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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

So you thought the ukulele was something of a joke, an instrument beach blanket bingos in Hawaiian shirts played for fun under a swaying palm. Meet Jake Shimabukuro, a ukulele virtuoso.

(Soundbite of ukulele music)

MONTAGNE: He's been playing for 25 of his 29 years. Last week, Jake Shimabukuro came out with a new CD titled Gently Weeps. Jake Shimabukuro joined us in our studio to show us what a ukulele can do and talk about why he has stayed with it all these years.

(Soundbite of ukulele music)

MONTAGNE: It's kind of viewed as a toy instrument.

Mr. JAKE SHIMABUKURO (Musician): Mm-hmm.

MONTAGNE: Have you always seen its possibilities?

Mr. SHIMABUKURO: Yeah, well, I think when people think of the ukulele they think of these, you know, $10 or $15 ukuleles that you can buy at the ABC store. They think of this little plastic toy-looking stringed instrument with a palm tree painted on it or something. And I always tell people, you know, if your idea of the piano was like a little two-octave toy piano that you'd buy for a four-year-old, you know, you would think the piano was not a serious instrument as well, you know.

But when you come across a really finely made instrument like - I play a Kamaka ukulele, so when you come across an instrument like that, you know, that's really well made, you're afraid to even pick it up because it's such a gorgeous instrument. And when you hear it, it just sounds so beautiful that you're actually surprised.

MONTAGNE: Play us something just now that, in a sense, would once and for all explode the myth of the toy, you know, the fun party instrument ukulele.

Mr. SHIMABUKURO: All right. Here's a little snippet of Ave Maria.

(Soundbite of song "Ave Maria")

MONTAGNE: Franz Schubert, I mean that's one place most people wouldn't think the ukulele would go.

Mr. SHIMABUKURO: Yeah, there's a lot of different sounds that you can really get, you know, from the instrument. To give you an idea of what the ukulele sounds like, you know, when played through a, like, a distortion pedal with a nice, you know, through a nice tube amp or something, here's a little snippet from the Conan O'Brien show when I appeared last year and I kind of took this kind of rock & roll improv solo.

Soundbite of television show "Late Night with Conan O'Brien")

(Soundbite of ukulele music)

MONTAGNE: Why did you pick as a title tune While My Guitar Gently Weeps, the George Harrison classic? And I'm sort of asking because you're playing a ukulele, that's one thing. But also what were you thinking?

Mr. SHIMABUKURO: Yeah, George Harrison was one of my heroes. And a lot of people know this about George Harrison - he was an ukulele player and he would take the ukulele with him wherever he went. Until this day, I always wonder, like - I think to myself that, gosh, I think a lot of his songs, I really believe that he got a lot of his ideas from the ukulele because they just work so well with the instrument. You know, like, songs like Something.

(Soundbite of song "Something")

Mr. SHIMABUKURO: Or...

(Soundbite of song "Here Comes the Sun")

Mr. SHIMABUKURO: You know, they just - they're so ukulele-friendly. And While My Guitar Gently Weeps, this one works really nicely with the ukulele so it actually - so I'll play a little bit of it, but it sounds like this.

(Soundbite of song "While My Guitar Gently Weeps")

Mr. SHIMABUKURO: That's a little short piece there, but it's just a gorgeous song.

MONTAGNE: When you were growing up in Hawaii, what kinds of music did you hear on the ukulele? And I, by the way, am saying ukulele because that's the way a lot of people say it. But ukulele is how you would say it in Hawaii?

Mr. SHIMABUKURO: Yeah, it actually comes from the native Hawaiian language. Uku means, like, a flea and lele actually means jumping. So ukulele really means jumping flea and it got its name - because the instrument is so tiny, your left hand, the fingers on your left hand, your fingertips, look like little jumping fleas on a fretboard as your playing it. So that's kind of how it got its name.

But, yeah, growing up, I mean, I played a lot of traditional Hawaiian music, you know, things like, you know, with this kind of sound.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: Oh, yeah. A little Waikiki Beach kind of song.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MONTAGNE: Where did you grow up? In Oahu?

Mr. SHIMABUKURO: Yes, I grew up right in Honolulu in a little town called Kaimuki. My mom and I would sit around and we'd just play, you know, these traditional Hawaiian tunes. And normally people move to another instrument, like, from the ukulele. I feel that people get bored of playing the ukulele because they hear other things and they want to be able to play other things. But I guess for me I've never gotten bored with this instrument. I've always felt there was so much more to explore and I really love it.

(Soundbite of ukulele music)

MONTAGNE: Jake Shimabukuro playing in our studios in Washington, D.C. songs from his new CD, Gently Weeps. You can hear him play other tunes in our studio and learn the different legends of how the ukulele got its name at npr.org.

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

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