The ukulele is where many a guitarist got his or her start, but for Jake Shimabukuro, it was the destination. The lowly four-string has always been capable of more than “Tiptoe Through The Tulips,” but few could have envisioned the level to which this virtuoso takes it.
Shimabukuro views the instrument as an “untapped source of music with unlimited potential” – and apparently he’s right.
Dragon is the fourth solo album by this 28-year-old, who took up the uke at age four. Although he plays electric guitar on one track and acoustic on two others, what often sounds very guitaristic is, in fact, a ukulele. His Kamaka tenor uke was custom-built, but has no special technical features, and Shimabukuro tunes it the traditional way, with a high G – G,C,E,A (low to high).
That’s where any resemblance to the hula instrument we’re used to ends. The CD opens with an original titled, appropriately, “Shake It Up!” Over an Afro-Cuban drum loop, with squawking, distorted guitar (also looped), Shimabukuro’s ukulele soars in a style that’s equal parts flamenco and fusion, punctuated by synth horns. Shimabukuro supplies the distorted guitar figure that opens “With U Always,” which is the theme song for the Hawaii tourism ads on Japanese TV and radio. Again, the lead acoustic ukulele fits the modern setting so well, you forget that it’s “limited” to only two octaves.
“Circle Of Friends” was written by having friends randomly select letters (notes) from A to G, with Shimabukuro then giving them rhythmic values and adding harmony. The result would sit comfortably on a Santana album. On the title track, inspired by Bruce Lee, Shimabukuro employs two-hand tapping (not easy on an instrument that doesn’t produce much volume). But, again, the composition (with a beautiful string arrangement) is as impressive as Jake’s playing – which is saying a lot.
The uke’s sound on “Floaters,” a simple but infectious tune played solo, could be a classical guitar or mandolin, while the surging “3rd Stream” demonstrates some dazzling picking set against flute flourishes for a nice effect. The only non-original is “Concierto de Aranjuez,” a favorite of classical and jazz guitarists, which Jake successfully sets to a dance groove.
Again and again, Shimabukuro explodes any prejudices one might have regarding his chosen instrument and what can be done with it. Obviously, it’s the player that matters, not the instrument. And the little twist that the ukulele gives the overall sound makes Shimabukuro’s music even more uncategorizable – equal parts jazz, rock, pop, Hawaiian, Gypsy and Latin. It is a nice reminder that music has no boundaries, and that the only limit is one’s creativity.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s Oct. ’05 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.