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Ukulele Road Warrior 

Jake Shimabukuro

Sometimes it makes me play better to see the blood," says Jake Shimabukuro. "It's like battle scars. It's like, Yeah! I'm a man now."

Although those words sound like they should be coming from the lips of a guitar player or a rassler, the weapon of choice for this gent, who often works so hard at his craft that his digits bleed, is a ukulele.

The nylon-stringed, two-octave instrument hasn't been modified, but in his hands, it sounds something like a guitar. "It's like working with a little toy piano," Shimabukuro said recently from his home in Hawaii. "Because I have this limited range, I have to think of other ways to play a song, which a lot of times means coming up with some kind of different fingering technique."

While his interpretations mimic the guitar, they don't copy the sound. His version of George Harrison's "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" on his 2004 record Walking Down Rainhill sounds like a cross between a mandolin and a harp. Because the fourth string is tuned an octave higher than the others, Shimabukuro can get some close voicings with notes between the first and fourth strings.

Shimabukuro says he felt the ukulele had so much potential and was such an untapped source of music that he wanted to re-introduce it to people.

He's been successful from the beginning. His debut, 2002's Sunday Morning, won him major awards in Hawaii including Na Hoku Hanohano's Instrumental Album of the Year and Favorite Entertainer.

But don't let the word "instrumental" fool you into thinking that Shimabukuro is some laid-back hula strummer. He does let the natural sound of the uke come through for some work, but a good deal of it is amplified and utilizes some rockstar effect pedals. His two main influences are Eddie Van Halen and Pat Metheny.

For his latest project, Dragon, Shimabukuro recorded on two-inch analogue tape. "I definitely like the rawness of recording live," he says. "There are parts you wish you could have done better, but then there are going to be parts that you couldn't have planned, which just happened and are just magical."

Most of the magic happens when people see Shimabukuro live and realize it's his hands, not the effects, that are responsible for the sounds tumbling out of the instrument. He uses no pick, strumming the nylon strings with an intensity characteristic of the marching band drummer he once was.

But Shimabukuro tackles material few marching bands and even fewer uke players would dare attempt, from Paganini's "24th Caprice for Violin" to Chick Corea's "Spain. "I've always had a passion for different genres of music," he says. "I like to take what I like from different styles and incorporate it into almost a fusion of styles."

For his next record of solo ukulele arrangements, Shimabukuro is working with Jimmy Buffett producer/guitarist Mac McAnally, who wrote Buffett's "It's My Job" and who has also produced Little Feat.

Shimabukuro considers Buffett, who recently invited him out on tour, as a mentor, along with Béla Fleck. "Guys like that, having them serving as your mentors and giving you advice and taking you out on the road with them, is really a priceless experience," he says. x

Jake Shimabukuro appears Friday, Feb. 10 at Progress Energy Center's Fletcher Theater in Raleigh at 8 p.m. Tickets for the PineCone Down-Home Concert Series event are $22. See www.pinecone.org.

  • Jake Shimabukuro

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