Redefining the ukulele

Jake Shimabukuro puts own spin on classic tunes




If you go

What: Jake Shimabukuro, in concert.

When: 8 p.m. Jan. 21.

Where: Aladdin Theater, 3017 S.E. Milwaukie Ave., Portland.

Cost: $30.55 through Ticketmaster, 800-745-3000 or


In interviews, Jake Shimabukuro has been called the Jimi Hendrix of the ukulele, and for years has told people that any song could be played on his instrument.

So when somebody tried to stump him with a challenge to play Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody,” a song famous for its multi-faceted structure, fully orchestrated sound, choir-like vocals and a storming electric guitar solo, Shimabukuro decided he was game. So what if a ukulele has just four strings and a two-octave range?

“I sat down with the original recording and listened to it over and over and over and tried to figure out ways to make it work on the instrument,” he said. “And it wasn’t so much just about capturing just the right notes, but it was about capturing the story that the arrangement told, because it takes you on a journey from beginning to end. That’s what I wanted to capture with the ukulele. Because anyone can take the notes, and, of course, you can just play the notes and people will be able to identify that that’s ‘Bohemian Rhapsody.’ But that doesn’t mean you’re capturing the spirit of the song.”

The result, perhaps the first take on “Bohemian Rhapsody” of its kind, is one of the highlights of Shimabukuro’s new album, “Peace Love Ukulele.”

Shimabukuro established his growing reputation with a different ukulele cover, of the Beatles’ “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” performed solo in New York’s Central Park for “Ukulele Disco,” a cable program that aired in that city. A video of that gig spread, like a virus, across the Internet, eventually drawing more than 6 million viewers and bringing new career opportunities to Shimabukuro. Soon he had a global tour and access to major-label distribution through Jimmy Buffett’s Mailboat Records (though he also retained his own Hitchhike Records label).

“Yes, that four-minute video clip has almost single-handedly made a touring career for me,” he said. “I’ve been able, since that video went viral, to play in places that I never would have even dreamed of visiting.”

Shimabukuro, 35, was four years old when his mother introduced him to the ukulele.

In the years that followed, he experimented liberally with the instrument, even plugging it in during an electric phase.

But he has come to appreciate the pure acoustic roots of the ukulele, as listeners have found on recent albums such as “Gently Weeps” (2006) and “Live” (2009).

“Peace, Love, Ukulele,” an all-instrumental album, continues in the acoustic tradition.

“It’s kind of going back to that feeling I had when I first picked up the

instrument, and appreciating all of the little subtleties, the nuances of the instrument, and really utilize what I think makes the ukulele very identifiable,” Shimabukuro said.

But that doesn’t mean the album is filled with traditional Hawaiian tunes.

On “Bohemian Rhapsody,” Shimabukuro suggests the ebb and flow of the Queen original through a solo arrangement. Other songs feature additional instruments and range from restrained, with the solemn ballad “Go for Broke,” to quite full, such as “142 (Kelly’s Song),” which features strings, a rhythm section and an electric guitar solo.

Because his live shows center around ukulele solos, fans should expect a different sound when Shimabukuro takes the stage than they’ve heard on some of his recordings.

Don’t expect a sedate show, however. Shimabukuro believes in entertaining his audience with a physical performance.

“Usually, when you think of ukulele players performing a concert, it’s more someone sitting in a chair, kind of strumming songs and singing,” he said. “I would watch an Eddie Van Halen concert on video and I would be like, ‘That’s what a ukulele concert should be like.’”