More so than anyone since his ukulele hero, Eddie Kamae, younger-generation ukulele player Jake Shimabukuro showed the world the possibilities of the ukulele, that diminutive, four-stringed plucked instrument so deeply identified with Hawaii.
Unlike the 85-year-old Kamae, whose career began in the 1940s, before television and the Internet, Shimabukuro became famous quickly thanks to the massive, unexpected exposure he received through YouTube.
Video shot in New York’s Central Park featuring Shimabukuro performing his intricate, multi-voiced instrumental arrangement of George Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” wowed YouTube viewers. Uploaded in 2006, the video has been seen by more than 11 million viewers.
Harrison was a ukulele player, too.
“He was one of the greatest ambassadors for the instrument,” soft-spoken Hawaiian native Shimabukuro said from a tour stop in Tuscaloosa, Ala. “He turned so many people on to the ukulele.”
Later, another Beatle, Paul McCartney, strummed a ukulele as he sang Harrison’s song, “Something,” during in-concert tributes to his late friend and bandmate.
Shimabukuro is surfing a new wave of ukulele popularity. In addition to McCartney, contemporary stars Taylor Swift, Jason Mraz, Bruno Mars, Train and Pearl Jam front man Eddie Vedder have used the instrument in recent years.
“They’re turning a whole new generation on to the ukulele,” Shimabukuro said. “A lot of young people are starting to pick it up and they have a great interest in learning the instrument.”
The ukulele’s compact size adds to its appeal, Shimabukuro said.
“Like mobile phones and iPads and laptops, we want to take everything with us all the time. Ukulele is very portable. You can take it everywhere.”
Shimabukuro, for instance, carries his ukulele on planes. Flight attendants light up, he said, when he tells them there’s a ukulele in the case.
“And then they’ll talk about Hawaii. There’s such a positive vibe, just a joy that the instrument brings.”
Small as the ukulele is, it also has enormous musical possibilities.
“It’s capable of playing a lot different styles of music,” Shimabukuro said. “People thought you could only play simple songs on it but now they are realizing that, ‘Wow, I can play complicated tunes. I can play songs that are hip and cool.’ That draws people in. And it’s very affordable.”
Shimabukuro first played the ukulele at 4. His mother, a ukulele strummer who accompanied her singing with the instrument, gave him his first lessons.
“But unfortunately, or fortunately, I am a terrible singer,” he said. “So that’s what led to my style of playing. I had to always play the melody because no one knew what song I was playing when I just strummed.”
Many ukulele players in Hawaii plucked melody on the instrument but Shimabukuro wanted more.
“I needed to figure out how to make the arrangements exciting,” he said. “So I incorporated a lot of percussive, rhythmic things.”
He also experimented with amplification, taking the electric guitar as a model.
“When you went to a ukulele concert a lot of times they just had a microphone in front of the instrument,” he remembered. “It had a gentle, mellow sound. But the guitar can growl and push you back in your seat. That’s exciting.
“When I was a kid, I spent a lot of time experimenting with amplifying the ukulele, to make it growl, to make it roar. Because everyone knows the soft, gentle side of the instrument, but there’s a beast that lives in the instrument as well. It’s been fun discovering that and showing people that side of the instrument.”