Why I Uke: Herb Ohta Jr. on His Playing Style and Musical Inspirations

From the Summer 2017 issue of Ukulele | BY AUDREY COLEMAN

Soon after Herb Ohta Jr. was born, “Uncle” Sam Kamaka gave him his first instrument, a miniature ukulele that he started playing at the age of three. His first uke teacher was his father, known to audiences as Ohta-san and especially famous for thrilling interpretations of pop and jazz tunes. Over 25 years later, Herb Ohta Jr. is a sought-after Na Hoku Hanohano award-winner, acclaimed for his fresh interpretations of Hawaiian songs and engaging, melodic compositions. In addition to Hawaiian music, he interprets classical pieces like Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik and early melodic songs from Japan, and connects strongly to the music of Stevie Wonder, Prince, and a number of pop and jazz artists.

Last year he released the album, My Ukulele World, celebrating his 25 years as a professional musician. On the album, he plays five solos, two with a vocalist, one backed up by a rhythm section including bongos and congas, one accompanied by a single drum, plus numbers featuring acoustic guitar, steel guitar, and electric guitar. Five of the cuts come from the Hawaiian repertoire, four are composed or co-composed by Ohta Jr., and two are contemporary pop numbers.

How would you describe your unique musical identity, your style?

I have a lot of my dad’s style in me. There are certain songs that, while I’m playing, it will hit me that I just sounded like my dad. Yet you can tell us apart. Our feeling for the music we love to play is distinctly different. And I love playing songs that are very melodic and have a lot of movement—they tend to grab my ear in terms of what to play or compose.

When I listen to you play, I hear a special, almost crystalline clarity.

A lot of people have told me that I play very clean. My father always told me that if a note can’t be heard, then your song is lost. He said anyone can play fast and flashy with a lot of technique, but you cannot say that everyone can play slow and clean.

Who has inspired you?

I’ve looked up to players in terms of their musicality and musicians that paved the way. Of course, Eddie Kamae—he was my father’s ukulele teacher—and my father, Peter Moon, Jesse Kalima, Lyle Ritz, and Led Kaapana. There are so many other musicians, too, like Prince.

When we last talked, you said that someday you’d like to do an album with Prince. Since this is no longer an option, what would you like to do some day?

I would love to do tribute albums to musicians I look up to, like Prince, Stevie Wonder, and Anita Baker, showcasing the ukulele being able to play more mainstream kind of music. Also, even though I love Hawaiian music, it’s a very small market compared to pop and jazz. So I would like to do that one day.

That might surprise some people.

Stevie Wonder is a musical genius. Prince—a musical genius. But I would also do a tribute to Eddie Kamae and even a tribute to my dad. And I’d still like to keep the ukulele roaring, maybe someday open a school in another country.


Herb Ohta Jr Kamaka Ukulele Why i Uke

What does teaching mean to you in your musical life?

It’s very important because it allows growth. If musicians don’t teach people how to play, it stops the growth and the sharing. It stops people listening to ukulele.

Many people still don’t see it as a major instrument compared to a guitar or violin. Although my father, Lyle Ritz, Benny Chong, Byron Yasui, Jake, Iz, and others have promoted it across the world as a serious instrument, many people who listen to rock and pop think the ukulele is a toy instrument. They don’t realize that music theory can be applied to it. When I teach students how to play, I teach them music theory. The ukulele should be taught like you’re learning how to play the violin or [classical] guitar.

Teaching notation, key signatures…

Time signatures, chord structures, scales. Once people realize they can play sophisticated pieces—classical, blues, country, bluegrass—and not just easy chords, they’ll take the instrument more seriously.

You recently switched to Kamaka ukuleles. Tell me about your tenor.

It’s the Kamaka 100th anniversary Slotted Deluxe Tenor model. It’s got an all-koa body. I’ve tried other woods, but I always go back to koa. And I’ve ordered a custom instrument from Kamaka.

When I first went professional, I didn’t use a Kamaka anymore because that’s what my father played, and I didn’t want to be identified with my dad. I wish I hadn’t waited that long to come back because it was like going home. I’m like part of the Kamaka family. The custom instrument Chris Kamaka is making for me will honor both my father and [Chris’] father.

What’s your preference in strings?

I use a signature set of clear fluorocarbon strings produced in Japan by Worth. The Clear Ohta Jr is a low-G set that promotes clarity and good tone. They really suit what I want to play.


What about pickups and amplification?

I use the Fishman Matrix Infinity active pickup, but on my custom instrument, I’m going to try the LR Baggs Five.0 ukulele pickup.

I use the Session DI from LR Baggs. It has EQ, volume control, and tone controls that fit my needs the best.

Do you use pedals or effects?

In addition to the Session DI, I use a TC Electronics Hall of Fame Reverb and Flashback Delay pedals.

Herb Ohta Jr.’s Lessons for Every Ukulele Player

  • You can play anything you want to play on the ukulele. It’s not just for one style. If players have that mindset rather than just focusing on nuts and bolts, you will be enthusiastic and more motivated to learn music theory.
  • Stay true to yourself and don’t copy anyone else.
  • Play from your heart.
  • Truly enjoy playing.

This article originally appeared in the Summer 2017 issue of Ukulele