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Jake Shimabukuro, ukulele pioneer, at the Capitol tonight

Bill DeYoung

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Freddie Mercury’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” is the song du jour, thanks to the Oscar-nominated, boffo b.o. biopic of the same name. Of course the complex, multi-tiered rock song, first recorded by Mercury and Queen in 1975, has been covered over the decades by symphonies and rock bands, actors, comedians and cartoon characters.

But have you ever heard “Bohemian Rhapsody” played on a solo ukulele? You owe it to yourself to catch Jake Shimabukuro’s concert tonight (Feb. 20) at the Capitol Theatre in Clearwater.

The 42-year-old Hawaiian native has been on the cutting edge of popular ukulele – yes, there is such a thing – for half of his life. He is a virtuoso musician, an acoustic music rock star, and a tireless innovator.

On an instrument that’s associated, for the most part, with grass skirts, luaus and grandma’s Don Ho records.

“I’ve never felt like I was on a mission,” Shimabukuro tells the Catalyst in a telephone interview. “The most important thing, to me, was I just wanted to show people how fun the ukulele is. And I think it’s one of the least intimidating instruments to pick up. It’s so easy to learn – you can play a chord with just one finger! For a lot of people who’ve never played an instrument, but always fantasized about playing an instrument, I think the ukulele is the perfect one to start with.”

Over the course of 14 studio albums, numerous film soundtracks and endless world tours (many of them shared with labelmate Jimmy Buffett), Shimabukuo has famously re-interpreted Bach, the Beatles, Schubert and Santana. He is a prolific composer, too.

Always, it starts with just him and his four-string uke.

“I love the simplicity of it, and I always play in traditional tuning,” he explains. “And I like just taking the traditional instrument and trying to see how far I can push it. Now of course you can always add things. I’ve seen five-string and six-string ukuleles. It’s cool, you have an extended range and things like that, but to me you lose a little bit of the sound of the instrument. The sound I grew up listening to.”

In his younger years – the late 1990s, to be precise – Shimabukuo was part of high-energy, electric rock bands in Hawaii. Then, he was known as “The Hendrix of the Ukulele” because of his screaming, effects-heavy soloing. He leaped around onstage and played the role to a tee.

Eventually, he turned his back on that approach. “There was a point where I felt I was relying too much on some of the effects and things like that,” he says. “And I felt my playing was getting sloppy; I just wanted to hone in on my playing and my fingerwork, and just be the instrument again, back to the sound of the instrument again.”

For a year or two now, a small segment of his show has been devoted to impressing the audience with the ukulele played through a few of those rock ‘n’ roll effects pedals. “That’s fun – I think it adds more variety to the performance.” Still, it’s essentially an acoustic concert.

There are, Shimabukuro admits, certain limitations to what one can do with four nylon strings stretched across a wooden neck. “The fun part of it is trying to explore what those limitations are,” he says, “and to push that, and try to cheat some of those limitations.”

Tickets and info here.

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