If Jake Shimabukuro’s arms were a little longer, he might have ended up as a successful guitar player in a rock band.
Instead, he became one of the best-known ukulele players ever, a virtuoso who has helped spread the popularity of a deceptively simple instrument by showing how incredibly complex the sounds coming from it can be.
“When I was a teenager I really got into rock and jazz, but I always felt the guitar was too big and bulky for me, I could never get my arms around it,” said Shimabukuro, 37. “So the only instrument I had to play the songs I liked was the ukulele. To me it was like a game, like a puzzle, trying to figure out how to play any song I wanted on the ukulele.”
During the past decade or so, Shimabukuro has toured the world and amazed audiences by mastering such diverse material on the ukulele as Judy Garland’s “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” and Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.”
His current tour stops at Portland’s State Theatre on Tuesday.
While Shimabukuro is known for doing solo performances, just him and his ukulele, he’s added some elements to this tour. He has a bassist with him, for instance, who will play on about half the songs.
Shimabukuro is also touring with some electronic gadgets, some of the things electric guitar players use to get wild sounds.
“I’m all acoustic and then I dive into some of the electric stuff, and you can just see the shock on people’s faces,” said Shimabukuro.
Shimabukuro grew up in Honolulu, Hawaii, where his family had immigrated from Japan several generations earlier. He was taught to play the ukulele by his mother, who worked as a bartender, when he was 4. His father, who was a carpenter, played guitar.
Shimabukuro said he started trying to figure out how to play songs not normally played on the ukulele because it was fun for him. But he soon learned it was fun to watch people’s reactions, too, since most people expect to hear folk songs, Hawaiian music or kids’ songs on the ukulele.
He remembers as a teen learning to play the rock ballad “More Than Words” by Extreme, and then getting some pretty extreme reactions from classmates.
“I came to school and played that song and everybody was freaking out, saying, ‘That’s not a ukulele song,’ ” said Shimabukuro. “That’s fun for me.”
Shimabukuro says he’s never given up on adapting a song to the ukulele, once he starts. Though sometimes he has to change course. He said the Beatles’ “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” was giving him trouble until he switched keys.
Shimabukuro says he’s thankful he’s never had to do anything but play or teach music to make a living. He played clubs and events in Hawaii and Japan as a young adult. But his career as a world-renowned touring artist began around 2006, after a video of him playing “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” became a huge hit on YouTube. He released an album called “Gently Weeps” later that year, and it went to number 2 on Billboard’s world music chart.
As Shimabukuro has built his career, the ukulele has been experiencing a surge in popularity. It’s easy to find local ukulele teachers and groups all over Maine right now. The Portland Public Library even lends the instrument out.
Shimabukuro thinks the popularity is at least partly because the ukulele does not intimidate anyone. Just as he could never quite get his arms around a guitar, a lot of people can’t get their minds around trying to learn certain instruments.
“I think the guitar, piano or violin can be intimidating to people. But they see a ukulele and they say, ‘That would be fun to try,’ ” said Shimabukuro. “They almost don’t see it as a real instrument. To me, that’s a beautiful thing.”
Staff Writer Ray Routhier can be contacted at 791-6454 or at: