From the Spring 2017 issue of Ukulele magazine | BY GREG OLWELL
Speaking by phone from his home in Hawaii, the 40-year-old virtuoso continued to describe how his latest record is a big step and a daring new direction for the musician already known for reinventing the way we hear, feel, and play the ukulele.
“This record is a real departure from the acoustic sound of the instrument,” he says, speaking around the time of the album’s release in September. “I don’t want to offend anyone or for them to think I’m being disrespectful, but this recording really showed me a different side of the instrument and a different side of myself.”
Using distortion and other effects on his ukulele, along with several different sizes of instruments, Nashville Sessions features Shimabukuro’s playing as we’ve never heard it before—with a new freedom and spontaneous energy that recalls great classic rock and fusion records of the ’70s. And these new sounds are the result of a recording process unlike any other he has ever undertaken.
On the suggestion of his manager, Van Fletcher, Jake went to a studio in Nashville without any preparation, or a real plan, besides jamming with bassist Nolan Verner and percussionist Evan Hutchings. They went into the studio hoping to get a few ideas, and left six days later with an album’s worth of material. Using the recording studio as a creative space is a formula that has been used in rock, hip-hop, and pop for decades, but was new to Shimabukuro, who normally goes into a studio with a full concept and lots of rehearsal. “This is the first time I didn’t think about it too much. I learned I could play and just let it happen without worrying if I’m playing something ‘right.’”
In addition to ploughing new ground with his latest album, Shimabukuro has stepped into a side-gig repairing instruments. After hearing about hundreds of ukuleles abandoned to storage closets by cuts to local school programs, the musician stepped up with an offer to repair 100 ukuleles on the condition that they are returned to service teaching schoolchildren in Hawaii how to play the instrument that has taken him all over the world as the ukulele’s greatest ambassador.
Nashville Sessions sounds like one of those records where the band and the studio team are a big part of the creative process.
Oh yeah, this was a very collaborative project. First, the idea wasn’t even my idea—it was my manager Van’s idea. When he first suggested that we go in the studio and jam, I was like, “Wait, what? I want to go in prepared.” He didn’t want us going in there with charts or music.
Are there any examples on the record where you really let go?
Usually, when I cover George Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” during the live show, Nolan [Verner, bass] and I go into this completely free, improvised thing in the outro. He plays the song and I solo, and every night it goes to a different place. So, we thought we should try doing something like that in the studio.
The last song on the record, “Kilauea,” was just a four-minute, completely improvised piece. We just chose a key—C minor—and went with it. Nolan started a vamp and then I started playing as I would in our live show, but it turned into something different. I remembered the first time I heard Van Halen’s “Eruption” and thinking, “How is he getting all of those sounds out of the guitar?”
And that was kind of the idea for this song and for this record—the exploding ukulele. I wanted to get very experimental with volume swells and distortion.
I also really like playing a lot of close cluster chords using minor seconds. It’s such a cool sound and it’s very easy to do on the ukulele because the high fourth-string makes it easy to take advantage of those close notes. I used a lot of these cluster chords on “Kilauea” with distortion because it’s such a cool sound. I grew up listening to Jeff Beck and he does a lot of these close voicings where the two notes really fight each other. It makes the hairs stand up on the back of my neck.
Of course, now that we are playing it live, I had to go back and learn what I played on the recording. [Laughs.]
You’re exploring many new tones and textures on this album. How did you record the different sounds?
The way we recorded this album was all new territory for me, so I was excited the whole time.
The record is all live takes—each song is one live take from beginning to end. We overdubbed after, so the drummer might go back and add some parts, but this was the first time I went back and layered different ukuleles. I used the tenor, the baritone, and the soprano, which was neat to hear because they all have such different characteristics, and used all of these effected sounds, like overdriven amps and a Leslie rotating-speaker cabinet.
I took a signal from my uke and split it into all of these different things in the studio. One signal went into the Leslie, another went into the plate-reverb room, a tape echo, an overdriven amp, a clean signal, and a few others, so every signal was being recorded at any given time.
So you were recording several tracks of sound at all times?
Yes! While everything was being recorded together, I could step on a switch and choose which sound I wanted to hear in my headphones. So, if I was playing with a clean sound and wanted to hear my overdrive sound for a solo, I could step on a switch and change the signal in my headphones to the sound from the overdriven amp in another room.
On the tune “6/8” we had an A section and a B section, but we didn’t really know what we were going to do after that. So, we started playing this vamp over the A minor part and I spontaneously stepped on the overdrive channel and started soloing. That lead us into this free jam that built up, then we brought it back down, but we didn’t know how we were going to end it. We were looking at each other, trying to figure out how to get out of this and eventually the bass player just stopped, then I stopped, and then the drummer stopped. It was fun.
You’ve always been dedicated to your tenor. How did you end up using several different kinds of ukuleles on this record?
The idea of layering the tenor, soprano, and baritone ukuleles came from hanging out with [resonator guitar master] Jerry Douglas immediately prior to going into the studio. We were talking about octave pedals and he turned me onto the Electro-Harmonix Micro POG, which lets you layer octave sounds and play chords. It gave me the idea to simulate the effect of the octave pedal, but by using real instruments, like the baritone to play the lower octave and the soprano to play a higher octave.
I used a Kamaka Baritone that I bought used at Dan’s Guitars in Honolulu. It’s my first baritone and it’s about 50 years old. I tuned it an octave down from my tenor, in re-entrant tuning, and used it on a lot of tunes, like “Man of Mud,” on which I played it overdriven, and on “Motown.” Casey Kamaka made the soprano for my son when he was born. It sounds so beautiful, but what I did was tune it really high, sometimes a full octave higher than normal.
You tuned the soprano up an octave? That sounds scary.
My secret for being able to tune it so high was fishing line! I love fishing and I had 10-pound test fishing line in my ukulele case, so I ended up using that for strings! The strings were so thin it was hard to play. The soprano doesn’t have a pickup, so I had to hold it close to the microphone, but I dug the sound—it adds a nuance to melody.
Tuning it up an entire octave was hard, so in a few places, I used a capo across a few strings to get that high, delicate sound. On “Tritone,” I tuned to a whole-step below the octave and then played it a step higher because the capo was making intonation difficult.
Did you have any revelations in the studio?
I loved the process of this record—the sound, the arrangements, and the compositions of this record. Before this, if I was going to record some ukulele with effects, I felt like I needed to make sure that 85 percent of the record is clean and true to the ukulele’s natural sound.
The thing that caught my ear, right from the get-go, was the reverb. In all of my [prior] recordings, I’ve used software-based outboard gear like digital reverbs, but this studio had a real EMT plate reverb. They have this huge separate room with sheet metal plates and they run the signal through these long plates to get real reverb. So, you’re recording a real sound, not a mathematical algorithm.
I’ve used things that tried to re-create that sound, so getting to hear a real one really caught my attention. It sounded so smooth and made my ukulele sound so rich that I was really inspired to play. I’ve never heard my uke sound like this before.
The next thing that caught my ears was the distortion sound. When you’re dealing with piezo pickups on ukuleles and the instrument’s higher register, it’s hard to get a musical-sounding distortion that doesn’t have that harsh, biting character. The way I’d use it before was for contrast, balancing a clean sound and a dirty sound, but when we started this project, the distortion sound we were getting through the tube preamps was so warm and musical that I felt like I could stay on that sound—sometimes for the entire song.
I never would have come up with something like this record if I was sitting around with notation paper trying to transcribe something on my ukulele, but in this situation things can happen naturally and you can really create something new.
Just before our interview with Jake, we polled our Facebook followers to see what one question they might ask Jake if they had the chance. Here is one we selected.
What is the one thing you learned from this unique experience that [you will] use for future recordings? —Diane Fazekas
The sound of the combination of ukuleles—the way the tenor and baritone sound together with a soprano, because that’s something that I never really experimented with before. Before this recording, it was always just the tenor, and if I layered a second part, it was always the same tenor.
Using different guitars to layer sounds in the studio is not a new idea—guitar players do it all of the time—but I think utilizing the different-sized ukuleles is a really neat sound that I want to experiment with. Who knows, maybe next time I’ll try a concert or an 8-string or 6-string. It was an eye-opening experience.
Ukuleles Custom Kamaka tenor, “50-year-old” Kamaka baritone, and a Kamaka soprano Casey Kamaka made for Jake’s son
Effects Jam Pedals TubeDreamer overdrive (live), Fulltone Secret Freq distortion/overdrive (in the studio), Jam Pedals Delay Llama analog delay, Keeley Aurora reverb, Tech21 Fly Rig multi-effect pedal, T.C. Electronic Ditto looping pedal (live), Boomerang Phrase sampler (studio), and a volume pedal
Strings D’Addario EJ65T Pro-Arté Custom Extruded Ukulele, Tenor
Amplification He used many sources in the studio, including a Fender Deluxe combo and a Leslie rotating speaker cabinet, but he prefers to leave the amp at home and instead use a Tech21 Fly Rig multi-effect pedal/amp simulator
“I got the ukulele I’m playing now the day after we finished these sessions, so I recorded this with my old main ukulele.”