One man. Four strings. Millions of views. That’s how it started for ukulele sensation Jake Shimabukuro. Slowly making a name for himself over the years, Shimabukuro’s fame sky-rocketed after his ukulele virtuosity was showcased on YouTube. He tackled Queen’s epic “Bohemian Rhapsody,” and people started to take notice including — as he would find out — some of rock’s royalty.
Today, Hawaii-born Shimabukuro is on the road supporting his latest record, “Grand Ukulele,” with a stop at the State Theatre on April 24. His notoriety — which includes collaborating with the likes of Bette Midler and Jimmy Buffet and performing for the queen of England — has not gone to his head. He says he is honored to play for so many people and is proud to introduce his homeland’s instrument to the world.
“I am just a big fan of the ukulele,” he said. “I never thought I would have a touring career. It’s all new to me.”
Shimabukuro started strumming at age 4. He has a love of the instrument and its light and joyful sound, saying people connect with it because it’s compact and relatively easy to learn. But despite its simplicity, Shimabukuro enjoys the challenge of performing more intricate compositions, such as “Rhapsody.” And it’s those songs that people are talking about, and it’s Shimabukuro who is leading the uke’s newfound popularity.
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“It’s exciting to see it growing,” he said. “You hear it all over. I mean, you’ve got guys like Eddie Vedder playing the ukulele. It’s amazing.”
The lively strum of the nylon strings can be heard on contemporary radio these days through hit songs from Taylor Swift and Train. But Shimabukuro’s show is not just a hit single. It’s an immersive ukulele experience. He is committed to finding new ways to learn, play and perform. One night, Shimabukuro got a call from a friend saying that legendary rock ’n’ roll producer Alan Parsons, who worked on The Beatles’ “Abbey Road” and Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon,” was talking about him on “The Adam Carolla Show.”
“I literally fell out of my chair,” Shimabukuro said. “He was talking about how he had been to a brilliant ukulele concert. I couldn’t believe it. I was blown away.”
Shimabukuro had no way of connecting with Parsons, but several months later a concert promoter who knew Parsons set up a meeting. Parsons brought his family to Shimabukuro’s show in Santa Barbara, Calif., and the two had sushi together. Five months later, they were in the studio, and the result was 2012’s “Grand Ukulele.”
“It was a little intimidating. I mean how can you be in the same room with someone like Alan Parsons?” Shimabukuro said. “I wanted to go in with an open mind, to be a sponge and give everything I got. I was going to get a good night’s rest ... but stayed up all night practicing.”
The collaboration brought Shimabukuro’s music to new heights. They recorded with an orchestra. Shimabukuro wrote a song with three strings. Every track was recorded live in the studio.
“It’s a lot of pressure,” he said.
But much like the sound his instrument emits with each strum, Shimabukuro’s voice is upbeat, friendly and modest. He likes the challenge of tackling complicated opuses on four strings, and the simplicity of the ukulele is refreshing. He doesn’t talk with an arrogant tone one would expect from a master of an instrument. Instead, he is thankful for the opportunity to showcase his favorite instrument to the world.