Honolulu native Jake Shimabukuro has had a ukulele in his hands since he was 4 years old and capable of pressing all four strings down on his own. At the age of 30, his extraordinary instrumental performance of The Beatles’ “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” took the YouTube world by storm.
Today, he has his own artist line designed and manufactured by Kamaka, whom he describes as “the godfather of ukulele luthiers.” Meanwhile, the whole world continues to listen.
Currently, the 42-year-old instrumentalist and composer is out touring behind his latest album “The Greatest Day,” which was released last August. Shimabukuro said the project started out with a couple of off-the-cuff Nashville sessions that weren’t originally intended to turn into a full album. Shimabukuro has been joined on tour by bassist Nolan Verner and guitarist Dave Preston, with no drummer in sight.
“The types of venues we’re playing on this tour are all over the map,” Shimabukuro said in a recent phone interview. “Sometimes we’ll be playing dinner jazz clubs, sometimes they’ll be outdoor festivals, and then sometimes we’re playing in a symphonic hall. So all of these places are just so different, and the drums sometimes have a tendency to overpower the acoustics of a symphony hall.”
Even so, Shimabukuro promises the overall sound will be far from minimalist.
“Dave doesn’t play the guitar in the conventional sense, he really approaches it in a very ambient, very symphonic way,” said the bandleader. “Sometimes he gets these tones that sound like horn pads, and then sometimes he sounds like a string section. It’s just really neat the kinds of sounds that he gets out of his instruments, so we’ve been having a lot of fun, a lot of textures, and just a lot of richness.”
There’ll also be no shortage of onstage effects pedals, which Shimabukuro and Preston have traded back and forth from time to time.
“There are pedals that work really well for guitar players, but sometimes don’t work so good for the ukulele, because you’re dealing with acoustic nylon strings and a piezo pickup,” Shimabukuro said. “And then there are pedals that he’ll pass on to me because they don’t sound as good on his guitar. So we’re always turning each other on to different things.”
As Shimabukuro has demonstrated periodically throughout his career, he’s equally capable of astonishing audiences in solo performances, with or without his pedal board. When asked which pedal he’d want to be stranded on a desert island with, he answers without hesitation. “Oh wow, I’d just take a nice-sound reverb pedal to give me just a little bit of ambience, and that’s all I would need to be happy. The very first pedal I bought was in high school; it was a Boss and it also had delay settings on it. That led me down the rabbit hole, and now, about 1,000 pedals later, here I am.”
Along the way, Shimabukuro hasn’t forgotten the Fab Four, whose music helped elevate him into the spotlight. In the years since his breakthrough “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” cover, he’s done songs by John Lennon, Paul McCartney and George Harrison. No Ringo Starr, though, but give him time.
“I’ve got to tell you how I got introduced to the Beatles,” he said, “because I didn’t learn about the Beatles through the Beatles. My dad had a couple of [jazz guitarist] Charlie Byrd’s albums and they were some of my favorite recordings, I’d listen to them all the time as a kid. And he covered a lot of Beatles songs, right? But I had no idea that they were Beatles tunes, so all the way up until I was a teenager, I thought songs like “Let it Be,” “Here, There and Everywhere” and “Yesterday” were all Charlie Byrd originals. I remember just thinking like, ‘Charlie Byrd, man, he writes great melody lines!’ And I remember the first time I heard the Beatles version of “Yesterday,” I was like, “Oh, someone wrote lyrics to this song.”
Today, Shimabukuro has had more than a half-dozen albums of his own reach the Top 10 on “Billboard” magazine’s world music charts, positioning him to cause at least as many mix ups among his younger listeners. “The Greatest Day” includes renditions of The Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby,” Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” and New Order’s “Bizarre Love Triangle.”
Expect even more covers a year or so from now, when Shimabukuro releases his duets album, for which he’s already recorded tracks with Willie Nelson, Asleep at the Wheel’s Ray Benson, and Michael McDonald.
“Of course, all of Michael McDonald’s recordings sound great,” he said, “but to hear that voice with just my little ukulele behind it, it’s something else, man. I was just smiling ear to ear.”
Even after all these years in the spotlight, Shimabukuro still doesn’t take any of this for granted.
“I feel so fortunate for all the opportunities that I’ve had in the last 20 years,” he said. “It just kind of blows me away and so I’m very thankful. I just love playing — it’s my passion — and I just hope to keep going.”