BY HOLLY-RUDIN BRASCHI | FROM THE SUMMER 2023 ISSUE OF UKULELE
Jeff Peterson’s love for sharing his musical gifts is infectious and inspiring. As one of his students for the past several years, I can attest to this first-hand. He is both an ukulele and guitar virtuoso, his formidable skills balanced by his soft-spoken and humble demeanor. Although he is known as one of the world’s foremost Hawaiian slack key guitarists, Peterson is dazzling in almost any musical genre, be it blues, jazz, folk, rock, classical, or fusion.
He has made ten solo slack key albums (the most recent is Mele Nahenahe, from 2021), an equal number of collaboration albums (several with bamboo flutist Riley Lee), and has also appeared on numerous recordings by other top Hawaiian artists, including Amy Hanaiali‘i, Keali‘i Reichel, Keola Beamer, Raiatea Helm, Dennis Kamakahi, Cyril Pahinui, Sonny Lim, and George Kahumoku, among others. Five of his original songs were featured in the smash 2011 Hawaii-based film The Descendants starring George Clooney.
Peterson has been honored with 13 of Hawaii’s coveted Na Hoku Hanohano Awards, and made history in 2005 when he and several other top players won the first Grammy Award in the Best Hawaiian Music Album category for Slack Key Guitar, Volume 2. He earned a second Grammy in 2010 as a featured artist on Masters of Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar: Volume 2, which reached number 15 on the Billboard Top World Music Albums chart. His solo album Maui on My Mind was also nominated for a Grammy Award in 2010. (Sadly, the category was eliminated from the Grammys in 2011.)
A consummate performer, Peterson has traveled the globe as a soloist and ensemble player spreading musical aloha throughout Europe, Asia, Australia, and across the U.S. He has played with symphonies and string quartets, Japanese taiko drummers and classical guitarists, jazz singers and Broadway stars.
Since the Covid shutdown, Peterson has been offering “pay-what-you-can” 55-minute slack key and ukulele concerts on Wednesdays. In 2021, he resumed in-person performances and is looking forward to teaching and performing at ukulele workshops on Maui with George Kahumoku and friends, in Nashville with Jake Shimabukuro, in New York with Simon Powis, and in England with Matthew Stead before a month-long tour with Ledward Kaapana and George Kahumoku in September. He is also touring in Japan with Amy Hanaiali‘i for the 25th anniversary tour of her celebrated song “Palehua.”
Peterson is constantly composing and arranging pieces for his performances, albums, and students, and has also authored four ukulele books for his Ukulele Corner Academy online lesson program and one slack key guitar book for his online slack key guitar workshop.
I caught up with Peterson in January 2023 to “talk story” about how his upbringing, education, and love of music have informed his career, compositions, and life goals.
How did growing up on a Hawaiian ranch influence your musical style and technique?
My great grandmother’s family goes back many generations in Manoa Valley on Oahu. My father, though born and raised on Oahu, wanted to become the family’s first paniolo [Hawaiian cowboy]. He trained on the Big Island at the Kahua Ranch in the Kohala mountains, which dates to the 1870s and is still in operation. By the time I was born, he had moved the family to upcountry Maui where he worked for many years as the manager at Haleakala Ranch on the slopes of the Haleakala mountain. It is still the largest ranch on Maui.
I feel fortunate having grown up in such an amazing place and lifestyle. The ranch pastures were our backyard where we spent a lot of time outdoors exploring from the mountains to the ocean. The beauty and heritage of the place helped me understand early on the importance of respecting and maintaining our ‘aina [land]. This inspires my compositions to this day.
I was not only surrounded by beautiful scenery, but also beautiful music! My dad loved to play guitar and sing Hawaiian music with the family and other cowboys on the ranch. My earliest musical memories are of going up the mountain with my dad and his buddies to stay overnight at a rustic cabin built in the 1930s. It’s still there and hasn’t changed since, including the lack of electricity. Someone would start a fire and begin cooking, signaling everyone to bring out instruments and start the evening’s kanikapila [group jam]. Seeing amazing musicians firsthand playing for the love of it inspired me to play music. None of them ever played professionally, but they loved sitting together, talking story, playing, and singing songs. One fantastic player, Eddie Wilson, took me under his wing when I was around eight and informally got me started on the ukulele and guitar. I got my first ukulele in fifth grade along with a more formal music education. But it wasn’t until I was 12 that I started playing and experimenting on my own instruments.
You specialize in fingerstyle playing. Who introduced you to that?
My introduction to fingerstyle was by my father. He played old-style two-finger slack key with his thumb and index fingers. But a lot of the cowboys were strumming their guitars with a pick. So, I learned both when I was young because each has their own strengths for either strumming or soloing. And as I grew older and started researching through magazines, listening to recordings, and watching others play live and online, I learned as many different fingerstyle techniques as I could. Some musicians use their thumb for just about everything. Others like my dad, use thumb and index, while other musicians use all their fingers differently for different genres of music.
Why do you suggest ukulele players learn both fingerstyle and strumming techniques?
Because knowing both enables you to play a wider range of music with a bigger range of sound, especially when you can seamlessly switch between the two techniques in a single piece of music.
Many Hawaiian musicians stick to playing Hawaiian music. What sparked your interest in other genres?
I was constantly surrounded by Hawaiian music, but when I entered Baldwin High School on Maui, I was inspired by wonderful mentors who broadened my horizons with jazz, classical, rock, and blues styles. I played electric guitar in the school stage band, formed my own rock band, and performed wherever I was invited. As soon as I could start working to save up for instruments, I got a weekend job at Bounty Music in Kahului, Maui [still the largest instrument store on Maui], where I was exposed to a lot of inspiring musicians with my same passion for music. During that time, I was also introduced to studio work when Tom Hall, a fantastic musician, arranger, and producer, took me under his wing and taught me at his recording studio on Maui.
What made you decide to go to L.A. to study at USC’s Thornton School of Music?
When I was in high school, I attended a great performance at the local public library by Lisa Smith, a guitarist visiting from the mainland. She played a recital of slack key, classical, and flamenco music. I had never heard one musician play such a mixed program and was enthralled. At the time, I was a junior in high school and wanted to continue learning music, but I didn’t know which direction to take. After the recital, when I asked where she studied music, she said, “the University of Southern California with Pepe Romero.” I had no clue that Romero was a world-famous classical guitarist. She told me that she also studied with Peter Moon—one of the iconic artists of the Hawaiian musical renaissance that took place in the 1970s—who I did know of. That short conversation changed my life. After doing some research, USC was the only university I decided to apply to, and I was fortunate to be accepted with a scholarship.
What did you study there?
I was a kid from a small town in upcountry Maui with an insatiable hunger for musical knowledge. When I arrived at USC, in South Central Los Angeles, it was like landing on a different planet. I suddenly found myself in a massive urban environment surrounded and inspired by amazing teachers and fantastic students from a wide range of musical backgrounds. I chose to study in the studio guitar program, geared for students who wanted to work in Hollywood recording studios and which offered the most varied course choices. Studying at USC was such a gift. It broadened my understanding of so many different aspects of music, from jazz theory, classical performance and composition, electric and acoustic guitar playing, working with groups from rock bands to big bands, and recording music in beautiful studios in L.A.
What brought you back to Hawaii?
Throughout my time at USC, I was surrounded by opportunities that were not possible in Hawaii, and I took as many as were offered. I played with many bands and started doing session work, while taking a full load of classes. I was playing so much that I injured both hands and had to stop playing in my junior year. At that time, they pushed students to make progress by practicing extra hours and getting involved inside and outside of the program, but without addressing ergonomic playing techniques to prevent overuse injuries. This wake-up call made me realize I needed a backup career.
So, I left USC junior year and finished my undergraduate work at the University of Hawaii Manoa with a business degree. It was a big challenge and very difficult to stop playing music, but I feel I grew tremendously from the experience and was happy to return home to Hawaii.
How did you return to music?
It was serendipity. I hadn’t seen Lisa Smith since her library concert on Maui. While studying for my business degree in the UH Manoa library, I looked up, and there she was! I reintroduced myself and learned she was a guitar instructor at UH. We immediately connected, and she became my teacher for classical guitar. As it turns out, the injury was a blessing in disguise. With her help, I was able to heal my hands completely in a year and a half by reevaluating my technique. She taught me Pepe Romero’s techniques for hand position, posture, finger pressure, relaxation, and finger independence.
I learned that if you balance his techniques with knowing how and when to take breaks, you can play for hours and hours and be absolutely fine. Since then, I’ve spent years studying and researching playing ergonomics to help myself and my students.
What prompted you to start teaching music professionally?
While I was finishing my degree, I decided to supplement my income with teaching and discovered I loved it. I taught at UH, the Waldorf School nearby, and privately. It is always so wonderful seeing sparks of creativity and joy as students make progress. When I finished my business degree, I was immediately hired to teach in the UH music department guitar program with Lisa Smith. When she left around 2002, I was invited to run the guitar program, where I was the director for five years. During that time, I delved deeper into the music of my roots, started regularly performing solo and freelance gigs, and recorded my first album in 2000.
My business degree helped me manage my growing career in music. Teaching private students and group workshops became a regular part of my career and I always enjoy sharing what I have learned. I also learn a great deal teaching and I am always searching for effective ways to help each of my students. Part of this has been to create an extensive catalog of arrangements in many styles of music, from Hawaiian to jazz to classical. This led to publishing books of classical repertoire, my resources at Ukulele Corner, and my upcoming Hawaiian repertoire book.
Let’s talk about your online instruction program, Ukulele Corner. What motivated you to create it?
When I started out as a musician on Maui, there weren’t many music learning resources. I wanted to create an online ukulele school to share my knowledge, so I started developing the Ukulele Corner Academy website four years ago with a dear friend and brilliant musician, Simon Powis, who has a PhD in music education and performance from Yale Music School. His guidance and input creating the website has been a great inspiration for me and I am grateful for all his efforts.
The main goal of the Academy is to provide a clear and structured path for learning with a full online curriculum that offers lots of interaction through live classes and a student forum. To that end, I offer free lessons on the website and on my Ukulele Corner YouTube channel. Students who want to go more in-depth are invited to join the Ukulele Corner Academy.
To date, we have over 300 students in the Ukulele Corner Academy and I have included everything I would have loved to have had when I was learning. Ukulele Corner resources are for students of all abilities and musical mindsets, extreme beginner to advanced. No matter their skills, students can choose to learn with the musical staff, TAB, or simply learn by watching the videos and playing by ear. Students can start from the beginning or in the middle of the program according to their skills and which pieces of music inspire them.
I created over 350 downloadable music arrangements for a variety of genres. Each arrangement has an accompanying video that can be replayed as many times as students need to help them learn. To share my knowledge of efficient playing, plus to help students achieve a professional sound, I offer a technique library with over 60 videos. To help students learn faster, I created progressive practice routines. I have also launched a new baritone ukulele course and have arranged enough music for Volume 2 of the classical repertoire books for both GCEA and DGBE tunings.
How has your guitar playing affected or informed your ukulele playing and teaching?
Having a background playing different styles of music on the guitar has helped me develop arrangements and learning resources for the ukulele that are based on my experience playing slack key, rock, jazz, and classical music.
I have been fortunate to study with many great teachers and have found that so much of what I have learned on the guitar applies beautifully to the ukulele. I have also been able to arrange of lot of my slack key guitar compositions for the ukulele using the GCEA tuning and many variations of slack key tunings, including GCEG, GCDB, FCFA, GCEbG, and ACDA—all variations on the low-G tuning. I have been able to apply concepts of theory from the classical and jazz traditions along with various techniques from guitar playing that can be used together with traditional techniques of strumming and fingerstyle playing on the ukulele. I have also been able to draw on music from the classical repertoire for ukulele arrangements.
Who are some of the ukulele players and teachers that influenced your own style?
I was fortunate to study with Benny Chong for many years, which had a big impact on my jazz ukulele playing style. His creativity, technique, and knowledge are truly amazing. I have always really enjoyed spending time and performing with Benny, Jake Shimabukuro, Herb Ohta Jr., Led Kaapana, and Bryan Tolentino at festivals. I have learned a lot from each of them.
What are your favorite ukuleles that you own? Do you have a preference for size?
I have played Koaloha ukuleles for years and love their instruments. I have two tenors: one is for reentrant tuning and the other for low-G. I also recently got a beautiful new Kamaka tenor that I love. I have a Po Mahina baritone ukulele I really enjoy playing, as well. It was made by Dennis Lake and modeled after Benny Chong’s Kamaka baritone.
In addition to teaching, you are involved in music philanthropy. Please tell us about your efforts here and abroad.
Locally here in Hawaii, there are very limited resources for children because a lot of music programs have been cut. So, I have been offering free concerts for children through the library system and the University of Hawaii Outreach College for 15 years to inspire them to play Hawaiian music.
From 2013 through 2016, I teamed up with slack key guitarist Keola Beamer and his wife, Moana Lani Beamer, a hula kumu [instructor], for a program sponsored by the U.S. State Department called American Music Abroad. We were the first group in the program to share Hawaiian culture with children through ukulele, guitar, and hula lessons. We did four trips with the State Department visiting Brazil, Venezuela, Colombia, and Zimbabwe.
During those trips, we discovered that disadvantaged kids with a passion for music needed help worldwide. Most had little or no access to instruments or instruction. So, we started our own international music outreach program for middle and high school students called “Ukulele Around the World.”
We identify a location where underprivileged students have music instructors at their schools committed to carrying on our program after we visit. To date we have traveled to Cambodia in 2016, India in 2022, and in 2024 we are planning a trip to Bhutan. Wherever we go, we work with amazing students, most from small villages, many the first in their families to have a formal education. We stay for a week, give students ukuleles, and teach them playing basics and techniques. It feels so good to put instruments in the hands of kids who never had one of their own. At the end of the session, we have a recital for the local community. Afterwards, if the school has internet capabilities, we give them full access to the Ukulele Corner Academy.
Are there cultural differences to the point where students in, say, Southeast Asia, would want to learn different tunes than ones in Zimbabwe or Brazil, or come to the instrument with different expectations?
For all the outreach programs I have done traveling around the world, I have always tried to learn music from the area before visiting. This gives me the chance to teach songs that students are familiar with in addition to teaching them Hawaiian and contemporary music. I learn in the process and have found that it gives me a way to connect immediately with students.
The ukulele is an amazing instrument that can blend into any style, from joropo dances of Venezuela to choro music in Brazil to West African songs and folk music from Sikkim, India. Starting with music that students in each area are familiar with creates a direct impact and inspires them to learn more about the ukulele while having the ability to play the music they love in a new way. I have been surprised to see that children in very remote areas know many pop tunes from the West. When I asked students in Sikkim what their favorite songs were, I was surprised to hear everything from Beatles songs to John Denver to Journey. I had 40 students singing and strumming along to “Don’t Stop Believing,” “Let It Be,” and “Take Me Home, Country Roads” about an hour after they received the ukuleles we donated to them. Playing songs they already enjoyed and knew how to sing allowed them to immediately open up and embrace the new instrument.
What are your observations about the ukulele students of today that you work with? What styles are they most interested in?
I have a wide range of students of all ages and really enjoy the diverse span of interests they have. It gives me the opportunity to share so much of the music I love in a variety of styles. Some students prefer to learn to play specific arrangements and styles, while others want to learn how to compose, improvise, and make their own arrangements. I really love finding what students are passionate about and then focusing on specific ways to help them along their musical journeys.
There are a lot of classical pieces on your YouTube channel. Is it fair to say this is a growing area for ukulele?
There is great potential to expand the classical repertoire on the ukulele and I have made it one of my main goals to steadily work on this. The second volume of classical repertoire will be published later this year and will include pieces by Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Brahms, Ravel, Debussy, Satie, Schubert, Barrios, Vivaldi, Sor, Tárrega, Albéniz, Carulli, Carcassi, Ponce, Dowland, and others. There is such a vast range of music to draw from by so many brilliant composers. I am learning so much in the process of doing the arrangements and really enjoy playing the music. I have seen that learning classical pieces, phrasing, technique, and interpretation can help students expand their repertoire while giving them skills that apply to other styles they play, as well.
How do you manage to accomplish everything in your packed calendar?
My daily schedule is very full and depends on my focus at any given time. I love the fact that my work is diverse, so I plan different times of the day for different purposes. Typically, early morning, I’m working on my own music and practicing. I start teaching around 9:00 to early afternoon. Then I start working on materials for my two websites, books, and transcriptions. In the evening I may be performing. If not, I get back to composing and arranging my own music.
All of your albums have featured guitar. Would you consider making an ukulele-dominated album?
Yes, I am planning on releasing ukulele albums featuring classical, Hawaiian, and original music.