A truly unmatched phenom on the ukulele and a globally recognized recording and performing artist, Hawaii’s own Jake Shimabukuro loves to plug in (and occasionally kick on some distortion), is currently working with George Harrison’s family, and always manages to make a mess out of the kitchen. Let’s delve a little deeper…
This year’s performance schedule is already looking pretty full! Will you be performing new material or primarily be supporting your most recent release, Jake & Friends?
We’re always trying to come up with new material and new ideas. Even if it’s the same song, we try to change up the arrangement just to keep it fun and keep us on our toes. There are certain songs that we really enjoy playing and we feel a special connection with our audience. For example, pre-pandemic, we used to play an arrangement of Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody – and halfway through, the entire audience would be singing along! Moments like that just really make it special and bring everyone together. We always try to embrace those special moments.
The “Friends” on Jake & Friends represents quite an eclectic mix of very well known names. Is there a particularly interesting or surprising story that stands out from the project’s creation?
A fun story was the track with Billy Strings! He flew to Hawaii so we could record the track here, and we had some ideas for what to play. But, we just thought, well, once we get to the studio, we can just jam and we can write something together. So when he got to the studio, he had some ideas and I had some ideas, and the crew were still setting up the cameras and things like that. So we’re like, “let’s just sit down and jam.”
This was the first time we had met. First time we were gonna play together. He’s such a great improviser, he’s so spontaneous! So we started playing the song and we’re just kind of looking at each other, like, oh yeah, that’s nice. He would play something, then we kind of went back on this A and B section that we worked out… And then at some point we looked at each other and I went into this new tempo, and he spontaneously started doing his picking thing. We were just having fun and we were looking at each other like, oh yeah, cool! So we said, “Yeah, let’s do something like that. That would be fun!”
So they got done setting up the cameras, and we were trying to remember what we did to record it. We’d even made little charts. So we went for it! And it was okay, but it didn’t quite have that same magic. We tried it again and it was just a little better. We thought, “okay, maybe we can get to the jam a little quicker”. We were gonna do it a third time, and then his manager said, “Hey, why don’t you guys come in and listen to the very first one that you did?” And we were like, wait, you recorded that?! Oh, perfect! We went into the control room and we listened back and thought, yeah, that’s the one. You know, it was so off the cuff, so spontaneous, the flow and the feel was great.
It’s so rare because any musician who has recorded in the studio knows that once that red light goes on and you know you’re being recorded, you play completely differently. So the thing that I love about that recording is that it captured us when we didn’t know we were being recorded. And that’s the take that’s on the album! I was so happy about that because you can’t trick yourself into thinking that you’re not being recorded when you know you are; it’s impossible. So that, to me, was very special. It was our first time playing together, our first time meeting, and both of our first times being recorded without even knowing we were being recorded.
What challenges do you think an amplified Ukulele player faces on stage that a guitarist perhaps does not?
I think really trying to get warmth out of your instrument has always been a challenge. I think the thing with playing the ukulele is, even though you don’t have any bass notes on the instrument, you actually get quite a bit of low end from the pickup that’s really not there when you play acoustically. But you can take advantage of the proximity effect, with the pickup being right under the bridge. You can take advantage of some of those subbier tones – and that’s what I love.
One of the things that I always believed is that you play completely differently if you’re playing acoustically versus when you’re plugged in. Some people think, well, if it’s an acoustic guitar, you play it the same way acoustically or plugged in – whether you’re mic’d or you’re using a piezo pickup. But I think even with acoustic instruments, if you’re playing in front of a mic versus playing plugged in, your attack has to be different. There’s a whole bunch of other stuff that you can take advantage of that you have because of the piezo pickup. And that’s what I love experimenting with.
You can get so much more dynamic range out of your instrument when playing amplified; I can pluck the strings so softly, like barely even touching the strings, but you can still hear it. But if I were un-amplified, you wouldn’t be able to hear that at all. I love taking advantage of that. So that’s why, for me, I always prefer performing when I’m plugged into a system because I just have such a wider range of colors and techniques and things that I can use. But there is also a magic to just plain acoustically, right? Just putting a microphone in front of each instrument or even no microphone at all.
What do you most like in an amp, and conversely what’s the worst thing an amp can do for you?
I love the Bud! You know, the original Bud just works so great with the uke. And a lot of times I tour with a bass player – so with the two inputs, it allows us to practice on the bus, and when I’m doing just a small performance or something, I can just use that amp. And what I love about it is that it gives me a nice, full range, so I have the bottom end, but it gives me a nice midrange and top end, too. And the reverb on that thing just sounds killer, man. For me, it’s been a wonderful component to my ukulele when I’m not plugging into a full PA.
Some acoustic amps can sound a little harsh, when you’re using overdrives or distortion. But that Bud sounds nice and warm and it almost has characteristics of playing through an electric guitar amplifier. And sometimes I’ll use those in a studio if I need a certain sound, like a Marshall or a Fender or something. But to me, the Bud has the best of both worlds. So it’s like the perfect amp!
You’ve recorded and played with so many top names and incredible musicians. Who’s left that you’d love to work with?
Oh gosh. There’s so many. Of course I would one day just love to be able to shake Paul McCartney’s hand. Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr. I’ve always been a huge Beatles fan and I wish I could have met George Harrison, because he loved the ukulele. He even lived on Maui. I just wish I had the opportunity to have met him.
Outside of music, what’s your favorite hobby or pastime?
I love a little bit of everything. One of the things I love most now is just watching my kids play sports. My oldest son is into basketball, and my youngest one is into soccer. When I’m home, I just love watching their games and even their practices. They’re 10 and 7 years old. But as far as hobbies, we’re big into fishing and diving, and things like that – spearfishing, too.
I also love cooking! I’m not good, but I enjoy just spending time in the kitchen. One of the things that I’m very consistent with is that I always somehow make the biggest mess in the kitchen. Whenever I cook, from anything as simple as just rice to, like, lasagna, the kitchen always becomes as messy as it can possibly be somehow.
The constant grind of touring can make planning beyond the next string of dates difficult; are you already looking forward to any future creative goals, or just enjoying the ride for the time being?
I mean, a little bit of both, you know? I just love going with the flow and just enjoying every moment. Especially after the pandemic. You know, I think if anything, it’s made me so much more appreciative and I’m just so grateful for all these opportunities to perform and play and to share music; to be able to play in front of a live audience again. I never thought that one day that could go away for a little while. So it’s just so great to be connecting with people again, through music and the arts.
But we definitely do plan ahead, right? Because you kind of have to. I’m very fortunate to have a really supportive management team that really helps me to carry out my vision, and they always bring such great ideas to the table and are always looking out for my best interests. Right now, I’m not touring that much the next couple months, but we’re spending a lot of time in the studio working on three new projects right now. One’s almost about to be wrapped up – it’s another Friends kind of collaborative record that’s just about done.
And then we got this new George Harrison project that we’re working on with Olivia and Dhani Harrison. They helped select some of George’s original pieces and I’m arranging them for ukulele, and we recorded the first half of the record already at Abbey Road Studios last year. That was amazing because it was my first time recording at Abbey Road. We’re hoping to finish that album up by the end of the year and then release the next Friends record sometime this year.