By: Lauren Tingle
To bring my ukulele, or not to bring my ukulele? That was my main question going into my interview with international sensation Jake Shimabukuro. To bring a ukulele to a Jake interview would be like bringing a banjo to a Q&A with Béla Fleck or a mandolin to a one-on-one with Chris Thile, because like them, Jake’s talent on ukulele is pure genius. He makes the four-stringed instrument sound like a classical guitar, a grand piano, a telecaster and everything in between. His arrangement of The Beatles classic “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” has surpassed 14 million views on YouTube. He’s delivered a TED Talks seminar, in which he called the ukulele the Facebook of all instruments.
With all that in mind, I decided to bring mine. It was a first for me. As a journalist, I never want to jeopardize my reputation by hauling an instrument to an interview. It can give the wrong impression, like I’m shopping for a break. In reality, I just wanted to know the first strums Jake learned in life.
Jake and I holed up in one of the writing rooms at Nashville’s BMI headquarters to talk about his latest album, Travels, his impressions of Music City and what makes the ukulele the friendliest instrument on the planet.
“Did you want to learn that strum?” Jake asked toward the end of our visit.
“Yes,” I said and reached for my case.
“You’ve been playing a long time?” he asked as I handed him my instrument to try.
“Not that long,” I said. “Maybe, four years? You probably get a lot of interviewers who bring ukuleles.”
“C’mon,” I said as he handed back my ukulele
“Ok,” he said. “So, how do you do a down stroke?”
“I’ve only had one ukulele lesson,” I said and strummed the strings with the backs of my fingernails.
“That’s perfect,” he said. “You know the drummer for the band Tower of Power?”
“He would have all these different sticking techniques,” Jake said. “He would have all these different heights of where he would put his stick. I thought the ukulele should be like that. For me, my basic strum was always around the 15th fret. If I wanted a warmer tone, I would move up slightly. If I wanted a brighter more nasally tone, I would move over the hole or get closer to the bridge.”
“I’m learning so much right now,” I said.
“Now the upstroke,” Jake continued, “you come up with the pad of your finger. When you do that, you get two different sounds. When I’m strumming down, my nail is making contact with the strings, and I get a brighter sound. But when I do my upstroke, it’s the skin of my index finger and it’s a warmer sound.
“Then I started strumming like I’m holding a business card with my index and thumb,” he said. “So the down stroke would be the same with your index nail down. But with the up, you come up with the thumb nail. But then sometimes you want the warmer sound. The upstroke would be the padding of your index and the down stroke would be the padding of your thumb. So, that’s three different sounds — all nail, all flesh and nail with flesh.”
Jake then jammed some bluegrass, showing me the difference in sound between the three techniques. I was so impressed, I held my hands to my face to keep it from melting all over the floor.
I watched your TED Talk on the ukulele. How has the instrument affected your interactions with people?
Well, one thing I love about the instrument is there’s really no ego attached to the ukulele. It’s a very humble instrument — very friendly and open. When you bring it out and when you’re in the presence of it, I feel like people let their guards down. They’re just more open and they’re not afraid to come talk to you. It’s very disarming versus if you have a guitar, which can be a little intimidating, right? But with ukulele, people aren’t afraid to ask, “Can I see that?” And grab it out of your hands and try to strum it. You would never do that to someone holding a violin. But the ukulele is such a casual, friendly and disarming instrument. That’s what I love about it. It just brings people together. It kind of brings out the kid in people. That’s what it does for me. I’ve met so many wonderful people through that instrument, I wouldn’t even know where to begin. My mom was my first teacher. I was exactly four years old when she first sat me down, put the ukulele in my hands and taught me a few chords. I remember just sitting there playing it, and I just fell in love with it. There was just something about the sound — this playfulness of the instrument. My parents divorced when I was quite young. My mom was working full time and my brother and I didn’t see my dad as often. So I think being home by myself and playing the ukulele was comforting at the time. It brought my brother and I close because we would play together a lot. I think that’s what ignited my passion for the instrument.
I totally understand feeling intimidated by other instruments. You have to be very proficient at violin right off the bat. Otherwise, it’s easy to get discouraged. It’s the same thing with drums. They’re so loud.
I tell people the nice thing about the ukulele is that you don’t have to be a musician to play it. If you can use a pencil, you can play ukulele. You can enjoy it on any level. You can just know two or three chords and have so much fun with it. You can teach someone to play the instrument in minutes. And the joy that you see on their face once they can play a chord and they’re like, “Oh my gosh! I’m playing the ukulele!” It’s really cool.
You have the most diverse fan base, I think, of anybody in the world – Bette Midler, Eddie Vedder, Cyndi Lauper, the Queen of England, Lyle Lovett, Francis Ford Coppola – they all love you. What would your 17-year-old self think of all this support?
I don’t know, man. I still can’t believe all those things happened! All the opportunities that I’ve been getting and all the different experiences I’ve had because of the ukulele, it just blows my mind. I sat in with Vince Gill and the Time Jumpers at 3rd and Lindsley and we were jamming! It’s always been my dream to see them. Every time I come through Nashville, it’s never on a Monday night. I used to hear stories of how Chris Thile would go and sit in. When Vince invited me to sit in, I just couldn’t believe it. It’s moments like that which are so humbling and so inspiring. Vince is just an incredible guitar player. He can go from playing full-on country or bluegrass, and go straight to blues, rock or jazz. It makes you realize the level of musicianship in Nashville. And they can play with any musician on the planet, but they’re so low key. What really blew me away was the fiddle section. The way they phrase and the way they play, it’s like a horn section. You never see string players like that. I was playing with them and there was a moment where I just kind of stopped, took a breath and just let it sink in. It was just amazing. I couldn’t sleep after that.
Nashville does that to people. For a lot of locals, we get spoiled because the median level of talent in this town is through the roof. There are times where I just leave my face on the floor at whatever venue I visit.
It’s incredible here. I always joke – well, not joking, because it’s true — but the guy serving you your coffee is 10 times more talented than you are. And everyone’s trying to get their music out there, their art.
What has YouTube done for the ukulele community? That’s my teacher.
It’s great! When I was growing up, if you wanted to learn a song, you had to either buy the album or the cassette tape and you’d have to press stop, rewind, stop, and play. That’s how we learned. It’s great because we’re seeing a lot of young virtuosos. I’m always fishing through YouTube and looking for new artists. It’s such a powerful vehicle, not just for musicians to get their stuff out there, but it’s also great for artists to get inspiration and see what else is out there.
Tell me about Travels. Did your world travels influence this next collection? I hear so many different genres in your work.
The title of the album came after we were done recording the record. Pat Metheny’s album Travels taught me to love jazz. Before that album, I was never a big fan of jazz. What I loved about Pat’s album was that it was recorded live. He also used this special tape echo delay that I was interested in buying. I bought the record, and it’s two discs. For some reason, I put disc two in first and halfway through the record, I was on the sofa crying. I thought I was going to run around and do stuff. But I just got teary listening to this music and his playing. I thought, “Oh my gosh, what is going on?” And I still can’t get enough of that record. After that record, something changed the way I listened to music. That was a big turning point for me. I felt like this record was another turning point for me in the way I look at music. The idea of going through my journey as a musician, from starting out when I was four years old and learning the traditional Hawaiian to then gravitating toward different styles of music. Also, it’s kind of a tribute album to my heroes — my favorite ukulele players growing up in Hawaii and their influence on me.
Let’s talk George Harrison. He’s my favorite Beatle, too. I have to agree with Frank Sinatra when he called “Something” the most beautiful love song ever written, and it was written on ukulele.
I never knew that. I’m writing that down. That’s cool.
What are your thoughts on the ease of the instrument and how some the most iconic songs were written on the ukulele?
George loved the ukulele so much. I always wondered if he got a lot of his ideas for songs from the ukulele. A lot of his tunes like “Something,” “Here Comes the Sun” and “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” are so friendly on the ukulele in the way the chords progress naturally and the way the voices move. For songwriters, the ukulele’s the perfect tool. I know here at BMI, they have all these great writing rooms where people get together and write songs. But for me, it’s hard to write in a room because you want to be outside for that inspiration. When I write, I want to go like hike up a trail, find a nice place on a rock to sit, and play. In Hawaii, I love going down to the beach and finding a nice little spot to sit with my instrument. I do that all the time. It would be tough to lug a guitar up a trail. But if you’ve got a small standard-sized ukulele, you just throw it in your backpack. When you get to wherever you want to be, just take it out and strum a few chords. You have all the elements you need to write a song. And because it’s so easy to play, you don’t have to think so much about what your fingers are doing, you can focus on your melody and focus on your lyrics. That’s why I think it’s a great writing tool because it’s tiny and it’s portable.
You’re so incredibly positive and in a business where anything can happen. What is your secret to personal happiness?
I think, for me, honestly, it’s just the music that keeps me happy. When I’m performing onstage, I don’t want to be doing anything else. I don’t want to be thinking about anything else other than being in the moment and it’s not always onstage. It can be just practicing by myself. I love it when you’re in a nice concert hall or when you’re plugged into a high-quality sound system and you’re surrounded by the sound. The reason I love performing is not so much because of having interaction with an audience, but it’s because you have this opportunity to play in an amazing venue and hear your instrument speak. Some of my favorite parts in the show is when it gets really quiet. You can almost feel like everyone in the room is holding their breath together to that last chord. You just feel that exhale. That’s such a rush for me. I just love music. I love just putting myself in different scenarios. I don’t know what the outcome is going to be but it’s exciting.
When did you first realize that you were part of something that’s bigger than yourself?
Philosophy was always a big thing for me even before I knew what philosophy was. I could never look at something or do something without trying to gain my own understanding or interpretation of it. And I think it started with my obsession with Bruce Lee. He was one of my heroes. I had his book when I was a kid, called Tao of Jeet Kune Do, which is basically his philosophy on martial arts. A lot of those ideas you can apply to anything. For him, martial arts is not about the punching and the kicking. To him, it’s just a human expression. I realized that everything we do, whether it’s martial arts or music, if you’re a schoolteacher or if you’re an athlete, it’s human expression. It’s at its most powerful when you have conviction and when you really believe in what you’re doing. When Bruce Lee throws that punch, it’s not just his hands, and it’s not just his body. It’s the mental aspect of the act, the human spirit and all three of those things coming together to do one thing. I always thought music was like that. When I was a kid, I used to think about that when I strummed a ukulele. It’s not just about my hand coming down. It’s like can you feel that energy from the toes come up your legs, your knees, your hips and your whole body. Even when you’re looking at your instrument, you want to be looking in the direction that you’re going to strum. Everything you do has to go into it — even your whole spirit — you put it all in there. You’re physically, mentally, spiritually committing to that one emotion. I really believe that when you do that, it’s beyond anything you can understand. You have control over your thoughts, you have control over your body, but it’s that third thing that you don’t always have control over. To me, that’s the most important one. And that’s when I know that it’s not just about me. It’s about all the other elements – the energy in the room, all the different things that are influencing you and trying to take all that and channel it. That’s the thing that I think as an artist we all strive for in life. Music is deep. There’s just things that happen sometimes that are beyond your understanding and sometimes you don’t even know if everyone else experienced the same thing you just experienced. But yeah, what a gift that we have that music exists. I’m just so grateful because I don’t know what I’d be doing today if it wasn’t for music.
Jake headlines the Franklin Theater on Tuesday, October 13. Tickets start at $39.