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Ukulele Star Jake Shimabukuro Talks About Stripping Down To The Basic Melody


World tours, documentaries, a TED Talk; through all the attention ukulele player Jake Shimabukuro is still just completely amazed at his life.

“I’m still in shock. I never thought I’d be doing what I’m doing today,” Shimabukuro explained in a phone interview. “When I was growing up there weren’t a lot of touring ukulele players… especially if you don’t sing.”

He admits there still aren’t a ton of touring ukulele players. What made him go from unassuming Hawaiian ukulele teacher to a world renowned star of the tiny four-stringed instrument? Youtube.

“Back in 2006 there was YouTube video of me playing while “My Guitar Gently Weeps” that went viral and changed my life.”

The rich mixture and variety of sounds emanating from the itty bitty instrument is surprising. There’s something soothing about the familiar melody and twinkly embellishments Shimabukuro picks out up and down the neck of the ukulele.

Since 2006 Shimabukuro’s toured with Béla Fleck and the Flecktones, Jimmy Buffett, and collaborated with Cyndi Lauper, Bette Midler and Yo-Yo Ma. With every new adventure Shimabukuro takes it all in stride with a heaping helping of humility.

“All these people are from different genres and different worlds – to be able to collaborate with them and be a part of their world was really exciting and an honor,” he said.

Some have hailed him a “ukulele wizard,” but he says he’s still learning new things about the instrument and has no desire to pick up a different one.

“Creating different harmonies or different strumming techniques – there’s just so much stuff out there,” Shimabukuro said about the ukulele.

He says more strings and a wider range brings too many choices. He likes the limited range of his ukulele.

“Having those limitations is really an advantage, because you have less distractions, less notes, less strings, you can put more into the notes you do have,” he said. “If you have too many notes you have too many options.”

Shimabukuro is probably best known for his ukulele covers of popular songs.

“I’m a big fan of melody. It’s really the melody that draws me in. When you come across a really nice melody you just want to play it over and over and over,” Shimabukuro said about choosing which songs to play.

He said even with a really complex piece like "Bohemian Rhapsody," it’s all about the melody.

“Bohemian Rhapsody was of course a big challenge, but when you listen to it it’s really a beautiful song. There’s so much going on, it’s a huge piece, it’s an epic classic rock tune – but when you strip it down and just pin point this single note melody it’s really beautiful.”

Stripping down; that’s key to Shimabukuro’s ukulele arrangements.

“I’m always taking things away – I’m always stripping it down to its bare minimum. In a good way.”

You can watch Shimabukuro stripe down at the Crest Theatre in Sacramento on October 25 and the Gallo Center for the Arts in Modesto on October 29.


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