Interview With James Hill

Mar 27, 2009 ~ Hailing from Canada, James Hill has one of the most distinct ‘ukulele styles in the business. His signature “mono strum” in which he strums all of the strings, but only sounds one note makes up a huge part in his sound. Apart from being one of the world’s best ‘ukulele players, James also teaches some very fascinating classes and workshops. The classes that I attended were about the triplet strum and teaching ‘ukulele. Both were very informative.

I was able to ask Mr. Hill some questions via email about his music career. Thank you James for doing this interview.James Hill jamming on his custom Gstring 'ukulele

Brad Bordessa: Who do you consider your musical heroes?

James Hill: There are so many: Glenn Gould, Stevie Wonder, Merzbow, Mark O’Connor, Victor Borge, Daft Punk, John Cage. I could go on and on.

BB: Who would you like to have the opportunity to play with?

JH: Again, tough question because there are so many. Leonard Cohen for sure. And Bjork. But really, I’ve had so many beautiful moments playing with people who aren’t “big names” in the music biz. Like last summer I was in Waikiki on my way to the Roy Sakuma’s ‘Ukulele Festival and I walked past a guy busking with his ‘ukulele. I sat down with him and we played together for quite a while. Turns out we had some mutual friends on the mainland. That’s a bird in the hand. Cohen and Bjork are wonderful but they’re birds in the bush.

BB: I see on your web site that you have quite a few ‘ukuleles, how do you choose what ‘ukulele to use on what song? How do different ‘ukuleles affect your playing?

JH: I try to keep my “stable” of ukes to a minimum. Each of my ukes has a distinct voice. I mean, you can’t make a koa soprano sound like a fiberglass tenor slide uke. You just can’t. But I also don’t feel the need to have a dozen koa sopranos in the house, either.

BB: What do you think is the most important thing you have practiced, and how has it improved your playing?

JH: Timing, hands down. I used to rush a lot. I still do but I’m getting better. Basically, there’s a big difference between “playing fast” and “rushing.” For me, the only cure for the “rush bug” was honesty. I had to listen to recordings of myself and be really honest about what I was hearing. That’s always hard but it’s worth it. When you rush the tempo you tend to sound apologetic, out of control, and impatient. It’s awful.

BB: You have played at a ton of different venues, what has been your favorite performance and why?

JH: One of the most memorable was our first concert in Gothenburg, Sweden. ‘Ukulele fans held a[n] ‘ukulele rally in the city centre and then marched “en masse” to the venue waving signs, singing, and playing ‘ukuleles. By the time we hit the stage they were in a total frenzy. It was like a rock n’ roll show; they were out of their heads with excitement. It was one I’ll never forget.

BB: At what point in your career were you approached with an ‘ukulele sponsorship?

JH: It happened just after my first CD came out. I was still playing off-and-on with the Langley Ukulele Ensemble. We did a show at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel and I was really struggling with the instrument I had at the time. Derek Shimizu of GString Ukuleles had already offered me a sponsorship and, after seeing the Royal Hawaiian show, Rigk Sauer of RISA also made me an offer. They could both see that I desperately needed an upgrade! They’ve both been very generous with me and I’m grateful for that.


Here’s another interview I did with James in November of 2011: