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Over the past century, the ukulele—that perennially happy-sounding instrument from Hawaii—has risen to prominence and fallen out of popularity several times. Yet it always finds a newly enthusiastic audience once again. An initial ukulele craze was sparked in 1915 when the instrument made an appearance at the Panama Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco. A resurgence happened in the 1950s when the host of theArthur Godfrey and His Friendsvariety show regularly strummed his Maccaferri Islander for television audiences and contributed to a spike in sales of the instrument. The ukulele waned in popularity again from the 1970s onward, but in 2006 it enjoyed another comeback, thanks to a YouTube video by Hawaiian-born uke phenom Jake Shimabukuro.

The video, “Ukulele weeps by Jake Shimabukuro,” had nearly seven million hits as of press time, and it features Shimabukuro playing an incredible interpretation of the Beatles’ “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” in the Strawberry Fields memorial section of New York’s Central Park (an area of the park near where John Lennon was assassinated). It was filmed in a single take and originally aired on the cable access showMidnight Ukulele Disco.

Shimabukuro’s fame spread rapidly. He was soon featured on
Late Night with Conan O’Brien, and some began calling him the Jimi Hendrix of the ukulele. Now 34, Shimabukuro is one of the world’s greatest ukulele virtuosos, with an awe-inspiring technique that is especially apparent on his unaccompanied arrangements and excursions. And his repertoire is remarkably wide-reaching, too: He’s equally comfortable playing everything from pop to classical and reggae, and he’s done so alongside such notables as Yo-Yo Ma, Jimmy Buffet, and Ziggy Marley.

Peace Love Ukulele, Shimabukuro’s new album, features 10 tracks full of impressive playing. But the two biggest highlights are the stirring original, “Go for Broke”—a tribute to World War II veterans— and an orchestral-like solo rendition of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.” We chatted with Shimabukuro about the new album, how he managed to channel both Brian May and Freddie Mercury with his diminutive little axe, and how he’s transformed the light and simple ukulele into a seriously heavy instrument.

When did you start playing the uke?

Onstage, Shimabukuro keeps his uke in tune with a Peterson StroboClip. Photo by Sencame
I first picked up the ukulele when I was about 4 years old. My mom introduced me to the instrument, and I began by playing familiar Hawaiian folk music. Growing up in Hawaii, it was natural to play the ukulele—it was so easy to throw it over my shoulder and play it at the park, on the beach, and even in the car. In other words, it made playing music possible everywhere, and that’s a wonderful quality. I wouldn’t have been able to do that with a guitar—which would’ve taken a lot more effort to carry around—or a violin, which is small but fragile and very sensitive to different weather conditions. I also really loved the sound of the ukulele—light, happy, and childlike—qualities that still appeal to me.

When did you get serious about it?

When I was a teenager I started branching out, listening to a little bit of everything—rock ’n’ roll, jazz, classical, and blues—and I would try to mimic it all on the ukulele. That’s what led me to developing a different technique and approach to the instrument altogether. In the beginning, it was all by ear. But when I got into high school, I started getting some formal music training, learning about sight reading, theory, and composition.

How important was that training to your musicianship?

It has played a really huge role in my musical life. While the training helped me better understand what I was doing on the instrument, it made me not just a stronger ukulele player but a complete musician. And I’m still always trying to expand and challenge myself by discovering new things about music. The great thing about it is that, the more you learn, the more you realize how little you know. That’s the beauty of it—you can never know everything you want to know about music in a lifetime.