In the annals of popular music history, Jake Shimabukuro has achieved the unthinkable. The 39-year-old fifth generation Japanese-American and Hawaii native has made the oft-scoffed-at ukulele hip. And not just hip, we’re talking rock star stratosphere here. No less than Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder has praised Shimabukuro’s ability to shred on the four-string mini me guitar first popularized (chiefly for its light weight and portability) by Portuguese immigrants working in the sugar cane fields of Hawaii.
After a 2006 YouTube video of Shimabukuro playing a cover of George Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” in Central Park’s Strawberry Fields went viral (it’s now been viewed more than 14 million times), the virtuoso’s career took off. Since then, he’s toured with Jimmy Buffett, collaborated with Yo-Yo Ma, Cyndi Lauper, Ziggy Marley, Bela Fleck, given a TED Talk and played for Queen Elizabeth II.
On Friday, Nov. 20 at 8 p.m. Shimabukuro returns to the Ferst Center for the Arts at Georgia Tech to once again dazzle Atlantans.
In a chat with Eldredge ATL, Jake discusses his new album, “Travels,” why he snuck a vocal onto the new project and where precisely you place your cover of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” in your set list when your blistering 10-minute ukulele instrumental of the rock classic routinely brings down the house.
Q: One of the best things about seeing you live is that people never know how to act. Sometimes there’s a concert hall reverence and other times people come in thinking it’s a rock show. How do you prepare for that on stage?
A: It’s always fun. We have such a wide demographic of people who come to the shows. Little kids to college students to senior citizens. It’s awesome. The kids clap along or dance in their seat and the grandma and grandpa behind them are doing the same thing. It’s great to see. There aren’t a lot of concerts where the young and the elderly can enjoy something the same way. I remember growing up, my parents were either dragging me to concerts or I was dragging them to something. There was always someone who didn’t want to be there!
A: I dragged them to a George Michael concert once! (laughs). My mom had no idea who George Michael even was! She ended up taking me and my friends to that!
Q: You’ve kind of become a brand ambassador for the ukulele. You play for kids a lot. Is it a goal for you to get this instrument into the hands of a new generation?
A: I want to show people how much fun playing an instrument is. To feel that joy when you’re playing. It’s incredible. I want everyone to experience that. The ukulele is the perfect instrument for people who have never played an instrument. It’s not intimidating. It’s affordable and it’s compact. You can just pick it up, run a few chords and immediately play a song. More and more people are discovering it.
Q: I love the original compositions on your new album, “Travels.” How did the “Departure Suite, Parts I, II, III” come about?
A: A lot of times I’m just messing around until I play something that pricks up my ears. One note leads to the next note and before you know it, you have a song. The “Departure Suite” was originally three different ideas and then I realized, conceptually, it kind of worked. It probably says a lot about me that Side Two of The Beatles “Abbey Road” is one of my favorite things to listen to. All those songs were kind of thrown together and it turned into this epic thing.
Q: One of the most surprising tracks on “Travels” is your cover of 1970s funk band War’s “Low Rider.” You even snuck a vocal on there. How did that come about?
A: (Laughs) Growing up, my parents listened to all kinds of music. There was always a record spinning in my house. I remember listening to that as a kid. I was drawn to that because I was a big [War harmonica player] Lee Oskar fan and he plays the harmonica line in that song. The harmonica is kind of the ukulele of woodwind instruments. The vocal started as a joke. My voice is really low when I wake up in the morning. I played it for my buddies and we all had a good laugh. We always intended to take it out. But it ended up fitting the vibe of this record. I wanted this album to be fun and silly. It’s meant to make people smile.
A: Personally, I had no idea who was going to buy it on vinyl! But since it came out on record, people have been going crazy. I didn’t even know it was possible. It was always my dream to have an album on vinyl. It’s completely awesome. The day it came in, I took like 20 for myself! It will be the coolest moment for me when I get to sign a vinyl version of my album.
Q: Jake, you’re kind of a victim of your own success with your cover of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.” It’s a showstopper. Do you have to perform it in every show now and where on earth do you put it in the set so you can recover?
A: It’s one of my favorites. We play it every night. On this tour, I’m playing with Nolan Verner, a bass player from Nashville and we worked up a killer bass and ukulele arrangement. We love playing it. The audience loves it. It’s such an interactive song because everyone knows it. It’s great to interpret Freddie Mercury’s vocals, the guitar solo and the piano, all played on the ukulele. It’s in the second half of the set. It kicks off the last four songs of the set.
Q: And the last song of the set is always is your cover of The Beatles “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” which was what first got you noticed on YouTube, right?
A: Yeah, the other night I think it ran over 10 minutes! Since I have a bassist with me, we can take almost a jam band approach to it. He can hold down a solid groove and I can transition to single line soloing and play freely over the bass line. There’s a lot of fun interplay between us.
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For tickets to tonight’s Jake Shimabukuro concert at The Ferst Center For The Arts at Georgia Tech, go to the official website.
Richard L. Eldredge is the founder and editor in chief of Eldredge ATL. As a reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Atlanta magazine, he has covered Atlanta since 1990.