His performance of George Harrisons While My Guitar Gently Weeps made him a YouTube sensation, hes played with the likes of Bette Midler and Jimmy Buffett, and he recently was the subject of a PBS special.
But Shimabukuro wholl play Saturday in Olympia is amazingly humble about the beautiful music hes coaxed from an instrument often thought only capable of background strumming.
Most people use ukulele as an instrument to accompany them while they sing, he said, but I was such a horrible singer that I needed to play the melody as well so the song was recognizable. I would come up with arrangements where I didnt have to sing so my friends could identify the songs I was playing.
He started playing the ukulele as a child many kids in Hawaii do, he said and was inspired to take it further to replicate songs on the radio.
A lot of my friends were listening to pop songs and rock tunes, he said. To relate to them, I wanted to learn some of those other pieces.
Though he plays and records music in a variety of genres, Shimabukuro is known for his high-energy renditions of such guitar-god standards as While My Guitar Gently Weeps and Bohemian Rhapsody.
My style developed after watching guitar players, he said. I would see rock guitarists play, and they would be shredding on their instruments. I wanted to incorporate some of those techniques.
On his most recent album, last years Grand Ukulele, he played with an orchestra on some numbers, while others are simple. British musician/producer Alan Parsons produced the album.
Hes one of my heroes, Shimabukuro said. He worked with the Beatles. That whole connection was really neat how everything kind of came full circle.
Shimabukuro has achieved a level of fame he never imagined as a 4-year-old learning to play from his mom.
Hes a homeboy who made good, said Sheila Leder, who splits her time between Olympia and Hawaii and has been following Shimabukuros career since its beginnings. Im really excited that hes coming to Olympia. Its an intimate atmosphere. If you go to a concert in Honolulu, its a bigger stage.
Jake has brought the ukulele to the forefront, said Leder, who plays with the local uke group Olympia Aloha Ukulele Puukani. He jazzed it up, spruced it up, just took it to another level. Hes exposed ukulele and Hawaiian music to a huge population around the world.
Though he is a virtuoso, Shimabukuro appreciates the simplicity of the ukulele.
You only have four strings and two octaves to work with, he said. I love that, because for people picking up the instrument for the first time, they can immediately start playing. Its much easier than playing a guitar. So its encouraging.
However, he also loves showing how much complexity the instrument is capable of.
You can express almost every chord with just one note, he said. I try to push the boundaries and expand on the color and the complexity of the instrument.
You really can do a lot with it; thats what Ive been discovering myself as a player.
Although he is known for the guitar techniques he applies to the ukulele, Shimabukuro confesses that he is no guitarist.
Im a horrible guitar player, he said. I can play a few chords.