Q&A: Ukulele Master Jake Shimabukuro

Yeah, I said ukulele master

Everybody’s got to find a niche, right? For Hawaii native Jake Shimabukuro, it’s that funny little, happy sounding instrument, the ukulele. The 33-year-old is pretty much considered to be the best player out there, and his YouTube performance of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” has had 8.4 million views, which is, of course, how we measure fame these days. Right? In any event, if this doesn’t all sound positively ridiculous to you, know that he’s at World Cafe Live (where else?) on Thursday at 7:30 p.m. Last week, I spoke to him at his home, six time zones away.

Is it harder to play a ukulele than it is to spell it?
It’s actually harder to spell. There’s really nothing to it. I mean, depending on how far you want to take it. But if you want to learn how to strum a couple of songs, it will take you less than five minutes. Seriously.

Who has more sex appeal, an accordionist or ukuleleist?
Well, the ukulele is a very romantic instrument, just because of its ties to Hawaii. Long walks on the beach. And all girls want to get proposed to in Hawaii or married in Hawaii, right? So the ukulele carries a lot of that with it.

Does anyone outside of Hawaii actually care about the instrument?
I’ve definitely been feeling the wave recently, especially with Eddie Vedder’s new ukulele album. People are excited about it. Young people. Not just senior citizens… And I heard it’s blowing up in Thailand right now. In Japan, I can sell out a 3,000 seat concert hall myself. Just me on stage. It’s amazing.

What was the first non-traditional song you played on it?
“Close to You” by the Carpenters.

You’ve covered everything from Queen to Cyndi Lauper. Is there any band that just hasn’t adapted so well?
There’s a difference between making it work and making it just sound like the song. Any melody that’s recognizable to people, you can easily play that on the instrument. But making it tasteful or making it “work” is another thing. Whether it’s Bach or Queen or George Harrison, that’s what I’m trying to go for, making it work.

Are you dreading the trip from beautiful Hawaii to muggy Philadelphia?
Ha, I do love Hawaii, but no, actually one of my best friends lives in Philadelphia, so I can’t wait to get there.