Click here to watch an exclusive video interview with Jake.
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 show Midnight 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?
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.