To me, a ukulele had always been the simple, easy to learn instrument my brother only picked up to be used as a party trick. I didn’t think there was much depth to it – which was a lack of judgment on my part – but it wasn’t until I got to see Jake Shimabukuro perform live that I saw a new side to this instrument.
Shimabukuro is an American ukulele player and composer who became an internet sensation in 2006 when a video of him covering George Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” went viral. Since then, he’s become well known for his fast, complex finger work and unique take on the ukulele.
Shimabukuro performed alongside guitarist Dave Preston and bassist Nolan Verner on April 18 at the Fairfield Theatre Company’s Stage-One in downtown Fairfield. Before attending this event, I had the privilege of interviewing Shimabukuro:
“I started playing [ukulele] when I was four because my mom played the ukulele when she was a kid,” said Shimabukuro in regards to how he first began playing his instrument. “She had one sitting around the house and she would play for me.”
Shimabukuro continued to discuss how his mom would teach him basic chords and he would sit around the house just playing the instrument. He fell in love with the ukulele because it had “a soothing sound and it was so easy to play and easy to get started. You can hold chords with just one finger, so it was real simple to play, and I kind of just stuck with it and just loved it ever since.”
As for Shimabukuro’s main influences, he grew up listening to a lot of traditional Hawaiian music. This affected him a great deal, but a lot of his other major influences include blues, jazz, rock and even classical music. “I grew up listening to a whole bunch of different styles of music,” Shimabukuro said. “Sometimes, like for me, the more you ukuleletic the more interesting it is to me, because even though if I don’t necessarily enjoy listening to something or like something, there’s always something I can learn from it and there might be a cool rhythmic idea or a very interesting harmonic idea or instrumentation or sounds or tone qualities I pick up on, and they kind of just naturally influence you to write something new or add it to your arrangements or inspire you to approach your instrument.”
When talking about how his music has evolved, Shimabukuro stated, “When I first started out I was mainly playing traditional and contemporary Hawaiian music. Then when I was in high school, that’s when I started venturing out and trying to do some different things on the ukulele. Like for example, riding my ukulele to a lot of different effect pedals or getting distortion and overdrive sounds, or experimenting with wah-wah pedals and things like that. Then, when I was in college that’s kind of when I started to really develop different techniques and different ways of playing instruments so that I could express.”
Another important aspect as to how his music has changed throughout the years involves the use of technology. Technology has played a great deal in the presentation of his songs, pieces and general performance. This was seen a great deal within his performance at FTC where Shimabukuro played around with various styles with his ukulele, allowing him to get a lot of unique sounds.
“Utilizing different types of electronics or different effects, to manipulate the sounds of your instrument. It’s very effective. Of course, electric guitar players have been doing it forever, but it’s still pretty new for ukulele players to be experimental with that stuff,” Shimabukuro said. “That’s one of the things I love doing, experimenting with my amplified sound.”
When asked about how this whole journey’s been, Shimabukuro responded, “It’s been very rewarding, just being able to travel and meet different people… I love that through touring and just being on the road I’m able to learn so much more than I could if I were just sitting at home or playing at home, because you get exposed to different styles of music, different musicians, you learn from them… that helps you to grow. And then you have different experiences, which also help you refine your sound and your craft, and keeps you inspired. The nice thing is I’m able to have these amazing opportunities to perform in venues all around the world, and you can enjoy all the various characteristics of each concert hall or each venue.”
As for what he’s become most proud of through this entire process, Shimabukuro said it’s his two children. “I have two boys, they’re five and two, and that’s been my greatest joy. Just having them, watching them grow up, and spending time with them. It’s kind of hard because doing what I do, you know, it always takes me away from home for a little awhile, but it’s awesome because when I do go back home, you know of course I miss them so much, but when I go back home then I can spend all my time with them while I’m home. I don’t have any other responsibilities or anything I need to take care of when I’m back in Hawaii, so i can just really spend every minute with them. That’s been a real joy.”
Finally, Shimabukuro stated that he “want[s] to encourage anyone who’s ever picked up the ukulele or who’s never picked up an instrument, to give the ukulele a try because it’s a very easy instrument to start playing right away. They’re affordable. It’s just a lot of fun, and being able to play an instrument is so empowering because it brings you a great deal of joy that you don’t get from listening to music. When you’re actually playing an instrument and making music, being that close to the creation of what you’re hearing, and it’s really something special. I hope that more people could have that experience.”
As for the performance itself, Shimabukuro, Preston and Verner were fantastic, energetic and passionate. The audience could tell how much each of the performers cared about their craft and presentation. Shimabukuro engaged with the audience quite nicely through his interactions and his overall ease of being on stage as everyone hummed along with the beautiful and unique melodies emerging from the musicians. The entire experience was both relaxing and enthralling.
As for the content itself, Shimabukuro played both originals — such as “Blue Roses Falling” which was inspired by a friend of Shimabukuro’s grandmother, who experienced hallucinations of blue rose petals falling from the ceiling — and covers including the Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby” and Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” — the same song which skyrocketed Shimabukuro to fame in the first place. Being a big Tom Petty and Ed Sheeran fan myself, my all time favorite was when Shimabukuro did a mashup of “Free Fallin’” and “Shape of You.” Shimabukuro also performed a couple of traditional Hawaiian songs while even Preston joined in and did a few Bill Withers covers. The highlight of the night was at the conclusion when the trio played a cover of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” and had the audience sing along to the hit song, even encouraging the use of jingling keys for the lyric “sends shivers down my spine.”
Everything about this event was intriguing and well put together, from beginning to end. Even though Shimabukuro has left Fairfield, he’s coming out with a new album this summer called “Great Day.” It consists of six originals and six covers. So, if you are really curious, check out Shimabukuro’s music — it’ll definitely be worth the time.