Though ukulele sensation Jake Shimabukuro just wants to make people smile with his music, his singular talent has music fans taking him — and his instrument — very seriously.Go ahead and laugh at his little four-stringed ukulele. Jake Shimabukuro does not care. Feel free to call it a child’s toy. Even though his is an expensive custom-made model, he’d agree. After all, he started playing when he was a child. His mother gave him his first instrument — a toy — when he was 4. Hooked from the first notes, he couldn’t put the thing down. His parents had to pry it from his hands just to get him to come to the dinner table or do his homework.
If it had been any other stringed instrument — a violin, a cello, maybe even a zither — they might have called him a prodigy. But they didn’t, because just about anyone, even a 4-year-old, can quickly learn to make a ukulele produce a simple, jangly, harmonic chord that nicely backs up a singer’s melody.
Not just anyone, however, can take that same ukulele, with its four strings and its limited range of just two octaves, and produce a spot-on instrumental rendition of the classic rock-classical opera collision that is Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.” And the fact that Jake Shimabukuro, now 35, can do that, has earned him monikers like “the ukulele’s Jimi Hendrix” and “the ukulele’s equivalent of Segovia, Django, Stanley Jordan, Leo Kottke and John Mayer … all rolled into one.”
You would be forgiven for thinking that sounds ridiculous. Even if you did, Shimabukuro still wouldn’t care.
“I’m not offended by people who don’t take the ukulele seriously,” he says from the Honolulu airport, where, just after daybreak, the Hawaii native will depart for a series of performances that will take him from California to North Carolina. “I love it, actually. One of the best things about being a touring ukulele player is that people have such low expectations.”