over with the ukulele?

(laughs) Yeah! After the show, when I have those signing sessions, at least one or two people will come through the line and say, “Oh, my gosh. I knew nothing about you. I knew nothing about the ukulele. My friend dragged me here because they had an extra ticket. And I’m completely blown away. You have a new fan.” That always makes me feel good because I’m just a big fan of the ukulele. So when I see someone get excited about the instrument, or they become a new fan of the instrument — not necessarily of me — then it makes me feel great because I truly believe the ukulele is a special instrument. I believe that it brings this joy to people.

I love all instruments, but a lot of people are intimidated by the piano or the violin or the cello or even the guitar. If you told your aunt or your grandma, who’s never played an instrument, “Hey, why don’t you play the piano?” or “Why don’t you go learn the cello or the guitar?” They’d be like, “No, I can’t do that.” But if you say, “How about the ukulele?” They’d say, “Oh, I think I can do that! That seems easy.” I love that attitude.

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