Curtain Call: Jake Shimabukuro, the Rock ‘n’ Roll Ukulele Star

A four-stringed version of a Beatles song put him on the map, now he’s charting new territory

Think of the greatest rock songs: “Purple Haze,” “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” “Bohemian Rhapsody,” “Let’s Dance,” “Thriller,” “Rolling in the Deep.” Jimi Hendrix, the Beatles, Queen, Bowie, Michael Jackson, and Adele made them famous but one man has covered all of them and more—on the ukulele. Hawaiian musician Jake Shimabukuro will work through his diverse repertoire of pop standards when he plays Pepperdine University in Malibu and the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts this week.

Shimabukuro became an internet sensation six years ago when his version of the Beatles’ “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” performed at Strawberry Fields in Central Park, found its way online. The video has amassed more than 13 million hits. Since then Shimabukuro has released several CDs and has performed all over the world.

His passion for the four-stringed instrument began as a child. “I remember the first time I picked up a ukulele,” he says by phone from Santa Barbara. “I was four years old and my mom gave me hers. She asked me to sit on the floor and not drop it and taught me to play my first chord. I thought it was the coolest thing. You can immediately start playing because it’s so simple and tiny.”

Growing up in Hawaii, Shimabukuro was surrounded by many traditional musicians. “We had a lot of great players who played jazz standards, traditional Hawaiian music, and non-traditional Hawaiian tunes,” he says. “It wasn’t until I was in my late teens that I started playing my ukulele through a Marshall amp and experimenting with different effects, pedals, pickups—really studying electric guitar players and how they hone in on their tone. Not an acoustic tone, a stage tone.”

When asked who those players might be, Shimabukuro offers an eclectic list: “All the usual suspects. Hendrix and Eddie Van Halen but also Andrés Segovia, Pat Metheny, Wes Montgomery. These guys inspired me a lot with the sound they got from their instruments. To this day I love listening to players who really push the boundaries of their instruments.”

For his new record, Grand Ukulele, Shimabukuro teamed with one of rock music’s best known producers: Alan Parsons (Dark Side of the Moon; Abbey Road). “I was so excited to work with him because I’m a huge fan of his work. He’s a legend. I don’t know what to say. It was really a dream come true. Very unexpected.”

The project, which puts Shimabukuro front and center with a 60 to 80 piece orchestra, includes a new version of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” a song that he had previously recorded for his 2007 EP, My Life. “When we first started talking about songs, he said ‘Man, I would love for you to record ‘Over the Rainbow.’ We’ll bring in a nice string section. It will be beautiful.’ I didn’t have the confidence to tell him I recorded that song before. Halfway through the recording project I mentioned it to him. ‘Wait you recorded it before? Why didn’t you tell me?’ It’s completely different from the approach I took a few years ago.”

Shimabukuro is humble in conversation. He’s also aware that at some point his fame and fortune could come to an end. “If it all ended tomorrow, I’d still be playing every day and practicing every day and trying to write. I love picking up the instrument and thinking to myself what’s something different I can come up with?”