Music News & Reviews

Jake Shimabukuro’s ukulele launched a career, and a magical adventure

Composer Jake Shimabukuro performs at Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts Oct. 20.
Composer Jake Shimabukuro performs at Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts Oct. 20. Getty Images for NAMM

It doesn’t get bigger than the Beatles. When Olivia Harrison, the widow of Beatle George Harrison, told ukulele virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro that her late husband would have enjoyed his work, the charismatic musician gushed.

“I could not believe that she said that,” Shimabukuro says while calling from his home in Hawaii. “She saw my video for ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ and she told me that George, who loved the ukulele, would have gotten along so well with me. Who could believe that? It was an incredible experience.”

Shimabukuro, 40, who also delivers a killer version of the Fabs’ “Eleanor Rigby,” has had a number of “wow” experiences during his unique career. Iconic Queen guitarist Brian May sent him a letter after hearing Shimabukuro’s version of “Bohemian Rhapsody.”

“He said that he appreciated my interpretation of the song,” Shimabukuro says. “That blew my mind.”

Bette Midler invited Shimabukuro to England to play a single tune at an event. “When Bette asked me, I said, ‘Are you sure you want to fly me to the UK with you just to play one song?’ ” Shimabukuro recalls. “We played before the royal family, and I got to shake the Queen’s hand. It was incredible.”

It all started for Shimabukuro as a child growing up in paradise. Hawaiian kids play the ukulele, like those on the mainland play guitar. Shimabukuro became the Eddie Van Halen of ukulele players.

“One day I was messing around with my ukulele and I started playing (Cream’s) ‘Sunshine of Your Love.’ I was like, ‘This is pretty cool, I’m playing a rock song on the ukulele.’ I soon discovered that I could play other guitar parts, violin lines and piano on the ukulele. The options were limitless.”

Shimabukuro signed a recording contract in 2002 and became a star in Hawaii and Japan. However, he didn’t go worldwide until his rendition of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” went viral in 2005. After the song scored more than 15 million views, a number of noteworthy musicians, such as Yo Yo Ma, Cyndi Lauper and Jimmy Buffett, asked if Shimabukuro would join them in the studio or on tour.

“What blew me away was how diverse the recording artists who wanted to play with me are,” Shimabukuro said. “I love diversity when it comes to music.”

Shimabukuro, who will perform Friday, Oct. 20, at the Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts, came of age with an array of sounds in his home.

“Growing up I loved all different styles of music,” Shimabukuro says. “I didn’t understand that there were different genres. To me, it was just music. I didn’t think that this was jazz, this was blues and this was funk. They were different classifications to other people, but to me, they were the same. I remember listening to Miles Davis, Tower of Power and Japanese folk songs. Since my parents played every style of music, that had such a positive impact.

Shimabukuro’s inventive classic rock covers have appeal, but he’s been adding contemporary songs and originals to his repertoire. The “Nashville Sessions,” released last year, is his first album of all originals.

“I’ve just been working on an island version of Ed Sheeran’s ‘Shape of You,’ ” Shimabukuro says. “It’s a fun song. I’m recording some songs for a new album. I can’t help but go back as well. I recorded Jimi Hendrix’s ‘If 6 was 9.’ I love those classic songs.”

Shimabukuro is a humble, laid-back musician, who realizes that he has been leading a charmed life.

“What I’ve experienced is idyllic,” Shimabukuro says. “To be able to work with Bela Fleck and have Alan Parsons produce my album (2013’s ‘Grand Ukulele’) and well, everything else is a dream come true. I have so much more left to accomplish, but it’s been an amazing ride so far.”


Who: Jake Shimabukuro

When: 8 p.m. Oct. 20

Where: Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts, 2 E. South St., Raleigh

Cost: $36.15

Info: 919-996-8700,