Back in the mid-2000s, ukulele wizard Jake Shimabukuro was playing gigs in Japan and his native Hawaii when someone uploaded one of his performances to a new website called YouTube. Shimabukuro’s playing made him an internet superstar, leading to lots of gigs around the world and several CDs and DVDs. On his latest album, “Jake and Friends,” Shimabukuro finds himself dueting with the likes of Willie Nelson and other famous musicians. He’ll be at the Hangar Theatre for a show on Oct. 12. He spoke to the Ithaca Times about his influences, the importance of amplification and his upcoming show with bassist Jackson Waldhoff.
IT: You’ve got serious chops. What were you listening to when you were a kid?
JS: Oh, gosh, everything. I was born and raised in Hawaii, so I grew up listening to a lot of traditional Hawaiian music. But my parents also listened to a lot of contemporary music, and they had this pretty extensive vinyl collection, everything from Charlie Byrd to Vicki Carr, Eydie Gormé, Frank Sinatra. So when I was a kid, they would be playing all these records. I didn’t know who was who, and what type of music or style or anything like that, I just listened to all this cool stuff. I tell this story sometimes: there was this Charlie Byrd record that we would listen to all the time, and I was only 5 or 6 years old at the time, but Charlie Byrd did a record of cover songs, and on this particular record, he covered a lot of Beatles songs. So, when I was a kid, I just thought “Man, Charlie Byrd writes some great music.” I didn’t know who the Beatles were until a few years later. But yeah, I was introduced to a lot of music early on. That’s what inspired me to keep playing, and I still enjoy it today.
IT: The ukulele is such a strummy instrument, but it’s like you heard some Van Halen and said, “I think there’s more you can do with this.”
JS: Yeah, I had a lot of different influences later on in my life when I started listening to guitar players. In particular, like, you know, messing around with effects and amplifiers. There were times when I would play with an ensemble. As a ukulele player, you can’t really compete with the electric guitar or drums, or even a trumpet.
IT: I think you can.
JS: [laughs] That’s what drew me into amplifying the instrument. Because before, when I would do that, you’d get a lot of feedback. There would be these weird, unwanted frequencies, so it was kind of a struggle in the beginning. But I always loved amplification, because not only would it allow me to be heard, but it also allowed me to play softer, so I wouldn’t have to strum so loud, or pick so loud, to be heard. I could have a more gentle tone on the ukulele.
IT: I think you’re the first YouTube superstar I’ve ever interviewed.
JS: Aww, thank you. That was a very fortunate surprise. YouTube was just starting out, and to be honest, I didn’t even know what YouTube was. But someone had taken a clip of a TV show I had done in New York, and put it up on YouTube. That really opened up a lot of doors for me, because before that I was playing a lot in Hawaii and in Japan.
IT: Can you talk about where you’re at and what you’ll be bringing to Ithaca?
JS: I’m traveling with a bass player named Jackson Waldhoff and what we do is a dual show. The first half, I kinda do more solo ukulele arrangements. [Waldhoff] will come out in the second half and then we’ll do some bass and ukulele stuff. It’s a good combination of covers and original songs. There’ll be some Beatles and Queen, “Bohemian Rhapsody” and some other fun stuff.