Jake Shimabukuro Gets Progressive on 'Nashville Sessions'

“I’ve always had a fear of moving too far away from the natural acoustic sound of the ukulele,” admits Jake Shimabukuro, the instrument’s premier ambassador, “but this was different.
Image placeholder title

“I’ve always had a fear of moving too far away from the natural acoustic sound of the ukulele,” admits Jake Shimabukuro, the instrument’s premier ambassador, “but this was different. I set aside fears about people thinking it was a guitar, or making traditionalists uncomfortable. I had no music prepared or expectations about making an album. We just rented a studio for six days and jammed.”

Nashville Sessions [JS Records] sounds unlike any of Shimabukuro’s previous recordings, including the comprehensive double disc, Live in Japan, released earlier this year on Hitchhike Records. Playing over a bed of Nolan Verner’s rich electric bass and Evan Hutchings’ dynamic drums, Shimabukuro spontaneously engages overdrive and ambient effects as he follows his muse in the moment. At times, such as the driving opening rhythm riff to “Man of Mud,” Jake does indeed make his uke sound like an electric guitar. In other moments, including the solos on “6/8” and “Motown,” and throughout the epic closer, “Kilauea,” Shimabukuro conjures shades of lead legends such as Carlos Santana and David Gilmour.

“When recording an album, I’m normally very conscious of keeping a ratio of at least 75 percent natural uke sound to 25 percent with effects,” he continues. “On this record it’s practically flipped.”

Shimabukuro also used multiple ukuleles of different sizes and tunings to layer sounds on songs including “Tritone” and the cleverly titled “Galloping Seahorses.” According to Shimabukuro, the inspiration for that came from a pair of rather unlikely sources—a Dobro legend and an Electro-Harmonix stompbox.

How does the story of Nashville Sessions begin?

Image placeholder title

The idea for using baritone, tenor, and soprano ukuleles came from Jerry Douglas, who is one of my heroes. I was at his house in Nashville a few months prior to the sessions that produced this record, and he turned me onto the Electro-Harmonix Micro POG. It’s an awesome octave simulation pedal with three volume settings: Dry, Sub Octave, and Octave Up. When I ran my ukulele through it, the three-octave sound of the same note inspired me. I thought it would be cool to recreate that using real instruments playing the same melody in three octaves.

How did you go about laying them down in the studio?

I tracked the main melody on tenor, playing live with the band. For overdubs, I’d tune the soprano as high or the baritone as low as I needed to play an octave above and below the main melody. I may have tuned the baritone a full octave lower. That was definitely how I got such a deep sound on “Man of Mud.” It was so fun to do. Imagine having three guitars tuned in three octaves. So that was the whole idea going into this project, and now it’s come full circle when I play the songs live. I use the POG to simulate the baritone and soprano sounds.

Can you detail the size and tuning differences among ukuleles?

There are four different sizes in the ukulele family. The standard size—the traditional one—is the smallest of the family, and is also known as soprano. The concert or alto is a little larger. The tenor is the third largest, and that’s my main instrument. The baritone is the largest. The first three are all tuned exactly the same [fourth to first strings: G, C, E, A]. The baritone is generally tuned a fourth lower [D, G, B, E], so it has a deep, resonant sound that you can hear by itself at the beginning of “Galloping Seahorses.” That’s a Kamaka baritone from the ’50s that has such a distinctly vintage vibe. I love how everything I record with it sounds like it was actually recorded 50 years ago [laughs].

Is your primary instrument still the same signature Kamaka tenor that you’ve been using for years?

Yes, and that was the main tenor on this album, although I also had two older Kamaka tenors tuned in different ways. I remember tuning one a whole-step down. I put different strings on them as well. They were rectified nylons instead the clear nylons that I usually use—D’Addario’s EJ65T Pro-Arté Custom Extruded tenor set.

Can you share some insights on the soprano’s qualities?

Even though the general tuning is the same as a tenor, the soprano has a different timbre, and a more percussive character. It has a twang that tends to cut through the mix a little better. When you tune it higher, putting more tension on the strings, it cuts through everything quite nicely across the top.

It’s very complementary to the tenor as well. A good example is a bit of phrasing that comes in at the end of “Celtic Tune.” It’s light and whimsical. That was tuned way up—at least a fifth—and then I used a capo to get super high pitches that sound almost like a hammered dulcimer. The soprano’s shorter scale allows you to tune it up pretty high. I pushed it until I felt the strings were about to snap. I’m passionate about fishing, and I happened to have a fishing line in my bag at the studio. I actually put fishing line on the soprano because it was thinner than the strings I was using. [Laughs.]

It’s funny that actually worked. Can you cite a good example from the record that features all three instruments?

“Tritone” has the soprano above and the baritone an octave below the main tenor melody. The baritone is interesting because it thickens the sound in a subtle way. Once “Galloping Seahorses” gets going, the sound is really fat because it’s the tenor and baritone together. I’d never experimented with that combination before.

Your sonics on Nashville Sessions are endlessly interesting. What was your signal chain?

It was pretty crazy. Co-producer R.S. Field set up a couple of microphones, and he had the signal from my Kamaka’s Fishman Acoustic Matrix pickup split into as many as a dozen tracks going through all sorts of analog studio gear, including a Leslie speaker cabinet, a Fulltone Secret Freq that I used for more saturated stuff, and my live pedalboard that I could use at any time. It’s got a couple of Jam Pedals—a Delay Llama, and a Tube Dreamer that is essentially their version of a Tube Screamer. Mine is wired point-topoint. I have a Tech 21 Richie Kotzen Signature RK5 Fly Rig incorporated into my pedalboard as well, and I used it as my basic overdrive on the record.

What’s unique about using overdrives for ukulele?

There are so many things working against you. First, all those overdrive and distortion pedals are EQ’d for guitar, which sits in a completely different frequency range. Second, I’m dealing with nylon strings as opposed to steel strings. Third, I’m dealing with a piezo pickup rather than a magnetic one. Some pedals that sound amazing on guitar sound horrible on a uke, and vice versa. I like to look for pedals that have the worst reviews. When I read a description about why someone doesn’t like a particular pedal, sometimes that’s exactly what I need. It’s interesting how one man’s garbage is another man’s treasure.

Is there a key word that lets you know a distortion pedal will translate well to the uke? I specifically look for an emphasis on a pleasing midrange because that’s usually what makes or breaks it for a ukulele. Pedals that exaggerate low frequencies will feed back and sound muddy because piezo pickups naturally tend to exaggerate subsonic frequencies that aren’t even really there on the ukulele.

How has playing with an electric bassist onstage and in the studio over the past couple of years influenced your tone?

In addition to encouraging me to experiment with analog gear for thickness, playing along with Nolan’s super warm tone has inspired me to fatten up my sound by the way I attack the strings as well. I try to apply more flesh than fingernail in order to get more warmth from them. Otherwise, the ukulele can sound very thin compared to his bass.

Do you use fake nails?

No. They’re all natural.

For quick flourishes, do you primarily use your index finger to sweep back and forth?

No, I play the majority with my thumb. You can work your index fingernail up and down like a pick, but it thins out your tone, especially on the distorted stuff, which can get bitey if you use your index finger. The thumb has the thickest nail, so it’s like using a flatpick, and I seem to get the warmest tone that way. For faster passages, I alternate between my thumb and my middle finger. The thumb is like the downstroke of the pick, and my middle finger is like the upstroke. For really fast, tremolo-style things, I go up and down with my thumbnail.

The swift first cut on Nashville Sessions, “Hemiola Blues,” sounds like it’s full of hammer-ons and pull-offs played on one or two strings with a 32nd-note triplet-based rhythm—almost like some Hawaiian uke take on Angus Young playing “Thunderstruck!” How do you execute those licks?

I fret the third string and pluck it with my index finger, then I pull-off, and then I pluck the fourth string with my thumb, which sounds high because I use the traditional high-G tuning. I wanted to emphasize that because it’s a common technique on the ukulele. I grew up listening to a ukulele player from Hawaii named Troy Fernandez, and he used that technique a lot. It’s a unique sound that you can’t get without using re-entrant tuning. I figured Hawaiian ukulele players would recognize it instantly. The title comes from the hemiola rhythm pattern—three against two. The first part of the original song was a swing blues, but we cut it and kept the hemiola blues jam, and it became the first tune on the album.

Clever. It’s fun to hear you honor ukulele tradition while continuing to push the instrument’s boundaries and apply it in new contexts. Who else do you feel is doing those things, and what direction do you see the ukulele scene heading?

Here in Hawaii there are a couple of guys named Andrew Molina and Kalei Gamiao, and a couple of girls named Taimane and Brittni Paiva. [Canadian] James Hill does some cool stuff approaching the ukulele percussively. There’s a great player in Japan named Rio Saito who is still in high school. I grew up playing with my younger brother, Bruce, and teaching is his thing. He taught Taimane and Rio. It’s incredible to see so many younger people rocking on the uke and playing all kinds of modern styles such as electronic dance music and hip-hop. John King has already passed away, but he did great classical music arrangements for ukulele. Benny Chong, Byron Yasui, and Abe Lagrimas, Jr. play legit jazz on the ukulele. Jason Arimoto sings and plays the blues on the uke. That’s the future of the instrument—people that are passionate about a genre, and dedicate their whole career to it. I’m excited about the idea of having the Yo-Yo Ma of ukulele, the B.B. King of ukulele, the Pat Metheny of ukulele, and the Jimi Hendrix of ukulele.

Hey, Frets named you the “Jimi Hendrix of the Ukulele” back in the fall of 2005.

I grew up loving all different kinds of music, and I’ve always divided my time into different styles. If I were able to devote 35 years to one genre, I would be a completely different player. Right now, “ukulele player” is still a pretty specific term, but it’s going to become a very broad term, just like “guitar player.” If someone says, “My friend is a guitar player,” you ask, “Does he play heavy metal? Jazz? Flamenco?” That’s interesting, and that’s where the future of the ukulele will lie.