Acoustic Review Music: Interviewed – Jake Shimabukuro

Here at Acoustic Review, we like to include all acoustic instruments, so we are delighted to bring you an interview with ukulele virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro.

Jake has done more than just about anyone to bring attention to this most versatile and enjoyable of instruments, ever since his unique interpretation of the Beatles’ ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ became one of the very first ‘viral’ videos on YouTube.

Andy Hughes found Jake in Hove on the eve of his British tour, and Jake talked about his influences, his joy at being back on tour, and his nails.

Welcome back to the UK Jake, you must be thrilled to be back on tour again.

Thank you so much Andy. I am so happy to be back here in the UK after the enforced absence everyone has had, it’s wonderful to be back and playing on stage. I have been to some concerts at home in Hawaii and it has really been an emotional experience for me to enjoy live music again, and to be able to come over here and play is a great opportunity.

Your mother was a ukulele player, and actually got you started on the instrument.

That’s how I started. My mother sat me down when I was about four and showed me some basic chords on the ukulele and I just fell in love with the instrument right then and there. The ukulele is very much a part of Hawaiian culture, it is taught in most schools, so most children grow up having enjoyed some chances to learn to play. Because it is not an expensive instrument to buy, schools can afford to have lots of them, so everyone gets a chance to learn to play together in school.

It’s becoming more popular here in the UK in schools now too…

I believe so. It is great for children to learn because you can learn to play something quite quickly, and it’s portable, so it’s an easy instrument to take home and carry back to school for lessons. You can learn to be your own backing band and play while you sing along, or just play tunes for your own enjoyment.

Your first fame was in Japan, is the ukulele popular over there?

It is very popular! Hawaiian culture is popular in Japan, the ukulele, and the hula dances, the Japanese love those too. My first record contact was with Sony Music in Japan, and from there I was invited over to play some concerts in America and everything just grew from there.

You are really popular in America with you having been on a lot of the major chat shows – why do you think your popularity has taken off so well there?

I think it is honestly a case of being in the right place at the right time. My video of ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ was one of the very first ‘viral’ videos on YouTube, and since then I have been invited to collaborate with other musicians, and to tour and play all over the U.S. I am very very lucky indeed to be able to do what I love.

What I believe you have done, is to take an instrument that looks like it has musical limitations built into it, and then proved that in fact it is absolutely limitless, and you can do anything at all with it. Was that your intention when you began your career?

Well, thank you for saying that. But no, it was not my intention in the slightest! I started enjoying the ukulele because I am a really bad singer! I started off learning chords, as most ukulele players do, but I found that people were struggling to recognise the songs I was playing, just from the chords. So, I decided to learn to play melody lines as well, more or less in the fingerstyle that acoustic guitar players use. I am not unique in that, a lot of ukulele players do the same thing, but I wanted to expand the sound I got, putting in a rhythm sound as well as the chords and melody. I have a drumming background, I played percussion in a marching band in high school, so a feel and a sense of rhythm is very important to me in my playing.

To people who don’t know what can be done with a ukulele, it almost looks like a toy instrument, but as you have proved, it is very much more that, there is far more that you can do with it that it first appears.

One of the things I love about the ukulele is that it is not intimidating when you first look at it, and consider picking it up and having a try at playing it. A piano or a saxophone, or a violin, even a guitar, can look quite … serious, in a way, but a ukulele looks like it will be fun to play, and of course, it absolutely is. People don’t shy away from it. The wonderful thing is, even if you think you have no musical talent at all, you will be amazed at how quickly and easily you can start finding notes on a ukulele. Plus it’s a wonderful instrument to play with other people – playing on your own is great, but playing along with others is really magical.

What advice would you give to someone who is thinking about buying a ukulele?

You need to go to a good music store that has a good range of ukuleles and just try them out. Sooner or later, you will find one that you feel connected to, and that feels right for you. Of course, cost is a factor when buying an instrument, but hopefully the one that you find is suitable for you will be one that is in your budget range. The one you connect with is the one you are going to enjoy going back to and playing each day, and that’s what you need to learn any instrument, that connection, and pleasure in playing.

Do you have your ukuleles custom made for you?

I do. I am very fortunate to have my instruments made by the Kamaka family in Hawaii. They are one of the most famous ukulele luthiers in the world, they have been manufacturing ukuleles for over a hundred years. The family originally learned about them from the Portuguese immigrants who came to Hawaii and now they have passed all that knowledge down the ages. My instruments are made for me by Casey Kamaka, and he makes the most wonderful ukuleles. My mother’s ukulele was a Kamaka, so I have played them all my life.

Does Casey ask you what you want when he builds a new ukulele for you?

He does ask, every time, but I never tell him! He makes the most amazing instruments, and they are all exactly what I want, to I never feel I could improve by telling him anything at all.

Are all ukuleles different?

They are, because they are crafted individually, they all have unique characters and you get to know them when you play them. I love finding out the different strengths and variations in each one. Some of them have a ‘harder’ feel to them and you need to press in harder on the stings, some are softer and need a lighter touch. Some sound a little better in the higher registers, some in the lower, but you learn how to get the best out of all of them by playing them and learning about them. I always think that you not only get used to the instrument, the instrument gets used to you as well.

Have you got a huge collection of ukuleles?

No, not at all. I my career so far, I have owned maybe a dozen custom-made ones, or so, no more than that.

How many do you bring on tour with you?

Just one, I use the same one throughout my shows, and because it is so portable, I can carry it with me on planes. You hear so many horror stories about guitarists who have to check their guitars into hold luggage and they get destroyed out on the tarmac when trolleys run over them! I don’t have to worry about that, thank goodness!

Do you use many effects for your ukulele?

Not too many. I am really keen on the natural sound of the instrument. I do have a pedalboard, and I have a looper, and volume control, a reverb, an overdrive and a freeze pedal, but I only use them sparingly, just to change the sound occasionally, it helps to freshen things up during a show, but never too much, I love the sweet sound of the strings as they are.

Do you practice a lot?

These days, I tend to practice the pieces I am going to play either when I am recording, or when I am going out on tour. I like to hone my technique, but I am a great believer in technique in context. I think it’s better to work on your technique while you play songs you like because that is more enjoyable, for you, and for anyone else who is around when you are practising!

What’s the most important lesson you have learned as a ukulele player since you started to learn to play?

Look after your nails. Nails are really important, if you play without a pick as I do. I have seen various classical guitarists who file and shape their nails to get the right shape to make a nice smooth sound. What I have discovered is the importance of looking after the entire nail. If you have ridges or rough edges anywhere on your nails, they can be picked up by the ukulele strings, they are incredibly sensitive to nails that are not really smooth. So, I always look after my whole nail on each finger, keep it very smooth so ensure that it makes a clean sound when I play. Once I learned that, I found that everything I played sounded much clearer, and was a more pleasant sound on the ear, so I do pass that on to any ukulele players out there.

Have you tried acrylic nails?

I have, but they are really not right for me. I am not saying you shouldn’t use them, by all means give them a try, and if they suit you, then carry on. For me, what I found was that they weakened my natural nail bed, and when they broke, I could see my nails and nail beds were not staying as healthy as I wanted, so I decided to stay with my own nails, and that works for me. If you are going to use acrylic nails, either learn how to look after them really well yourself, or make sure you have access to a good nail technician who can maintain them properly for you.

What do you think about lessons for players?

Well, I did teach myself quite a bit, but then I undertook lessons with Tami Akiyami. I think you need to be open to anything that will help you to understand and learn more about playing the ukulele. I have talked to lots of classical and acoustic guitar players, and I have chatted with harpists about their techniques and how they get the sounds they do from their strings. Anything and everything that you can use to improve your playing is valuable, so I always tell people to be open to anything and everything.

What was your favourite collaboration in your new album?

Well, I was blessed to play with so many wonderful musicians on my album, but recording with Warren Haynes does stand out in my memory. Warren is a master improviser, and I honestly felt really nervous to be playing along with him for the album, on the track ‘On The Road To Freedom‘. We chatted about how we would do it, how we would ‘back and forth’ a little then take a solo each, and work it out that way. When he started playing, I felt like putting my ukulele down and going home! He is such a wonderful musician, but he is so encouraging and supportive as well. I love how my confidence grows as the track develops, we found an instinctive way of knowing when to play and when to step back, and the final recording was done in one take and I am really really proud of it.

Are you planning on more collaborations for another album?

Definitely. I really enjoyed the collaborations for this record, so many of my heroes and influences came along to play and it was a fantastic experience. Next time I want to work with all my heroes from Hawaii that influenced me when I was growing up, so that’s a future project to be worked on.

What’s next?

Well, we start the UK tour tomorrow here in Brighton, and that runs to the end of June, and then we go to the US for a tour of the West Coast, and then over to Japan for dates there, and then back to the US for an East Coast tour, and that will take us to the end of December. I am so happy to be back out on the road, and even more delighted to be able to come and see my British fans and play some shows for them.

Thanks Jake, have a wonderful tour, and thanks for your time.

It’s my pleasure, thank you for having me on Acoustic Review.

Jake Shimabukuro is on tour in the UK until the end of June 2022…dates and details here: