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Jake Shimabukuro

A Conversation with Jake Shimabukuro (continued)

PM: On "Sakura," off the Gently Weeps CD, how did you get the ukulele to sound so much like a Japanese koto?

JS: Oh, yeah--when I was working on that arrangement I was really trying to find these weird voicings for the different chords, and where I was going to play the melody, like on what string, and where I'm going to pluck it, you know, like closer to the bridge, or if I'm going to do more of a light stroke with my index, or use a really harsh down stroke, ta-dum! with my thumb. Like all of those things, I put a lot of thought into that, because it's subtle, but when you put it all together it changes the character of the instrument a little bit. It's almost like, hmm, it's not like a ukulele, so it's a little different now. And that was the whole idea of that song was to get a completely different vibe out of the instrument. That was a lot of fun. I really enjoyed working on that.

PM: It's really interesting. I've heard a great guitar player named Steve Kimock get that koto sound--

JS: Oh, yeah!

PM: Do you know him?

JS: Yeah! He's one of my all-time heroes! I love him!

PM: Oh, really? Because I played with him for many years.

JS: Really?

PM: And I sent him an email because I don't know if you know, he loves the ukulele?

JS: Yeah!

PM: Have you guys like corresponded about the ukulele?

JS: I met him at the High Sierra Music Festival.

PM: Crazy! Because I sent him an email and I said, "Hey, I'm going to talk to Jake Shimabukuro. Do you have any questions for him?" But Kimock, he never looks at his email--he'll probably see it in about two weeks.


JS: Oh, wow, that's incredible. Oh, I love his playing. When he was playing at the High Sierra Music Festival, I mean, I was sneaking away and trying to get to every one of his performances and workshops. It was the first year that I played there, so I had a couple other things going on. I did a thing with the Flecktones--

PM: Oh, wow.

JS: And I had a couple of solo spots and then a workshop. He did a workshop, and I was there, I was front row.

PM: Was it one of those wild workshops he does about true tuning and whole tunes and all that highbrow theoretical stuff?

JS: No. What I love about his approach and his philosophy, it goes beyond just his own work as an artist. I mean, it's just about everything! Like his playing encompasses everything. I just love his style.

PM: And he was like that when we first met him. He was in his early 20s. And my brother and I, we say we found him in this basement in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. He was there practicing like 18 hours a day. And people would come and push food under the door and just hear a "Go away!" from the inside. [laughs] And he would do crazy things, like he wouldn't turn the reverb on until the sun went down. [laughs]

JS: That is amazing. But you know what? That makes total sense to me. Up until about two years ago, I had so many different effects pedals, I was always experimenting with different kinds of sounds and different kinds of patterns and things like that, and I was really into that at one point. But a few years ago I realized how dependent I became on those effects.

I realized it because I was touring somewhere that I remember there was a band playing, and I had my ukulele with me because I didn't want to leave it in the car, but I left my pedal board in the car. That thing weighs a ton, and I wasn't about to bring it to the workshop. And then there was a band that was playing, and the guitar player knew that I was in town, and he wanted me to come up and play. So he asked me come and sit in on a tune. And I remember feeling like I don't know if I can because I left my pedal board in the car. And that feeling really freaked me out, because I was like, hey, wait, I'm not a pedal board player, I'm a ukulele player. I have to be able to play and sit in and do whatever I need to do without my pedal board, because otherwise I had become like--it's like I play two instruments. So that really scared me. And then after that moment I just said, "You know what, it's just a habit," and I broke it.

PM: Wow. I managed sales for them for many years, and I noticed a picture of you with a Mesa Boogie in a room. Is that an amp you like?

JS: Oh, yeah. Well, I used to play through tube amps. The first amp I really got attached to was the Mesa Boogie Blue Angel.

PM: One of the nicest things they ever did, the Blue Angel.

JS: Yeah. I mean, that thing just sounded great. And then I got more familiar with like the Marshall sound, which I loved, too.

PM: Sure.

JS: And then the last amp I started using was an amp made by a company called Carr. They make really nice stuff, too. That was a few years ago. Finally I said, "Okay, that's it. It's just me and the ukulele." [laughs]

PM: That's beautiful, because all of my favorite stuff of yours that I heard was just the really pure tone, just the string and just your fingers. That's where it's really at.

Tell us something about your brother, Bruce. What is he up to, and what does he do?

JS: Well, my brother, he does everything. And that's the scary part about him, is he's good at everything. Like at one point he got into video editing, and he was great at that. And then growing up he was great at every sport, basketball, football, baseball, and then billiards or throwing darts, he's a fast runner, he's a great swimmer, he's a good surfer.

PM: Damn!

JS: Recently he's been doing things like editing film and stuff like that. [laughs] I mean, anything he wants to do he excels at it. So even music, when we were growing up, ukulele, yeah, he was a really good ukulele player. And he gets bored easily, and so then he wants to move on and do other things. So he actually stopped playing ukulele for a long time. And then maybe about five years ago he just wanted to pick it up again. And he started playing the ukulele, and he just got together with friends and they would do like performances around town, just little things here and there. And then about a year ago he--I used to have this old guitar just sitting around my house because I don't really know what to do with it because I don't know how to play the guitar. So he started picking it up. He started with a few chords, and he started playing. And then all of a sudden he started singing and then writing songs. And he just loved it. I caught him listening to a Bob Dylan record--

PM: [laughs]

JS: Every time I come home from a trip, he's into something new. And right now he's been playing the guitar and he's trying to write songs and things like that. We've been playing a little bit together now. So it's been great, because of course, he's my best friend. Whenever we spend time together it's always been like, oh, just hanging out. But now it's kind of like, yeah, we can still hang out and stuff, but we also enjoy playing music together.

PM: Wow, what a neat relationship you have. Tell me, please, about Hula Girl, the movie, and your soundtrack experience. How did that happen?

JS: Oh, yeah, that was last year. The producer of the movie, I guess she liked my music. It's a Japanese film. And I was touring pretty heavily in Japan. So she contacted our publishing company and asked how they could get in touch with me and see if I would be willing to do some music for their film. And at first I think their idea was just for me to accompany some video, to do a couple of tunes. And then after we talked about it, they asked "Well, would you be willing to record the whole soundtrack?"

PM: Wow!

JS: And a big part of me, of course, wanted do it, but the other side was like, well, I don't really know how to that.


JS: So it was a great process, and I learned so much through that experience because it was the first time that I actually had to sit there and write out piano parts.

PM: Really?

JS: I had to write out like little things for a string quartet, and things like that. And it was really great to be able to sit in front of the computer--I mean, they have all these software programs, you just go in there and you just input the notes. And I was using the ukulele to help me a lot, because I was finding melodies, and then I'd punch them in for the piano melody. And then I'd fill in with the left hand after that.

PM: Wow. So did you grow up as a music reader, or learn more by ear?

JS: Well, kind of both. It was more by ear when I was growing up. But then when I was in high school--like from intermediate school on I played in the high school band. I played in my intermediate school band and in my high school band. So I did learn how to read. I mean, I'm not like a classical musician where you can just throw something in front of me and I can just play it.

PM: Sight reading, yeah.

JS: But I can notate music, and I can read it for--I mean, I have to practice, but then I can read.

PM: Right. So when you were composing for the film, were you doing it to video, like were you watching the screen and then composing to what you were looking at?

JS: Yeah. Everything has to be done according to what was happening on the screen. So I made these tempo maps. And actually what really helped me a lot is about a month before I got this offer--and this is really cool, it was such a coincidence--and I believe that everything happens for a reason--

PM: Sure.

JS: --but a month before I got asked to do this film, at the time I was touring with Jimmy Buffett, and Jimmy did this movie project called Hoot. He was producing the movie and all that. And the Coral Reefer Band, they kind of put together the soundtrack. And since I was touring with him he asked me to come in and play on the soundtrack, and record little things here and there.

PM: Right.

JS: So when I got there, just being able to see how they went about recording the music and how they charted things out, that helped me a lot when I was doing the Hula Girl.

PM: Wow. What a good coincidence.

JS: Yeah. And then I learned a little bit about how to make a tempo map and how to play everything as you're watching the video so you make everything kind of match up.

PM: Right, time code everything.

JS: Yeah. So that was a really good little foot in the door before doing it on my own. But I really hope that I can get more opportunities to do that because I want to learn more about that and get more experience in that field.

PM: Is Hula Girl easy for U.S. audiences to see? How do we see this film?

JS: Well, it did come down for a lot of the film festivals, even national film festivals. I know it played a lot on the West Coast, like in Seattle, played in California.

PM: Right, all the surfing places.

JS: Yeah.


JS: And they also released it on DVD.

PM: Oh, that's how you get it. Okay.

JS: Of course when it played here in Hawaii, everyone loved it. And it's a true story.

PM: Right. So it was huge there, right.           continue


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