We don’t see (or hear) a lot of folks “shredding” the ukulele. Adapted from the Portuguese machete in the 19th century, the classic Hawaiian instrument is known for light plucks and soft chords. They usually carry sounds of island lullabies and sweet, simple notes of traditional Hawaiian music. It’s how instrumentalist and composer Jake Shimabukuro got his start on ukulele as a kid. Things changed as he got older and began listening to a broader range of genres and styles of music—namely, rock.
“I remember seeing a live rock concert on television,” he tells. “I loved the energy and excitement I remember thinking, This is what an ukulele concert should be like.” [Laughs]
Shimabukuro was born in Honolulu, Hawaii, where the ukulele is a large part of culture. In fact, most kids start learning to play the instrument in the fourth or fifth grade. Shimabukuro started playing at age 4. His mother became his first teacher.
“The first time I picked it up, I just fell in love with it,” Shimabukuro says. “My parents would have to take it away from me so I would do my homework and eat dinner.”
Jake Shimabukuro is currently touring with his latest album, “The Greatest Day,” just released on August 31. It features six originals and six cover songs, of which he’ll play at the Brooklyn Arts Center on September 11.
It’s important to Shimabukuro to continue to uncover different sounds as he perfects his skill with the ukulele. While “The Greatest Day” reflects the cleanest acoustic playing in his catalog, he’s most pleased with its electric overdriven tones.“The Greatest Day” was a fun record to make for the artist, too.
“The title truly reflects the way we felt in the studio,” he continues. “We had such a great time and were immersed in positive, creative energy. I hope the listeners feel what we felt in the studio while making this album.”
Like much of Shimabukuro’s work, the songs’ origins vary in inspiration and composition process. Sometimes, he gets ideas from other songs. For example, there is a Brazilian Bossa nova tune, “One Note Samba,” by Jobim, of which Shimabukuro took note (no pun intended) of its main melody.
“It is just one note over a series of chord changes,” he explains. “So I took the idea and made a whole song of it . . . called ‘Straight A’s’ on the new album. The idea is you can play the ‘A’ note from beginning to the end, and it should work over all the chord changes and modulations.”
Then there’s “Pangram,” based on all 12 tones on the Western music scale. “I thought the name ‘Pangram’ would be fitting since a pangram is a short sentence and uses all the letters in the alphabet,” Shimabukuro explains. “For example, ‘The quick brown fox jumps over a lazy dog.’”
Nevertheless, the highlight for the artist was sharing “The Greatest Day” for the first time with his parents. They taught him to play the instrument and appreciate these tracks—so these are a nod to their influence and tastes.
“The first song was ‘Time Of The Season’ by The Zombies,” Shimabukuro offers. “As soon as it started playing, my dad’s eyes lit up, and he asked, ‘Is this The Zombies?’ After listening to the record, they said this is their favorite album I recorded.”
Reinterpretations of The Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby” and Jimi Hendrix’s freak-flag classic “If 6 Was 9” are among the 12 studio tracks. CD and vinyl copies include three more live cuts: The Beatles’ “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” Shimabukuro’s own “Dragon” and Bill Withers’ hit single “Use Me.”
Moreover, as a digital download bonus, there are five live tracks. Recorded at Music City’s famed Ronnie’s Place studio with producer R.S. Field, bassist Nolan Verner returned on ace rhythm section, along with drummer Evan Hutchings. They had guitarist Dave Preston come in as well to expand upon these songs and sounds. Shimabukuro, Verner and Hutchings now tour as a trio, and continue to bring out new nuances and sounds from the record to the stage.
“The title track has evolved a lot since we recorded it,” he says. “As a trio, we constantly feed new ideas into the arrangements. We try to inspire each other every night by taking a new approach to the same song—sometimes it’s a reharmony of the theme or rhythmic idea. Sometimes we’ll use different effects to conjure up completely different tones and textures. It’s always a surprise.”
Shimabukuro already is writing and arranging songs for two more projects; one for his trio and the other featuring a series of duets with various artists—the latter of which he’s started recording.
“Some of the artists on the album include Willie Nelson, Michael McDonald and Ray Benson,” he divulges.