NO OTHER player in recent decades has popularised the ukulele to the same extent as Jake Shimabukuro. Since shooting to stardom in 2006 with his YouTube cover of While My Guitar Gently Weeps, the Hawaiian virtuoso has been touring the world and inspiring millions. In our exclusive interview, Jake takes time out from his Uke Nations world tour to chat about his ukulele idols, a brush with royalty and what the instrument means to him.
Which uke players did you look up to when you were a kid?
My all-time favourite ukulele player is Eddie Kamae. He is regarded as the first ukulele virtuoso here in Hawaii. Some of my other heroes include Peter Moon, Ohta-San and Troy Fernandez.
You were already a respected musician in 2006, but how did that YouTube video change your life?
YouTube opened so many doors for me in 2006. It helped to introduce my ukulele playing to millions of people around the world and allowed me to establish a consistent touring schedule. YouTube is a great vehicle for artists like myself to be heard.
What advice do you have for the next generation of YouTube hopefuls?
I think the most important thing is to be yourself. The video that you post will be around for a very long time, so make sure that you post something you’ll still be proud of 20 years later.
You’re always touring. What’s been your most memorable gig so far?
By far one of my most memorable moments is a performance with Bette Midler in England, for Queen Elizabeth. I even shook Her Majesty’s hand after the performance.
Why do you choose to play Kamaka instruments?
I always wanted to play a Kamaka tenor ukulele – they are the Excalibur of ukes. The tone is what sets it apart from other brands and Kamaka is the world’s leading ukulele manufacturer when it comes to quality, with almost 100 years of experience.
Where is your favourite place to practice?
I can practice anywhere. That’s the beauty of the ukulele. I could be at the airport, in a taxi or on a boat strumming away and not have to worry about ruining the instrument.
What’s your No. 1 tip for intermediate players who are looking to step up?
I always tell players that the most important thing is your tone. If you can get a good tone out of your instrument, people will want to listen and you will be inspired to play.
You’ve performed in Australia. What do you think of the uke scene down-under?
The ukulele scene is growing rapidly in Australia. The last time I toured there, a lot of people brought their ukes for me to sign after the show. I’m looking forward to touring there again next year. I’m sure I’ll meet a lot more uke players.
If you could record a fantasy duet with any artist, living or dead, who would you choose and why?
My fantasy duet would have to be with Eddie Kamae. I wouldn’t be playing the ukulele the way I play it today if it weren’t for him and his vision for the instrument.
What’s on heavy rotation on your iPod right now?
I’ve been listening to the Rocky IV soundtrack recently. It’s very inspiring and definitely motivates me to work hard and not be lazy!
In terms of its development, where would you like to see the ukulele movement go in the next five to 10 years?
I hope that gear manufacturers will start to make quality products specifically for the ukulele. For example, pickups, tube amps and effect pedals that are calibrated for the range of the instrument.
What can we expect from your 2014 Uke Nations tour?
I’ve been touring with a bass player this year. That’s been a lot of fun. The bass guitar and ukulele complement each other very well. They don’t get in each other’s way sonically and the low bass notes allows for more harmonic complexity in the ukulele.
Finally, what has the ukulele given you?
The ukulele has been a great mentor in my life. I try to think and be like an ukulele – to live simple, be humble, friendly, child-like, positive, and always keep my roots in Hawaii.
For tour dates and a whole lot more, head to jakeshimabukuro.com
Photos by Paul McAlpine
This article first appeared in Issue 8 of KAMUKE, which is available in the Store