How come you never did a record without a backing band before now?
I guess I was afraid of being the only instrument. I always thought I needed drums and bass behind me. It was actually Mac’s [album producer and Jimmy Buffett guitarist Mac MacAnally] idea. He encouraged me to record this way. When I play with a rhythm section, I tend to do more single-note lines. When I do my solo arrangements, I can play chords and melodies simultaneously—which gives people a better idea of what the ukulele is really capable of.
How did you choose the songs?
Mac and I tried to pick tunes that showcased the instrument in different ways. For example, Chick Corea’s “Spain” demonstrates right-hand dexterity. On most songs, I play with just my thumb—or my thumb and index finger—but on “Spain” I use more of a classical guitar approach. I use my thumb, index, and middle fingers so I can accent notes differently. You see, there’s a big difference in sound when I use my thumb versus my other two fingers. The nail on my thumb is thick and chunky, and the nails on my index and middle fingers are thinner and smaller. So when I used my thumb and fingers on that tune, I was able to get some unique accents that added a lot to the arrangement.
On “Sakura”—which is a Japanese folk song—I really had the culture in mind when I was working it out. I tried some right-hand techniques to bring out the vibe and the spirit of the koto. To get those flourishes in the beginning of the song, for example, I do an upstroke with my thumb. Then, as soon as my thumb hits the fourth string, I flick my middle finger down really hard against the other strings to create a hard, koto-like percussive tone. It hardly sounds like a ukulele!
I chose “Ave Maria” because Mac really liked the tremolo technique I use in that song. I’m doing a fast tremolo with my index and middle fingers on the first string, and I’m simultaneously plucking the arpeggios with my thumb. It sounds like two separate parts, but it’s all one take.
How did you develop the fast and precise strumming chops showcased in “Let’s Dance”?
I don’t know about the “precise” part [laughs]! I played drums in marching band, and I liked trying to play drum rudiments on ukulele. However, it was really difficult getting the same speed as I could playing drums. I broke it down, and I found that when you’re strumming traditionally, you tend to bend at the elbow, and use too much muscle. That’s not efficient. When I played drums, however, the action was all in the wrists. So that’s the posture I tried out for my right hand on the ukulele, and I strummed with more of a twisting motion—like twisting a doorknob. By doing that, I didn’t have to use my elbow or my biceps and triceps to strum. I got a lot more speed and endurance with a lot less energy.
When did you realize that your “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” video had become so widespread?
That was last year, when I traveled from my home in Hawaii to do shows on the mainland. I was playing cities I had never been to, and a bunch of people would come to the shows. Afterwards, one out of every two or three people would tell me they had never heard my music before they saw that video. That happened everywhere I went. I couldn’t believe it. This year, I tend to open most of my shows with that song, and as soon as I go into the first verse, everyone starts cheering. I had never experienced anything like that. That’s when I realized the power of the Web. I’m blown away and very grateful.