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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 you prefer?
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 process?
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 approach arranging?
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.