Jake Shimabukuro might forever be known as the ukulele player who performed an innovative cover of George Harrison's "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" on a bench in Central Park. A single-shot video of the performance, posted online in 2005, has created an audience of millions for his music and given him the opportunity to share the stage with the likes of Béla Fleck, Bette Midler, Ziggy Marley, and Jimmy Buffett.
"We wouldn't be talking if it wasn't for YouTube," Shimabukuro says on the phone from his hometown of Honolulu, Hawaii. He spends nine months of the year on the road performing his solo show these days, so he relishes the chance to catch a few waves, do some fishing, and eat a little Spam wasubi on the island where he was raised.
He has recorded other rock and pop covers since "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," including an elaborate arrangement of Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody" on his most recent album, 2011's Peace Love Ukulele, but none of them have seen the same sort of viral success. He's still experimenting, though.
"You take a Wagner piece or something, you'll rip out all your hair trying to do that and not even get past the first 10 bars," he says. "There are always things out there that are going to be next to impossible to play, but that's the beauty of the ukulele. It's not about capturing every single note, but it's about capturing the spirit of the song." He bore that adage in mind while working on "Bohemian Rhapsody," a song whose stacked harmonies he knew he could never replicate exactly with the four-stringed instrument.
The first time through the verse and chorus of any cover song, Shimabukuro plays it straight out of respect for the composer. But then he lets loose, sometimes tweaking the time signature or strumming through blurringly fast percussive runs. In the YouTube video that made him famous, the low frame rate creates a stop-motion animation effect as his playing hand flies back and forth over the sound hole.
Shimabukuro is no Tiny Tim on the uke; he pushes the limits of his instrument to create sounds that few fans of island music could have expected. If he feels that a song calls for full-on, hair-metal finger-tapping, he makes it happen. If he's going for soft jazz, he'll plug into a reverb effect pedal and slink his way up and down the tiny fretboard, although he has recently gone back to playing strictly acoustic. In his original compositions, he has borrowed elements of bluegrass, flamenco, and Japanese folk music.
"If Bruce Lee played the ukulele, how would he approach it?" he asks himself. In interviews, Shimabukuro almost always brings up the Chinese-American martial arts master who trained in the Wing Chun tradition but famously said that the best style was to have no style.
"In the beginning, he was all about the technique and all of that, and it was just precision and technique, but then he realized at some point that it wasn't about form," Shimabukuro says. "It was about being formless, and it was about not confining yourself to these rituals and all of that. Martial arts, for him, later became simply the art of expressing himself honestly."
The challenge of virtuosity is knowing when to hold back — just because you can, that doesn't mean you should, in other words. He points to B.B. King as a role model in this respect: "He can play one note and just make you cry." At the opposite end of the spectrum, he says, "You can play a thousand notes and not make me feel anything."
Shimabukuro is no snob about the ukulele, and he is not offended by artists who pick up the instrument as a novelty — although he appreciates the care and conviction that Eddie Vedder brought to his 2011 album Ukulele Songs ("When Eddie Vedder picks up an instrument, you know it's cool," he says). Part of the beauty of the uke, he says, is that it's not intimidating. His mother taught him the basics when he was a boy, and she later signed him up for lessons with an instructor. It was during his teenage years that he started wondering if the tinny little instrument was useful for more than just sleepy island ballads.
In recent years, he has found himself going back for inspiration to the well that supplied his fame: YouTube. He can spend hours per week exploring the wealth of music being shared by other artists, professional and amateur. He lets the wave of ideas wash over him, and he emerges thinking a little bit differently than he had before.