Monday, September 28, 2009

Jake Shimabukuro: While My Guitar Gently Weeps

It's another Monday and I normally feature cover songs on this day of the week because I dread getting out from under the covers to haul myself back to the work grind. Today's cover artist was introduced to me by a colleague and friend, Rob McDole, who came into my office two years ago and had me look up this particular recording of While My Guitar Gently Weeps by Jake Shimbakuro. I would have never believed that this George Harrison composition, which featured lead guitar by Eric Clapton, could be mastered on any other instrument, by any other person, and to any great degree of success; however, I was wrong. Jake Shimabakuro proves that even guitar greats like Eric Clapton and the late George Harrison are not the only ones who are associated with the iconography of this Beatles' tune. You can find the original recording on the Beatles' While Album and a live version on the Concert for Bangladesh CD by George Harrison and Eric Clapton. 

Shimbakuro, aged 33, has been playing ukulele since he was four years old and he has mastered an instrument that many have discarded as a novelty. Some would at best treat it as a nostalgic sound from a bygone era that also featured the singing strings of the Hawaiian guitar. This view conjures up images of beautiful Polynesian girls in grass skirts wearing leis and echos the strains of Aloha Oe melded with the infamous static from an archaic vacuum tube radio. Ah yes, where's the Wizard of the Strings, Roy Smeck, when you need him.

With Smeck, a virtuoso from an earlier era, aside - Jake takes the uke in new directions and shows what can be accomplished on an instrument that, by the virtue of its size, has a limited range. In the hands of the maestro, the instrument traverses boundaries and has boldly gone where no ukulele has gone before. No one will ever consider the ukulele as being a novelty again.

My Dog Has Fleas

Jake plays a custom made Kamaka tenor ukulele (valued at $5,000) - a tenor uke is is the largest of the three stadard uke sizes; the others are the soprano and concert sizes. All are tuned one fourth higher than a guitar and the 4th string is an octave higher (g'-c'-e'-a'). A fourth style of uke is the baritone (made famous by Arthur Godfrey) and it is much larger and tuned exactly like the top four highest guitar strings. He also does not use a pick, although he played with one until his late teens. Jake feels that that by using his fingers and thumb as the plectrums of choice he has more control over the instrument's dynamics - this is obvious when you listen to him play.

Better Living Through Plastics

My own introduction to the uke came at an early age with a plastic soprano "Diamond Head" ukulele under the Fin-Der brand from the early 1950s. My Dad bought it probably before I was born and I now have it as part of my instrument collection. The tuning keys are shot, but I can jimmy them to get them to stay in tune. When I was a kid, the instrument had its original colored strings that matched the tuning keys. Fin-Der described the colors as "red hibiscus," "blue iris," "green fern," and "orange ginger." These flowery identifications I suppose were to conjure up the imagery of the islands. The uke also had an instruction book called "The Beach Boy Method" - a name used by the Fin-Der Company a decade before the Wilson brothers, Mike Love, and Al Jardine cut their first recording.

Fin-Der ukes were built similarly to Maccaferri plastic guitars of the same era. Maccaferris were considered serious instruments and are sought after by collectors today. Apparently, the Fin-Der ukuleles have also appreciated in value as a mint Fin-Der with original strings now fetches several hundred bucks. I had a chance to buy a mint one with the original strings in an original box back in 1989 at a flea market in Ripley, WV. The price was $25. I passed it over to buy a 1920s era zither for which I paid $40. I wish I would have bought the Fin-Der - the zither was a piece of junk. After I replaced the strings, it lasted a couple of weeks before the soundboard warped rendering it unplayable. Anyone want to buy a used zither?

The plastic Fin-Der Diamond Head Uke

By the way, I always thought that the Fin-Der brand was a deceitful play on the Fender Guitar Company name that was gaining in popularity during the same time the Fin-Ders were being sold. I was wrong. The Fin-Der name came from the designer of the instrument, George A. Finder. I am guessing the hyphen was to aid in the correct pronunciation of Mr. Finder's name as Fin-der and not Find-er.

Besides the Fin-Der, I also have an English-made banjo-uke I bought in the late 1970s at a flea market in North Versailles, PA for $25.00, but that is another story for another time.

Since my wife Pam disapproves of high pitched "plunky plunky" (as she calls them) instruments, I am doomed to playing my mandolins, balalaika, banjos, and ukes when she is in bed, or if I happen to escape to the basement where I may play my eclectic collection in solitude out of the hearing range of the better half.

By the way, any one who plays the guitar can play the ukulele as the chords are the same only a fourth higher. Few will master this sub-compact instrument preferring its larger Spanish cousin — the guitar. Despite my obvious lack of natural virtuosic talent, I will never master the ukulele. I will be content, however, to listen to the current champion of this much maligned instrument. Thanks Jake Shimabukuro for creating some mainstream interest in the ukulele.

A Ukulele Extra from Kermit the Frog

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