Jake Shimabukuro’s Two Octave, Four String Adventure

Jake Shimabukuro is a ukulele player. But even though the 33-year-old comes from Hawaii, that’s where the commonality with other uke players ends. Anyone who’s seen him on YouTube playing The Beatles’ “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” knows how innovative Shimabukuro is. It’s hard to not agree that he has transformed the instrument.

Shimabukuro began playing the ukulele at 4-years-old, and his parents later enrolled him at Roy Sakuma’s Ukulele Studios. Soon he found himself playing the ukulele to pop songs on the radio. Then he began playing at Honolulu coffee shops. It wasn’t long after that he was signed to Sony Music Japan. Since then, he’s been a special musical guest of artists like Bela Fleck and Jimmy Buffett. We talked to Jake while he was touring the East Coast….

What’s touring like now versus a couple years ago? What’s the audience like? Do you have a lot of return customers?

Every year the shows have been growing, and it’s nice to see. The ukulele is such a friendly instrument. If you look out in the audience, you can really see the appeal. A lot of times, three generations of family will come to the show together. You’ll have the grandchild with the grandparents and, in between, the mom and dad. And they all enjoy the show. It’s nice to see. That really means a lot to me. I love the ukulele; I’ve been playing it my whole life and it’s brought me so much happiness, so to see some of that rub off onto the audience, that’s all I want.

So the audience is very supportive. It’s always a very respectful, listening audience. And I appreciate that so much. You can really slam into the ukulele but the real beauty of the instrument is heard in a very subtle, quiet environment. That’s when the true voice of the instrument comes out to me. So I definitely appreciate a listening audience. But I want it to be fun too; I love the interaction and, as much as they’re trying to listen and understand what I’m doing, I’m trying to do the same thing. I’m trying to listen to them and understand what they’re feeling. It’s a nice relationship you develop with each audience. It’s a nice supportive thing and that supercedes everything else that’s happening.

You can have a technically perfect show but if you do not make that connection with the audience, it wasn’t successful. And that’s what I love doing.

Do you ever venture out with a band?

Oh yeah. I have a rhythm section I often play with. We don’t get to tour a lot but we’ve done a few shows on the mainland, and we’ve toured in Japan. And, of course, we play a lot in Hawaii.

But it is a little hard to tour with a band because it’s expensive. Especially living in Hawaii, just flying everyone off the island, that initial cost can be quite a challenge. So I’m doing a lot of solo shows. But that really allows people to hear the instrument.

Of course I can do a lot of different things with a rhythm section – I can play more single-line melodies, I can improvise over different chord changes, and it’s a little easier because I don’t have to hold down the chords and rhythm all the time and just focus on the melody. But at the same time, when I’m playing solo, you hear the instrument. Everything you hear is coming from one ukulele. And as a lover of acoustic music I think there’s a lot of satisfaction in that. And when I’m up there by myself, I can decide things on the fly and take quick turns without having to consult with anyone.

But I love collaborating with other musicians because, to me, that’s when you really learn. That’s when you can really grow. Over the past few years I’ve had the great fortune of touring with people like Jimmy Buffett, Victor Wooten and Bela Fleck, and I’ve done collaborations with people like Yo-Yo Ma, Ziggy Marley, Bette Midler and Cyndi Lauper. Those kinds of moments are just priceless. And I’ve learned so much during those little windows in time. And I really picked their brains and tried to understand how they approach music. What their philosophy is on life.

Photo: Sencame
“You can have a technically perfect show but if you do not make that connection with the audience, it wasn’t successful.”

Speaking of Bela Fleck, he and the Flecktones are known for having fairly long meet-and-greets. Are you an artist that does the same or are you more of the “mysterious” type?

Oh, I do meet-and-greets at every show. And most of the time the meet-and-greets are longer than the actual concert. But it’s great. I enjoy it. I love meeting people and talking with them. Especially kids.

I love talking to the young ones. A lot of them are getting into playing, and a lot of them are really good. It’s so wonderful to see younger people picking up the instrument and having a lot of fun with it. And sometimes, you know, these kids who come to the show, you wouldn’t think they play the ukulele because they have the spiky hair, the black fingernails, and they’re wearing all black. But they’ll tell me, “I used to be all into electric guitar and heavy metal and all that” but then they’ll tell me they saw some clips of me playing on YouTube, and they went out and bought a ukulele. So it’s really cool to see stuff like that.

You know, the meet and greets do go long but I am very fortunate because after the show, I get to check into a hotel, get a good night’s rest and then we leave early in the morning. And my tour manager, Mark, will drive four, five six, sometimes seven or eight hours. And sometimes if we’re lucky we can check into the hotel first. But a lot of times it’s going straight to the venue. But I think it works. For a larger band, you don’t want to check a lot of people into a hotel because that’s a lot of money. But for Mark and I, we’ll just rent a minivan and it’s not so expensive to get two rooms at a hotel. We can get a fresh shower and sleep in a comfortable bed. And then get up in the morning and take off again.

So I think there’s a great benefit in having a small group to travel with. Now, of course, if we had a five-piece band and then we had a lighting person and merch people then, yeah, we’d probably have to rent out one of those tour buses. That’s nice too because you have a dedicated driver and you’ll sleep on the bus and the next morning you’re in the next city. And you have a whole free day to walk around and go shopping or go check out a coffee shop. I’ve been a special guest on a couple of those tours so I’ve been able to get that experience. It’s very nice and relaxing but it’s also nice to sleep in a hotel room. And if we have a long way to go, we’ll just jump on an airplane.

Do you currently have a manager?

Well, my tour manager right now is Mark Dahlen. Then I have my personal business manager back in Hawaii, Kazusa Slanagan. The way I have things set up, I have my own management and record label. So under management, it’s called Toastman. I have two other employees there. We also have an office in Japan.

I have my own record label called Hitchhike Records. It’s really just something I needed to create on paper just so that I could release music because, originally, nine years ago, I was signed to Sony Music Japan International. When they make up the contract, they don’t just sign the artist, they sign the management company. Every artist has to be signed to a management company. So I had to make up a management company, so I made up Toastman. Then they just released my stuff in Japan but I wanted to license it from Sony so I could release it in Hawaii, in the U.S. So I created Hitchhike Records solely so I could license the music.

So you started with a few shell companies but filled them with real people as the years went along.

Exactly. This was nine years ago. I wasn’t touring heavily. I was just getting started. It was a lot simpler. But every year, as we got more and more opportunities, we brought on board more people to help with that. There was a lot more work to be done and, to get to the point where we are now. I feel fortunate to have a great tour manager from Nashville. He’s toured with, like, Karl Denson, Dixie Chicks, Crystal Gayle and Pat Green, so he’s very knowledgeable on the road. And he’s also a great house engineer, so he can double as my Front of House person. For me it’s so comforting there’s someone out there who’s making the sound consistent, venue to venue.

I also have a new album coming out in January and we’re working with Jimmy Buffett’s distribution label. I’ve been touring with Jimmy for a few years and he’s been taking great care of me. Also, now, we have a CPA firm that we work with and they’re very knowledgeable in the music industry. And, of course, we’re working with Shore Fire Media; that’s been a real eye-opener. So there’s been a lot of great things going on, and every day I learn so much, and I just feel so fortunate to be surrounded by great people to help guide me on my journey.

So you would consider yourself self-managed?

Yeah, I guess so. All of the decisions, all of the big ones at least, always come across my table. Growing up in Hawaii, it’s as if everyone you work with is family. Even with our booking agency, APA, it’s just one big happy family. I like keeping that close connection with everyone. I feel it’s very important.

I feel like I’m in a healthy place right now. I’m very happy and enjoying the excitement and all the new things that are happening. You never know how long these things will last and you hope you can continue to do this for the rest of your life. And regardless, whether I’m able to tour or not, or make a living for this, I’ll always have music in my life. I’m always going to be playing, whether I’m at home or in a coffee shop. It doesn’t matter. I’m just thankful I get to do that every night.

How long has “Bohemian Rhapsody” been in your repertoire?

Oh, I just started performing that. I did an arrangement of that earlier this year. It’s always evolving. “Bohemian Rhapsody” is a work in progress because there’s just so much to cover. The contrary motion, the bass, the guitar lines, the piano, the vocal lines. And the harmonies are so stacked and complex. But with the ukulele you only have two octaves and four strings. The lowest note is middle C on the piano. And you can only play four notes at a time so some of the harmonies that are really stacked, where you have six or seven voices going at once, you can’t capture it all. I remember sitting with the song and thinking, OK, what notes do I leave in and which ones do I take out? Because they all seem so important to me. You remove one and it changes the whole color of that section. So it was very difficult to arrange. I remember wishing I had an extra string or more range in the lower register. But you work with what you have and do your best.

I’ve been performing that at the shows and I’ve had some very positive feedback. The last thing that I would want is for it to come across as gimmicky. I really respect that piece of music. It’s a beautiful song. The way Queen did it was so epic. There are so many things going on that sometimes you don’t realize how beautiful some of the melodies are. There’s so much going on, and you’re so blown away and overwhelmed by the arrangement that sometimes you don’t realize that if you could just strip it away to its melody. And if someone could just sing it a cappella, it would still be a beautiful song.

And I was surprised. When you strip it down, sometimes it’s hard to find what line actually is the melody! It’s not always the highest voice and the chord. Or the part that your brain picks up as the melody. So there was a lot of dissecting to do and a lot of experimenting.

Are there any other tunes out there where you go, “That would be a challenge too, and everyone knows that song”?

There are so many songs. If you just peek into the classical world for a little bit, you’d find things in there you’d spend your entire life trying to transcribe for the ukulele. On my last live CD, I did Bach’s “Invention No. 4.” That one alone – it’s not even a minute long – but, man I spent so much time dissecting it and trying to figure out how to make it work on the ukulele. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. You could spend your life trying to master his work.

There’s so much music out there and I just want to discover and learn as much of it as I can. I know I won’t be able to learn half of what I want to learn by the time I die but that’s OK. That’s what keeps the passion alive, knowing you’ll never get to that finish line. The beauty is in the journey.

We see you’re booked pretty solid except for the holidays. Are you taking time off?

Yeah, I definitely love being on the road. I love touring. I love playing night after night. But this year I decided to take a break and that’s why I won’t be touring in December. I just decided to stay home. Usually when I go home I’m only there for between two or three days to maybe a week. This year I’ve had a couple of longer breaks, like two weeks, then hitting the road again. But I think this time I wanted to just catch up with my friends and family. So I decided to stay home the entire month of December.

But it’s funny because I tell people whenever I go home to Hawaii, a lot of times I find myself being more busy than when I’m out on the road. When I’m on the road, I just have to think about the shows. But when I go home, a lot of times I’m back in the recording studio, I’m still doing shows, I’m doing fundraisers and I have this nonprofit organization called Music Is Good Medicine. It’s basically an outreach program where I go and visit a lot of the schools in Hawaii, and senior care homes and hospitals. I’ll share music with them and do a little bit of motivational speaking for the kids – being drug free and things like that.

So a lot of times I’ll have two or three performances in a single day. And also when I’m home there’s things like paying bills and taking care of your bank stuff. Your regular day-to-day things. So sometimes going back on the road is a nice vacation for me!

Photo: Danny Clinch
“Whether I’m able to tour or not, or make a living for this, I’ll always have music in my life.”

Jake Shimabukuro performs at New York City’s HighLine Ballroom Oct. 25; Cambridge, Mass., at the Regattabar Oct. 26 and Minneapolis at Cedar Cultural Center Nov. 2. Click here for Shimabukuro’s complete schedule and here to visit the artist’s website.