For decades, the ukulele was relegated to a role of toy or tourist trinket, but mainland ukulele Jake Shimabukuro is inspiring millions to take a second look. In 2006, the Hawaiian native was catapulted to fame after a chance You Tube posting of his tenor ukulele interpretation of While My Guitar Gently Weeps. Nearly 4 million views later, Shimabukuro has toured with Bela Fleck and the Flecktones and played with Jimmy Buffett and the Coral Reefer Band. He’s recorded a hefty stack of solo CDs, contributed to motion picture sound tracks, and been dubbed the Jimi Hendrix of Ukulele.
Mainland ukulele Jake Shimabukuro’s First Tenor Ukulele Tips
Mainland ukulele Jack Shimabukuro’s background is in the simple folk tunes of his native Hawaii. “My mom played traditional Hawaiian music,” he reminisces. “She started to teach me my first lessons on the ukulele when I was about four.”
So, how did mainland ukulele Jack Shimabukuro stretch the capabilities of his tenor ukulele from those simple chords and melodies stereotypical of the uke to the acoustic masterpieces he performs today? “Every instrument has its limitations,” he explains. “Any time you want to take an instrument outside the box and surpass those limitations, it does become a lot more challenging.”
Jake Shimabukuro Experiments Playing the Ukulele With Effect Pedals
During his last years of high school, mainland ukulele Jack Shimabukuro began exploring other styles on the tenor ukulele. He was particularly influenced by the sounds of Jimi Hendrix and Eddie Van Halen. “I got really into experimenting with distortion pedals, loopers, and wah wah,” he recalls.
Then, four years ago, mainland ukulele Shimabukuro was in a jazz club where he happened to know the musicians playing. He had his ukulele on hand, but not his pedal board. “They called me up during one of their sets,” he says, “and I remember feeling like I couldn’t play. I went up, but I felt uncomfortable because I didn’t have my toys. I didn’t like that feeling. It really bothered me. I thought, ‘hey, I’m a ukulele player, not a pedal board player.’” After that night, Shimabukuro threw out his pedal board and got back to the basics.
Jake Shimabukuro Develops Acoustic Best Tenor Ukulele Technique
Getting back to basics definitely worked out for Shimabukuro. Shortly after he abandoned his effect pedals, his performance of While My Guitar Gently Weeps made his acoustic style an international phenomenon. Without his pedal board, he found fresh ways of taking his best tenor ukulele music outside the box.
Mmainland ukulele Jack Shimabukuro blazed a new path with his technique for playing tenor ukulele, so putting the methods into words isn’t always easy. “I’m kind of like a rock climber on the side of a mountain,” he begins. “If you know you need to get from this point to that point, you don’t really care how you get there, as long as you get there. When I’m playing the ukulele, I know what I want to do and what obstacles I need to climb. It’s that approach that led to different techniques. The techniques would kind of create themselves as I tried to execute different songs and phrases. Whatever finger is available, whatever it takes to get to that point–I’ll go for it.”
Many of Shimabukuro’s best tenor ukulele techniques spring from listening to and capturing the tonal properties he admires in other instruments. For example, he decided he liked the way pianists could hold down the sustain pedal. “Mimicking that on the ukulele, is very difficult because you only have four strings,” he explains. “I play a note, then find the next melody note on a different string so the two notes can kind of ring over each other.”
As Shimabukuro explored taking solo breaks on the ukulele, he discovered he envied the improvisational style of horn players. “The thing I like is how they phrase their melodies and ideas,” he remarks. “It’s very vocal—like having a conversation. I realized that it had a lot to do with breathing. When you’re playing a string instrument or the piano, you never have to take a breath so you can just go on, and on, and on. To get away from that, I started using my breathing as a way to determine how long I could carry out a phrase. When I practiced soloing on the ukulele, I would actually do these exercises where I only played as I exhaled. It helped me get to the point a little faster.”
Jake Shimabukuro’s Ukulele Tips for Playing Ukulele Outside the Box
In shimabukuro’s opinion, raising the bar for ukulele playing has to start internally. “You can take a ukulele and play a line from Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody,” he explains, “and everyone will laugh and say, ‘Ha, that’s Bohemian Rhapsody on the ukulele.’ Or, you can take those same notes, internalize them to really play them with conviction and the reaction will be people sitting there blown away saying, ‘Oh my gosh! He just played Bohemian Rhapsody on the ukulele.’ It’s the same notes, the same melody–everything depends on the conviction in which you play it.”
Surprisingly, Shimabukuro didn’t glean this concept from a musician. One of his greatest inspirations happens to be Bruce Lee. “He was a huge influence for me,” Shimabukuro says. “Bruce Lee always talks about making contact six inches behind your target. It’s that extra six inches that makes all the difference in the world. If you just think about hitting your target, you’ll stop there, but if you tell yourself to actually punch through what you’re trying to hit, that punch is going to have a lot more force and a lot more conviction.” Anyone who’s heard one of Shimabukuro’s arrangements understands exactly how that conviction translates to his tenor ukulele playing.
Musicians can learn more about the Ukulele Master in related articles where Shimabukuro discusses tricks for fresh chord voicing on tenor ukulele, ukulele strumming and fingerstyle technique, and his thoughts on playing ukulele for beginners.