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Vol 19, no. 6
December 2016/ January 2017


Ukulele Rock 
Story By: Katie Young Yamanaka
Photo By: Tommy Shih

In one fiery take—with eyes closed and fingers ablur on the fretboard of his ‘ukulele—Jake Shimabukuro laid down “Kilauea,” the final track of his first all-original album.

Afterward he looked at his bassist, Nolan Verner, and said, “Whoa! That was kinda cool!” Shimabukuro, Verner and drummer Evan Hutchings had just reached the end of a whirlwind six-day recording session, causing the control room of their Nashville studio to erupt in cheers. “In that moment I didn’t really know what we had,” recalls Shimabukuro. “When I listened to it, I heard myself playing stuff I’ve never ever played before.”

None of the eleven tracks on Nashville Sessions, released last September, was written in advance. “When I play live,” Shimabukuro says, “the nights that are really good are the nights when spontaneous things happen.” So he went into the studio cold, with neither practice nor a song in his head, hoping to create some of that magic on the fly. It turned out to be the ultimate jam session. It’s ‘ukulele like you’ve never heard it before: less sweet and nimble, more complex, edgy and bold.

It wouldn’t be exactly correct to say that Shimabukuro was unprepared, though. The ‘ukulele wunderkind-turned-maestro has spent his nearly fifteen-year solo career taking the instrument to unexpected places while keeping it true to its Hawaiian roots. But this latest endeavor is more about showcasing the versatility of the ‘ukulele, taking it from conventional acoustic toward electric progressive-rock forms. He’s also pioneering a new, more complex ‘ukulele sound by layering different types of ‘ukulele. The familiar tenor uke blends with a bassy baritone and the high pitch of a soprano. Shimabukuro has always played the Kamaka brand of ‘ukulele exclusively, and Nashville Sessions comes just as the venerable Island instrument maker celebrates its centennial.

Shimabukuro is the first to admit the album might be too experimental for some, but Nashville Sessions is what he imagines the future of the instrument could be.“I think it’s time for the ‘ukulele to have a turning point, like the guitar,” he says. “Guys like Jimi Hendrix and Bob Dylan electrified it and changed the sound. ‘Guitar player’ is such a broad term now. I think the ‘ukulele is slowly starting to move in that direction.”