Jake Shimabukuro: Simplicity In (Rapid) Motion
Jake Shimabukuro is doing for the ukulele what Bela Fleck did for the banjo. While respecting traditional roots, the Hawaiian born and bred musician has taken the instrument way beyond those parameters into the worlds of classical, jazz, bluegrass, rock and folk. He has shared stages with Bela Fleck & the Flecktones, Jimmy Buffett and the Coral Reefer Band and RAQ, headlined concerts in a variety of contexts and appeared at the Bonnaroo, Telluride and High Sierra festivals. He finds such multi-day events particularly inspiring. “I just love being at festivals because everybody there is just as passionate about music as you are. It's such a great environment to be at. To me it's a great environment to listen to music. It's just what everyone is there for. All the energy is dedicated to music.”
A quick perusal of Shimabukuro’s 10 releases, and you discover a depth to his material that ranges from originals to covers of Led Zeppelin, Chick Corea, Sarah McLaughlin, Cyndi Lauper, Simon & Garfunkel, Celine Dion, Franz Schubert and Joaquin Rodrigo. He recorded Across the Universe, a Beatles tribute album that comes out in Japan with plans for a North American release later this year. It’s a fitting endeavor since, thanks to YouTube, his version of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” made him an international sensation. Coming out on April 14 is Live, a fitting compilation of his abilities recorded at shows in the U.S. and Japan.
When I call Shimabukuro, I joke with him that doing an interview gives him an excuse from venturing out in St. Paul and dealing with minus 20 wind-chill temperatures. Although equipped with a down coat he says, "Once that air touches any part of your body, any exposed skin, it burns."
It is several days after I attended his tour opener at Akron’s EJ Thomas Hall. The performance displayed his technical prowess, emotional connection to his four-stringed instrument and outgoing personality that wrapped outstanding playing into an entertaining night. But what was most striking was the audience’s respect for the performer. When Shimabukuro paused to allow space between notes, the silence gave way to the soft hum of stage lights. Rather than the whistles and screams one is used to, it was a rare, refreshing deference to the artist in action.
JPG: I discovered you with Dragon (2005 album). That was a band album, and more of a jazz fusion sound, but you do most of your live dates as a solo artist. What are the reasons behind recording one way and playing live another way?
JS: I love playing with a rhythm section and I've done a few band shows in Japan. And it's nice because I can do a little bit of both. I can feature the band, play with the band, and do a few numbers solo. Then, bring the band back on. So, there's a lot of variety. It gets really expensive when travelling with a group of people and I think that's one of the positive things with our tour recently. We travel very light. Basically, I travel with one ukulele. I have a backpack with a couple cables and a [Leon Audio Active] DI box. I have a suitcase with my clothes and then my tour manager. It's very easy. We're very compact. All we have to do is rent a car, any rental car will do, and we're fine. It's so nice because the load in and load out is easy. It goes quick. We don't need a big crew. We just sell our merchandise at the end of the show. And that's been working really great for us.
At the same time because I'm just a solo act for a long time it's been really easy for other bands to use me as an opener because I don't require a lot of space, and I can just come in and do my thing. Then, a lot of times I'll sit in with the band. They'll invite me to play with them and stay for their set and jam with them. Playing the ukulele has been really great because it's so easy to travel with as well. When I'm on the airplane I just put it right on the overhead. I don't have the stress of worrying, “Is it gonna make it or will it get bashed around on the plane?' Again, whenever I'm in Hawaii I have a couple of friends that I just love playing with, a full rhythm section…and it's nice because I can express myself in different ways.
JPG: Does it take much effort to switch from mainly playing as a solo artist to returning to a band and having the Group Mind where you have to listen more?
JS: Yeah, it's definitely two different mindsets. Whenever you have more people onstage with you contributing to the music then you have to lend them more room, but I have different arrangements for the same song, my solo arrangement and my band arrangement. In some cases my solo arrangement is in a different key than the band arrangement because I want to utilize different chord voicings and stuff like that. When I'm playing with the band the songs tend to be a lot longer, with all the soloing and improvisation. You tend to have a lot more fun and play off of each other. That's always great. So, we'll start off with the song that sounds like the song and then it goes into something completely different (laughs) and then we can bring it back to the same song or go straight into another tune. The drummer, Noel Okimoto, and the bassist, Dean Taba, that I play with a lot in Hawaii, we've been playing together for the last three or four years. Dean's been David Benoit’s bass player for the last 10 years, and he just moved back to Hawaii.
JPG: Watching you play live I didn’t notice any foot pedals.
JS: Not anymore. I used to. I was really heavy into effects before. But recently, I went back to the pure acoustic sound. And it's been really challenging. I found that when I used the effects for a long time I found that my playing start getting a little sloppy because when you have that delay going on and all those big reverbs, you don't notice all the little fret buzzes or when you're sliding your finger off the string you have that open string that makes noise. All of those things, I really had to work on to clean up once I started playing solo and acoustically again. But, it's been a great process for me, just cleaning up my left hand and my playing and working on my tone. Now that I don't have the effects like changing the color is not as simple as stepping on another pedal. Now it's things that I have to do differently with my right hand or my left hand and utilizing different techniques to get a different kind of feeling across.
JPG: Was that something that you were moving towards or was it a direct result of studying under (Japanese jazz pianist) Makoto Ozone, who you’ve described as a mentor?
JS: The thing with Ozone, when he sits at the piano he plays. There are no tricks. He just sits down and he plays that piano like nobody’s business. I loved it. I stayed with him in New York and that was such an amazing experience, just sitting in his apartment and listening to him practice and show me stuff and sitting with him at the piano and listening to him play. I remember, at that point, when I was playing with him, we weren’t plugging in, we were playing acoustically. But, I remember feeling like, “Oh shoot, I wish I had my amp and my effect pedals so we could play together.” At that same moment I realized, “Why am I feeling like that? I’m a ukulele player. I’m not a pedal board player.” That’s when it struck me. I realized how dependent I was becoming on my effects, and I didn’t like that feeling. So, I wanted to change that. And I’m the type of person, I’m pretty extreme. What I did was I totally got rid of my pedal board. As soon as I got back to Honolulu, I stored that thing away and I haven't looked at it since. And I just went back to my uke plugging straight in to the DI box and that's it.
JPG: Before you started your solo career, you were in a band called Pure Heart.
JS: That was my first… we were a traditional Hawaiian/contemporary Hawaiian band.
JPG: I think it’s interesting that you were in a band called Pure Heart. Then, you went to using all the effect pedals. And now you’ve completed the circle, in a way, now that you moved towards making music based on Pure Sound.
JS: Yeah. (long pause) It's funny because that's kind of like a natural process you have for a lot of musicians. I find whenever I talk to people; they always go through the same thing. You start off with you and your instrument, take some lessons. Then, next thing you know you buy your first effect pedal. You're like, “Oh, this is so cool!” Next thing you know, the following year you have 30 effect pedals all on the floor in front of you and you're going through all this stuff. Then, you slowly take away the ones you don't really need and keep the essentials. From there it goes to back to just you and your instrument again. Maybe the cycle starts all over again. (laughs).
JPG: Before you mentioned about getting rid of your effect pedals, I had a question about that, whether you’d use effects to create new colors and tones. Maybe the circle does continue. Have you ever gone through a phase where, and I’m thinking of a guitarist such as John McLaughlin who gained a reputation for his speedy fretwork, where you played the notes as fast as possible? I know you do that on “Crazy G,” but on a more constant basis.JS: When you're young, everything’s got to be fast and you try to play everything as fast as you possibly can. But John can just shred. The thing about John, he's not just playing fast. A lot of guys play fast and shred. They're, maybe, playing a harmonic minor up and down the scale, up and down the neck. But John would… the kind of colors that he would create and make the changes on every chord and his understanding of harmony is unbelievable. It's one thing when you're taking a guitar solo or ukulele solo to just commit to one scale and just shred over those same notes, it's another thing to be consciously aware all the time of exactly where you are in the song and what chord is played where, what re-harmonization you do over that section and be aware and, actually, play those changes on the spot and keep with the form of the tune and all of that because John could have a rhythm section behind him and he could be shredding and at any point the rhythm section could completely stop and he could still be shredding and they'd all come back in at the top of the tune at the right place. That kind of awareness just really blows my mind.
See, when I was younger you don't really appreciate that stuff. You just want to go, “Man, that guy's really playing fast!” There's so much to music. I mean, there's a time and place for everything. Sometimes, fast is best for that particular tune, for that part of the concert. I think the key is having a balance and learning how to…and this is what I struggle with all the time…just pacing yourself through a concert. The set list always kills me every time. Sometimes you put so much thought into the set list and you're like, “Okay. Wait. Should I play this song after? What song comes after this? This is in this key and this time signature so this one should be this.” It'll drive you crazy sometimes. Sometimes, you just step back and, you know what, it doesn't really matter. You get up there and you play. It doesn't really matter what song it is, but whatever song you're playing you just mold it and cater it into that moment. And to me, that's when you really start to connect with your audience. It's when you play for them for that moment rather than something you rehearsed 300 times.
JPG: Watching you play live, I wasn’t sure if you were using your fingernails or side of your fingers?
JS: Most of the time I'm using a combination of both. And, then sometimes, if I want a thinner sound with a sharper attack then I use more nail. If I'm looking for a warmer tone, I kind of tilt my thumb or my fingers more in an upward way so I can utilize the fleshy part of my finger.
JPG: When you’re doing the very fast strumming such as during "Crazy G" your hand was a blur.
JS: For that strum I'm using a combination of my index finger and my thumb. So, when I'm strumming down, doing the downstroke, I'm using the top of my nail on my index finger and then when I'm coming up I'm using the nail of my thumb. Actually, for the really fast part I throw a triplet rhythm in there for the space in between. So, what it is, basically, I'm strumming down with the nail of my index finger and then I'm coming up with my thumb, but then coming back up again with my index but on the fleshy part of my finger.
JPG: The reason I brought that up, I was reminded of Jeff Beck’s playing style, where it’s basically him, one guitar, one really beat up foot pedal and it looks as if he gets just about everything done using his thumb and sheer will.
JS: It's funny that you bring up his name because he was the guy who, actually, inspired me to just use my fingers. He gets so much sound and so much color out of that guitar. It's just amazing. When you hear a track of him playing, and without a doubt you know it's him. His voice is so strong and unique. That's another thing that I realized is that if I'm using a pick, anybody can go out and find the same pick and they can use it and they can get a very similar sound to what I have. But, if I'm using my fingers, my own hand, nobody else in the world has the same hand as me. So, that in itself makes my sound very unique to me. And there are so many parts of your hand that you can use to create these different timbres and tone colors. It's a lot more fascinating to me just using my hands. It's a lot of more interesting. You can create so much more sound.
JPG: You cover songs from a wide variety of artists, have you considered putting together a version of one of Beck’s tunes, maybe something from his jazz fusion period, Blow By Blow or Wired?
JS: I love everything that he does. He's just so musical and just…he's a genius. I never really tried to cover anything. I used to pluck out a little bit of “Cause We Ended As Lovers” but I never really did anything of his in a concert. I just think the world of him. If I were ever to meet him, I would just die. I'd run if I'd see him coming. Like run and hide.
JPG: Going back to what you said about creating a sound. It has a tone similar to classical guitar, and that’s not just because you cover compositions by Bach or Handel. Is that a suitable comparison or would you rather the focus remains on the ukulele?
JS: Oh no, I definitely enjoy trying to make the ukulele sound like different instruments — koto or piano, guitar, whatever it is. For me it's proves to people that it's not so much the instrument but a lot of it has to do with your hands and the way that you treat the instrument and the way that you attack the strings. There's so much manipulation done by the player to create the different sounds you're getting. Of course, having a great instrument is wonderful because a great instrument will respond to all the different things that you're doing and the way that you play. You'll hear a difference. For instance, a great concert piano will sound different if you strike the string with your index finger versus striking it with your middle finger. A fine-tuned concert piano will do that versus like a cheap upright where it doesn't really matter. Having a really good instrument helps because it allows you to do those things and be a lot more expressive.
JPG: Now, I read that you were four years old when you first picked up the ukulele. What was the fascination then? Is it the same now?
JS: I started playing because my mom played. She was my first teacher. And I just loved it from the very beginning. When I picked it up for the first time and learned my basic three chords, to play a Hawaiian vamp, I remember just playing those three chords over and over and over. It's amazing…the Hawaiian vamp is just basically 2-5-1 and it's all dominant 7th chords, but just with those three chords you can play hundreds of Hawaiian songs.
I'm so glad that my roots are in traditional Hawaiian music, and the reason for that is because in traditional Hawaiian music a lot of the chords and the structures of the songs and the melodies, very repetitive, but it's very simple. A lot of times it's just two or three chords, and they're not complicated chords. A lot of times you just play straight C major chord. Straight G 7 chord, whatever it is. It's just very straight chords. A lot of triads and dominant 7ths. That's about it. So, because of that, when I hear music that's very simple — two chords or three chords — it sounds perfectly fine to me. Whereas, if my roots were in other genres of music where the chords and the melodies are a lot more complex, then I could see how players of that background would get bored playing something that's just two chords that go back and forth.
I really enjoy that because I believe that music should be simple. The whole reason that we play stuff, well, for me anyway, is I want to connect with the audience. I want to communicate with them in some way. You can always sit there and make a song more complicated or make it more difficult for people to understand or grasp. And there are audiences that enjoy that. For me personally, I just love to bring out the melody in a song and play what's appropriate for the tune or at least it's really important to me that I play things that I truly understand really well. That's what it comes down to.
JPG: You mentioned the word “simple.” One of the bands that you frequently cover is the Beatles. There was a story discussing the success of their compilation 1, and it based the group’s appeal to anyone from four to 94 on the idea that at their core the songs have simple, almost child-like melodies.
JS: It's funny because a lot of the time when you use the word “simple,” like when you say, “Oh, it's such a simple melody. It's such a simple tune…” when you really think about it, simple is probably the most difficult of all to create but that's the genius of the Beatles. If you really dig into what they're doing, it's really not. Their recordings are so well mapped out, so well thought out, everything has its place. And it's just incredible how much was put into every song. You listen to every single one of their hits and even songs that weren't hits and you just find all this stuff that just blows your mind. Every time I listen to Abbey Road or Rubber Soul or every album, I sit there and you hear something that I didn’t hear the last time I listened to the album, like some understated counter melody or the guitar parts. Their ideas, I can't even begin to understand. They were so ahead of their time. That's why their music is just as hip today as it was many years ago. It's really amazing! And the thing about the music of the Beatles, you can play it on any instrument and it just sounds amazing — ukulele, piano, some amazing symphonic arrangements, solo guitar… It's just their melodies are just timeless and there's so much, so many different influences in their music. It just communicates and connects with so many people.
JPG: You went to the University of Hawaii. Did you focus on music there?
JS: It was the Diamond Head campus, more of a community college; I went to for three years. And then I went to the actual University, Manoa Campus, for a semester. I didn't really know what I was studying. I was taking a bunch of classes. I took every music course I could because that was my interest. Every semester I would tell myself, “I've got to take my required classes,” but then I could take two or three music courses. It was so funny because I remember, back then to be a full time student it was just one flat rate. You could take as many credits as you want. I remember having 20 or 22 credits in the beginning of the semester and I would take all these classes and then three or four weeks in I would probably only have half of the classes. I would drop the other half. But I kept all the music classes! (laughs).
I didn't really know what I was going to do and I was taking my language and Math and English and all that and taking all these great composition classes and theory classes. It was a wonderful experience. It turned me on to so many new things. It was just something that I really enjoyed. I really enjoyed the theory. I enjoyed learning the concepts and a lot of the science behind what I was doing. That intrigued me. It helped me so much with my playing. I didn't get a degree. At that time I started performing a lot [with Pure Heart]. We were getting a lot of shows around Hawaii. So, I took a break from school and I told myself when this thing slows down, I'll go back. So far, things have been getting busier. That's been a real blessing.
JPG: At one point did you go from playing traditional Hawaiian songs, and the traditional way that most people think of the ukulele, to tackling the material by rock and jazz artists and even classical composers?
JS: That came later when I was a teenager. I used to work at a music store and we sold a lot of guitars and amps and ukes but we also sold kazoos. (laughs) I remember I would always buy a bunch of kazoos, just as a joke, to give away to my friends. If I was going out, I'd buy a kazoo and go out with my buddies. You take an instrument like the kazoo, as long as you can hum the song you can play it on the kazoo. That's basically all that you're doing. You're just humming the melody. It was at that point I realized you can play Jimi Hendrix on a kazoo or at least play it in a way where people can identify the song. Now, you're not really playing Jimi Hendrix, but you're just playing these melody notes. Like "Purple Haze," the opening guitar riff, you can hum that so you can do it on the kazoo.
So, I realized that I have all the same notes that a guitar has, maybe not the same range, but I can always play an octave lower or an octave higher, whatever I need to do. So, music and all these different genres of music are not so much the notes that you're playing or the chords that you're playing; it's the feeling behind each genre. That's really when I started taking an interest in listening and feeling and putting myself in the music, and even if it's not so much playing along to a CD or DVD of an artist that I really like, but sitting there and putting on the headphones and putting it up at a level where I feel it. Then, slapping my hand to my leg and feeling the groove. That became more important to me than learning what chord was being played or what scales were being used over that chord progression. It was feeling how they're playing each downbeat, where they're putting those accents, the dynamics of the tune, the groove. That became really important to me.
That's what I realized when I started playing with different players, cause I've had opportunities to tour with Bela Fleck & the Flecktones and I got to do something with Yo-Yo Ma recently and Cyndi Lauper and most recently Jimmy Buffett. Just take those four artists. They all have a totally different sense and approach to music and the way that they feel music, the way that they phrase their melodies or the way that each song grooves is completely different. So, it was really nice to be able to play along with them and have them tell me later, “Oh, that fit right in,” because they never had ukulele in their music before or they never played with a ukulele player. It makes me feel good because I'm trying to create a spot for myself to contribute to the music in a good way that's comfortable for everyone. Getting exposed to a lot of different styles of music and a lot of different artists, when I say that they inspired me it's not so much that I can play their songs but it's more about I can try to feel the music the way that they're feeling it, not exactly but to the best that I can. And that's something that I really enjoy now. Even touring with Jimmy Buffett, I love playing up there with him and trying to lay down a good foundation of chords for different songs, sit in with the band and be a part of the band and part of the rhythm section. That's a totally new experience for me versus being a lead player or being up there as a soloist or being with the rhythm section and trying to conduct the rhythm section. It's really nice to be in the rhythm section and be behind and make things work. It's been a great learning experience for me.
JPG: What you do brings a degree of respect to an instrument that normally doesn’t get that. Do you feel that you’re on mission, whether you choose to be or not, to get the ukulele some respect?
JS: I think that the ukulele is still looked at as a toy or a novelty, which I think is one of its strengths because it's an instrument that's capable of even doing that. You can go from playing comic relief stuff or silly folky tones and get a chuckle or a laugh out of someone by strumming a few chords or even just saying the name 'ukulele' people just laugh or smile. Then, you can play a Bach piece on it or cover a Beatles tune or do jazz fusion, a Chick Corea piece, on it. To me it's the most versatile of all instruments and it can speak to a lot of different people. A lot of people can relate to it because it's such a simple instrument. Seriously, anyone can play the ukulele. If you've got five minutes I can teach you a song. That's how simple it is. Four strings and it's very easy to hold. It's very easy to get a decent sound out of it. And all you need to learn are just two chords and you can play a bunch of songs. It's not a hard instrument to play and pick up. I think in that sense, too, a lot of people are attracted to it.
Back in Hawaii, there are all these senior citizen clubs. Even my grandmother recently, she doesn't have any music background, she never played an instrument before in her life but she and her girlfriends joined this ukulele class and in two weeks she's already strumming and singing songs! You can't do that with any other instrument. My grandma would not be able to learn a song on the guitar or not in two weeks or even piano. Those are instruments that take a lot of time but the ukulele, it just doesn't. It's very simple, and everyone can relate to it. People of two or three years old and you can be 80 or 83, you can pick it up for the first time and have fun with it.
JPG: Are there traditionalists who are unhappy with where you’ve taken the instrument?
JS: When I first started playing as a kid and I was experimenting with distortion pedals and all that kind of stuff, a lot of my teachers or mentors would say, “You know Jake, if that's the kind of sound you are looking for, if that's the kind of music you want to play, you should pick up the guitar.” They weren't angry. They thought that was the direction I wanted to go in. Now, in Hawaii the traditional ukulele players, we're all buddies. The music community in Hawaii is very small and everyone knows each other but they're very proud of what I'm doing and they support me all the time. It feels good. The important thing is because I came from the tradition of playing Hawaiian music. So, at my concerts even though I'm playing all this other stuff that is not traditional ukulele music, I could sit down and play for you very traditional Hawaiian tunes at the same time because that's what I was rooted in. Because of that and because I respect where the instrument came from and then from there I try to do these other things, I think they're okay with what I do.
JPG: Staying with the perception of the ukulele, when you’re headlining a concert the crowd is conditioned for what they will get, but opening up for other artists, especially a Jimmy Buffett crowd. I would think that you would have to grab their attention immediately because they’re ready for a party and not open to what you have to offer.
JS: Well, when I was touring with Bela Fleck & the Flecktones, I was scared out of my mind. Those are all my heroes. I remember when I first got to meet them and sit down with them, oh my gosh, I was trembling in my pants. Until this day every time I run into them or we see each other at festivals, I'm so excited to see them. I've been a fan of theirs for so long that's it's hard for me to have a casual conversation with them. I feel like every time I see them I always want to call them, “Mr. Bela Fleck” or “Mr. Victor Wooten.” I have so much respect for them. They have inspired me. They always inspire me when I listen to a new project of theirs or I see them perform. And they're just great people. That's the thing that's just so beautiful. As wonderful and talented as they are, they're great human beings.
On the flip side of the coin, playing with Jimmy Buffett. Jimmy Buffett's an icon and his audiences are like 30, 40, 50,000 people. (laughs) I grew up listening to all of his songs. Bands that I grew up listening to in Hawaii used to cover all of Jimmy Buffett’s songs. So, I was so familiar with the music. And I used to play all of his tunes as a teenager in high school. We’d cover "Changes in Latitudes" and "Volcano"... So, to share the stage with him and be up there, it’s just unbelievable because I know all these songs by heart. At the same time, trying to play them with the guy who wrote them and he’s up there with me, and we’re on a stage in front of tens of thousands of people that scares the living daylights out of me as well. (laughs)
To be honest, nobody can open for Jimmy Buffett [and the Coral Reefer Band] because everyone that's there just wants Jimmy. They don't want to hear anything else. The cool thing is when I tour with him, I don't open for him but I learned all of the songs that they do in the set and I become one of the Coral Reefer Band. It's really cool because he'll feature me on solos and then he'll break down into an acoustic set. A lot times, recently, Jimmy and I will do a couple of songs together or we'll do a trio thing with Mac [McAnally, guitarist] and he'll let me take the solo parts. And then in the middle of the concert he'll feature me and the steel drum player. Everyone will leave the stage including Jimmy, and it's just the two of us. We'll play our version of "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" in front of all the people. It's such a contrast in the concert. It has its own place. He's so generous about giving us that opportunity to showcase a little bit of what we do. And it's just the most amazing opportunity in the world.
JPG: I can see the influence of working at a music store, going to college and performing alongside your heroes could have an effect on you, how did your family inspire your musical outlook?
JS: Well, my parents had a really extensive vinyl collection. A lot of the albums that I grew up listening to like Vicki Carr, Eydie Gorme, singers like that, that's stuff that my grandma used to listen to as well. It's pretty far back. I mean none of my friends know who those people are. I think back then there was this amazing amount of emotion in the music and I don't want to say acting in the music, but the singers and the artists would get into a role when they're singing the song. Just like when Frank Sinatra would take a song and make it his own. No matter what he sang or what he covered it was like he wrote the tune because he did it in a way that was just so sincere and so honest that it was like you were hearing the story firsthand from the guy who experienced it.
Listening to those kinds of artists, it really taught me that whenever you're playing a song or even if you're covering a tune or if you're playing any piece, there has to be that conviction. You have to have a deep understanding of what you're playing for it to come across in a powerful way and for people to believe what it is that you're playing.
As a teenager I would improvise, but when I listen to a lot of my old recordings, you just hear pretty much the same notes being played in a solo. I never got into studying licks from other people and trying to place it in other places. I was more about trying to come up with my own idea, even though a lot of times it sounded really lame. At the very least, they were my own little riffs or approach to a chord. I always wanted to make sure that I had a good understanding of what I was doing and not so much…of course, I would listen to other players and try to copy what they were doing, but if I didn't understand why that was working or why it was placed in that area, then I wouldn't try to play it cause it always sounded lame to me when I would record myself doing that.
I always found it best that I come up with stuff that I know works and that I feel it, things that I understand, and just play it that way. Then, there's more conviction. Then, I have more control over what I'm doing. And to this day, a lot of what I do it's very simple. When I cover a tune, I don't try to get too out there. I don't try to re-harmonize it to death or anything. I just try to do things that enhance the melody. I'm a big fan of melody. You can never overstate a melody. It's one of the most beautiful things in music. I love just playing melody. I love playing rhythm. I love just trying hold down a groove. I love guys who can groove.
One of my favorite drummers, I love Steve Gadd to death. I can just listen to him play forever. Everything he plays is just right. It's perfect. It's like, “Yeah, That's what I meant to play.” I love that. I love musicians that really play from the heart and really play from the moment, guys like Pat Metheny. Half the things he plays, I'll probably never be able to understand because it's so deep, and it's so out there, but when you listen to it, you just know that he's creating something that's him and that's exactly what he meant to express at that moment. Guys like Keith Jarrett. I just love when people do something with so much conviction and with so much sincerity. It doesn't matter what it is that you’re doing. That's why I can appreciate, not just the musician, but guys like Bruce Lee and people like Michael Jordan. They love what they do so much and everything that they do in life is reflected in their art form. It's really inspiring.
JPG: You’ve read Bruce Lee’s writings and studied him. Tell me how that helped you as far as playing and viewing music.
JS: It's funny because Bruce Lee's teachings, it's all that and none of that. What I got out of it, one thing is when I'm strumming; all I need to do is cover those four strings, which is a matter of like two inches of space. So, instead of bending at the elbow where I'm using the larger muscles, I would twist my wrist like you're opening a door, that kind of motion. I'm just rotating my wrist. I'm not using any bicep or tricep muscles or any shoulder muscles. That was one way that I would approach it, especially when I'm strumming really fast, I focus that energy like that.After understanding his philosophy a lot more, I started feeling, maybe that's too literal. Then, I started really digging in, and this is just from what I got from Bruce Lee. I loved his idea of using your whole body to express even the tiniest detail. He would do these demonstrations. Like punches, a lot of times when you punch, it's your hand, your arm. A lot of times you throw your shoulder in or a little bit of your neck or your back. Bruce Lee would take it to the next level. It's everything, from the way that he would conjure every ounce of energy that he has from the ground to his toes and his pivot and the way that he spirals all that energy up to his legs, to his hips, to his body and extended up to his back, his shoulders and then down his arm to the front of the punch to where his hand makes contact. And I love that visual, like how a baseball pitcher pitches a fastball, every ounce of energy and everything that he has in his body, he's going to focus it and harness it into that forward motion.
And for Bruce Lee, it's everything, it's mentally channeling all your senses, and your mind for it. I love that idea of applying that to the ukulele. Even though you may be strumming a little down chord, it's not just about your arm and the snap of your wrist. If you're sitting down, it's how you plant your foot into the ground and you want to feel that. Just visualize all of that energy coming out from the ground, your feet, your legs, all the way up and then coming down on to the instrument like that.
That's what led me to it cause I move a lot when I play, and I try to move with the music and with the instrument. But I try to use every part of my body that I can. You can't really see because I'm wearing shoes, but a lot of times my toes are totally clenched up (slight laugh). Things like that. It's amazing because it makes such a difference. I don't know from an audience standpoint if they can really hear the difference, but I'm sure they can feel it a little bit more because I feel it a lot more. Everything is a lot more intense for me. I love that. I love just pouring my whole body and mind and spirit into every little note or action and fully committing every motion. It's really hard to do, and it's something I try to focus on, when I'm performing, but sometimes I get a little distracted or you can lose your focus. Most of the time, I think I'm getting better at just being in the moment, trying to be in that zone and play.