Your music is remarkably diverse. Who were
some of your biggest influences?
I’m influenced by the guitar greats of all
styles—Eddie Van Halen, Yngwie Malmsteen,
Pat Metheny, Michael Hedges, Andrés Segovia.
I’m also inspired by consummate musicians
like [cellist] Yo-Yo Ma, [bassist and composer]
Edgar Meyer, [banjoist] Béla Fleck, and [vocalist]
Bobby McFerrin. But it’s actually not just music
that informs my arranging, composing, and
performing: Bruce Lee is a huge influence. His
philosophy and approach to martial arts are valid
in any art form—and even in life in general.
Bill Cosby is also an influence, because of his
ability to just be himself, to seem so natural and
sincere in his performances. And Michael Jordan,
whose vehicle was of course basketball, expressed
himself in a way on the court that was just truly
magical and that I find musically inspiring.
Let’s talk about technique. Do you use a pick,
or do you play fingerstyle exclusively?
I got into picks for a while, because I listened
to a lot of Al Di Meola and was so blown away
with what he did with a pick—such fast lines
and such clean, precise runs. But, to me, fingers
really give music a lot more character and
uniqueness. Think about it: Anyone can run
out and buy the same pick as you, but no one
can go out and buy your hand in a music store.
So, I believe that using your fingers really brings
something special to the table.
What type of ukuleles and tunings do
I play with a traditional tenor ukulele tuning
in which the two outer strings are higher than
the two middle strings. The notes [1st string
through 4th] are A, E, C, G, the lowest one
being middle C.
What brand and model do you play, and what
kind of strings are on it?
I play custom-made Kamaka ukuleles. It’s funny,
because people are always wondering what specs
I ask for in the instruments. But I know nothing
about making instruments—that’s Kamaka’s area of
expertise, so whenever they ask me what I want for
my next ukulele, I just let them surprise me. And
every time they make a new instrument, it’s truly
amazing and exceeds my wildest expectations. It’s
important to me to have a working relationship with
a luthier, because there’s a certain kind of energy
that goes into building an instrument. If that energy
is intended for a specific player, then he or she will
have a special bond with the instrument, and the
music that comes out of it will be enhanced.
For strings, I use D’Addario’s J71 tenor uke set,
the clear nylons with normal tension. I love those—
they sound fantastic every time. They’re so consistent
and very expressive, great for playing really soft
or strumming hard. They are very sensitive, and
that’s a really big deal because if I’m going for more
of a piano sound, I need the strings to respond to
the subtle things that I’m doing to shape the tone.
In 2006, Kamaka began making the limited-run Jake Shimabukuro Signature Model ukulele, which features a curly koa body, rosewood binding, and ebony
fretboard and bridge. Each instrument sells for $5500 and takes 18 months to complete. All 100 have already been sold. Photo by Sencame
There are some great original tunes on Peace
Love Ukulele. Can you describe your compositional
I’m a very simple person and I play a very simple
instrument, so I normally start with one simple
idea and turn that into several minute, even just
one-minute expressions. The idea could be something
I experienced in childhood, or it could be
something that inspired me recently, or maybe
even a chord voicing that I just discovered. Then,
I’ll work around that one idea. I know it sounds
so basic, but there have been instances when I’ve
had a handful of ideas and tried to cram them all
into one song. That’s tended to not work for me.
The covers are remarkable, too. How do you
I don’t just pick up my ukulele and arrange a
tune. It would be easy enough to put together
a melody line and some chords, but whenever I
do an arrangement it’s not just about making a
tune recognizable—it’s about doing something
that makes it unique to the ukulele. It wouldn’t
make sense for me to make an arrangement that
could be replicated on any other instrument. A
lot of my arranging strategy has to do with using
the high 4th string—perhaps making an unusual
cluster chord or playing the melody by bouncing
back and forth between the 1st and 4th strings
so they kind of ring over each other. Basically, in
arranging I try to find the least obvious way to
do the most obvious thing.