The conventional opener to a Jake Shimabukuro story is that he is the best ukelele player in the world. For the sake of completeness, there is this one other fellow, a Canadian named James Hill. If you are a uke fan, do check him out. That said, Shimabukuro is a miraculous player and a joyful presence in live performance. He returns to Napa’s Uptown Theatre on Saturday, Feb. 18.
On the phone last week, Shimabukuro talked about the evolution of his instrumental voice over the years. Early in his career, before his emergence as an international star, he relied heavily on electronics and effects pedals. “I got to a point where I realized that I was forgetting how to play my instrument,” he said, “and that really bothered me.
“I think it was back in 2005, I decided, ‘you know what, I’m going to get rid of all my pedals and go back to just playing the uke again.’ Then for the next, I don’t know, seven or eight years, I just went back to me and my ukulele. Just the ukulele straight into the sound system; no effects, none of that.
“I really focused on the acoustic sound of the instrument, the natural beauty of the instrument, and just learning to manipulate my fingers to create the sounds and tones that I wanted. Then, a few years ago, people were telling me, ‘I kind of miss the electric stuff you used to do, some of the electronics that you would incorporate into your show.’
“At that point I realized that I could find a good balance of the acoustic sound as well as the electronic sound, because I think they’re both valid. Just like with the guitar. You have acoustic guitar and you have the electric stuff, and both are beautiful in their own right, if done tastefully.”
Shimabukuro’s latest album, “Nashville Sessions,” was a conscious effort at balancing the two sides of his playing. “I wanted to find a good blend of acoustic and electric sounds,” he said. “And that’s what I’ve been doing now for the last couple of years, just trying to find a good balance and really appreciating both sides of the instrument.
“With this latest album, I feel like I got a little closer to that, the clean, natural sound, but the grittier sound as well. Hopefully, moving forward I can continue to find that perfect balance.”
As a husband and father of two in Honolulu, Shimabukuro talked about the quest for balance in his personal life, a challenge given his heavy touring schedule. “I try to be more efficient when I’m on the road now, so we do a lot more consecutive shows,” he said. “If I go out for 15 days, we’ll do 14 shows.
“I can still play the number of shows that I’d like to play, but I can be home a lot more to spend time with my family, just be 100 percent present doing things with my children and my wife. Then when I’m on the road, I can pursue my passion and go out there and give my all every night. Again, it’s finding that right balance. I don’t know if I’ve found it yet; it’s always a work in progress.”
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“I wish that I could tour and perform every night and be with my family at the end of the shows. But my children are 4 and 1 right now, so it’s difficult for them to travel with me. I think eventually I’ll be able to maybe bring them out on the road, or at least my oldest one. I might bring him out on a couple of shorter runs and see how he enjoys it.”
“That’s always a challenge,” the youthful ukelele master said. “I think like anything else that you do in life, there always has to be balance, finding it and maintaining it and figuring out how to constantly make it better.”
Saturday, Feb. 18, 8 p.m. $40-$75. Uptown Theatre Napa. 1350 Third St., Napa. 707-259-0123. www.UptownTheatreNapa.com.
Hot tickets at the Uptown – Beach Boys and David Crosby
The Beach Boys have added a second show, Sunday, March 12. $75-$115.
Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Famer David Crosby returns. Friday, April 28. $51-$96 (VIP packages starting at $246).
Tickets at www.UptownTheatreNapa.com.