Jake Shimabukuro has always taken the ukulele where it has never gone before. On his latest release, Grand Ukulele [Mailboat], he had some help in the form of legendary producer Alan Parsons.
“Alan really pushed me to try new and different things, says Shimabukuro. “A lot of times, I’m only thinking about what I think I can do on the instrument. But Alan doesn’t know how to play the ukulele, so he’s just thinking about what he wants to hear musically, with no regard as to whether it’s possible. For instance, for the song ‘Music Box,’ he said, ‘You know what would be really cool? If you could play the melody using harmonics.’ I didn’t know if I could, but it’s part of my stubborn nature to say ‘Yeah, sure.’ So I went outside and figured out a way to make that happen.
“It was Alan’s idea that I record the Sting song ‘Fields of Gold.’ For all of my arrangements, I always want to bring at least one new thing to the song—whether it’s a chord voicing I’ve never used before or a new technique. So I was trying to think of what I could do for ‘Fields of Gold,’ and I realized that this melody also lent itself perfectly to harmonics. That’s when I came up with the idea for this new Fmaj7 thing. With my baby finger I’m playing the natural harmonics on the first and second strings so I get the high E and the A [Ed. Note: The ukulele is tuned G, C, E, A]. But then with my index finger I’m fretting the 5th fret of the third string. So I’m holding that F note down, and plucking it at the exact same time as I’m playing the harmonics. It all sounds like it’s one big open harmonic. I had never done anything like that before and I thought it was cool. It’s like my own little ‘Portrait of Tracy,’ although obviously Jaco was all over the place on that tune, playing all those amazing harmonics. So this is like one percent ‘Portrait of Tracy.’”
GO FOR IT LIVE
“When I think of Alan’s work, like Dark Side of the Moon or the things he had done with the Beatles, there are always these huge layers of instruments. So I figured I was going to come in and record all my solo ukulele stuff, and then he would take those tracks and add things and do all his sound effects. But he wanted to record everything live. What you hear on this record are all live takes, from beginning to end. There are absolutely no overdubs whatsoever—even when I played with the orchestra and a rhythm section. “When the orchestra came in, we ran every tune three times. It was the first time the musicians had seen the music—they were all sight-reading. The first pass was to just get through it and figure out what was happening where. The second time, we went for a real take, and on the third, we went for another. For ‘Gentle- mandolin,’ we actually did four takes, because the first three were done to a click track, and I told Alan the song felt a little stiff to me. So we did a fourth take without the click, and that’s the one on the record. It felt really great.”
EVOLVE MIKING TECHNIQUES
“I was really surprised to learn that this was Alan’s first time ever recording ukulele. He told me right from the beginning that, even if we had an orchestra or a rhythm section on the record, the ukulele would have to stand on its own and everything else should play around it. That’s why he went for such a big, beautiful, full sound with my instrument. It sounds enormous on this record.
“One of the things that blew me away was how he miked it. He didn’t put any microphones in front of me. He put one above my right ear pointing down, and he put another mic near my left hip pointing directly up. I asked him how he came up with this idea. He said he wanted a stereo sound, and, because the ukulele is such a short instrument, if you put two mics in front of it by the body and by the neck, the microphones are too close together. This way, he could still get close to the instrument, but keep the mics further apart. The top mic catches more of the low string and what was happening with the body, and the bottom mic captures more of the high string and the neck area. This created a much wider stereo spread than miking left and right. When he explains it, it makes sense, but how do you come up with something like that?”