Well, not everyone has low expectations. Certainly not the tens of thousands who snapped up Shimabukuro’s 2011 album, Peace Love Ukulele, which debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard World Albums Chart. And not the 10 million people who have watched Shimabukuro’s mesmerizing rendition of George Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” on YouTube. That performance, recorded in 2006 for a New York TV show called Ukulele Disco and uploaded soon after, launched Shimabukuro’s career out of Honolulu coffee shops and onto stages and recording studios all over the world. He has toured with Jimmy Buffet, played alongside Cyndi Lauper, and recorded with both Bela Fleck, the acclaimed banjo virtuoso, and Yo-Yo Ma, arguably the world’s greatest cellist. “I really owe everything to the Internet,” Shimabukuro says. “I wouldn’t be where I am today if not for YouTube.”
Where he is today is at the lead of a growing ukulele movement that owes everything to the Internet as well. Thousands of ukulele hobbyists have uploaded their best efforts to YouTube, and ukulele blogs now abound, as do ukulele apps that help novices learn their instruments and keep them in tune. Popular musicians are in on the trend too. Everyone from pop-country princess Taylor Swift to indie darlings Beirut to grunge guru Eddie Vedder have recorded songs prominently featuring ukuleles. Vedder even made the instrument the centerpiece of his last album, titled, simply, Ukulele Songs. As a result, ukulele sales are soaring. The National Association of Music Merchants says ukuleles now account for more than 3 percent of all so-called “fretted instrument” sales, with 600,000 ukuleles being purchased annually at a total cost of about $42 million, up from $33 million in 2009. Shimabukuro can be credited for a lot of those sales.
“Jake, and YouTube in general, have been great at generating excitement for the ukulele,” says Russ Hayes, founder and proprietor of Sound Uke, a retail ukulele shop in Lakewood, Wash. “But Jake is key because he is showing the capability of such a humble and basic instrument. I think that gives folks hope that they, too, can do great things with the ukulele.”
Great things, maybe. But “Bohemian Rhapsody” or Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” or classical piano compositions? No. Only Shimabukuro does that. Though he may be best known for covering everyone from Michael Jackson to Adele, Shimabukuro composes much of his own music and doesn’t limit himself to any one style. “Growing up I was a big fan of Bruce Lee,” he says, “and he embraced all styles of martial arts. So I remember saying to myself, ‘If Bruce Lee played the ukulele, how would he approach the instrument?’ That’s why I embrace all styles of music.”
There’s another reason Shimabukuro doesn’t limit himself, and it has to do with something the ukulele virtuoso can’t do: sing.
“I’m a terrible singer,” he says. “Traditionally when you’d play the ukulele, you would strum the chord and you would sing a song. But when I started, because I couldn’t sing, no one could recognize the song I was playing. So at a young age I decided I had to find a way to strum the chord and play the melody — the part you’d normally sing — at the same time.”