It’s one of the most unlikely success stories in music. Armed with a four-string tenor ukulele, a young Hawaiian videos himself playing solo in Central Park. His dynamic instrumental arrangement of George Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” goes viral, viewed more than 17 million times. His command of the instrument and interpretations of material by Sting, Adele, and Queen turn perception on its head about the seemingly humble instrument. In short, Jake Shimabukuro becomes a rock star.
Twenty years and more than a dozen albums later, Shimabukuro has collaborated with Jimmy Buffett, Tommy Emmanuel, Jason Becker, Michael McDonald, Béla Fleck, Earl Klugh, Jack Johnson, Alan Parsons, Ziggy Marley, Yo-Yo Ma, and others. His latest effort, Jake & Friends, boasts perhaps the most star-studded roster yet, with artists ranging from Vince Gill to Bette Midler to Moon Taxi. Jon Anderson does the Beatles, Warren Haynes does Ten Years After, Ray Benson does Cream, and Jesse Colin Young revisits his classic “Get Together.”
Surprisingly, only three songs were recorded remotely; the other 13 were cut in person. As the 45-year-old says, “We sat down, played, and hit ‘Record’ – real takes, live in the studio.”
Jake phoned from the road to talk about his recording process, his equipment, and famous friends.
How did you pair the songs to the artists?
I asked everyone what song they wanted to do, and as long as I knew the key, I could prepare ahead of time. “Wrapping Paper” was one I suggested. I’ve always loved Cream, but that was one of their lesser-known songs. I knew that Ray Benson loved those kinds of chord changes. He’d never heard it, but it’s an Asleep At The Wheel song now (laughs).
What about the two instrumental numbers, with Billy Strings and Sonny Landreth?
They’re both such great improvisers, we just thought we’d see what would happen. I love the spontaneity of those cuts, how they happened organically. Sonny’s phrasing and tone – he’s just amazing, and “Smokin’ Strings,” with Billy, is a first take from beginning to end. Afterward, we did another few passes, charting things out, but they didn’t have the magic of the first one.
In Hawaii, we have a word, kanikapila, for a casual jam session, like at a party. I had an idea like, if we sat down in someone’s living room with a couple of instruments, what would it sound like? Natural, not forced or overproduced.
You do the standard “Stardust” with Willie Nelson, who is known for his unorthodox phrasing. And it’s just vocal and ukulele.
Ray Benson co-produced the album with me, and the first call he made was to Willie. A few months later we were in the studio, recording “Stardust.” I was so nervous! (laughs) I needed to be standing right next to him to follow him, because of the way he sings, and there was no one keeping time. So I couldn’t mess up, right? If I make a mistake, I can’t just punch in; we’ve got to do the whole thing over. But he always knows where he is, where the beat is, where the changes are. You just have to stay with him and let him lead you. That track is so honest.
Are you still using your signature model Kamaka uke?
Yes. I got a new one they made for me during the pandemic, which I just started using. It usually takes about a year of playing for one to really open up, where you get a sense of what it will be like going forward.
Walk us through your onstage signal chain.
I use a Saturnworks True Bypass Looper and an Orion Kafka Reverb with a germanium transistor that warms up the signal. That goes into the D.W. Fearn DI. For my overdrive stuff, I use the Jam Pedals Tubedreamer, which has a nice midrange sweep. Then I go into an Analog Alien Bass Station, which I use for the amp simulator. For delay, I use a Jam Pedals Delay Llama, and I have an Electro-Harmonix Pog for octave and freeze.
Not in the signal chain is a Boss RC-5 Loop Station, because I only use it for one or two songs. My favorite looper is a Boomerang, but it’s so big there’s not enough room on my pedalboard. I use it in the studio. My cables are all Analysis Plus, and my strings are D’Addario. My pickup system is Fishman.
A lot of these songs are iconic, but you’re famous for reinterpreting well-known songs.
That’s because I didn’t have confidence playing my own music in front of people. So I’d play songs I grew up listening to, like, “How would ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ sound on ukulele?” I’m getting more ideas for original material, and I think that came from the process of arranging other songs. You develop different skills and get familiar with different chord progressions and voicings that speak to you. I try to come up with things you’ve never heard before.
This article originally appeared in VG’s January 2022 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.