Arranging “Bohemian Rhapsody” must have
been quite difficult due to its complexity.
“Bohemian Rhapsody” is such an epic tune. It
was really tough, because it’s multilayered—
and, with the ukulele, I’ve only got four strings
and two octaves to work with. There are certain
sections where the harmony gets very complicated,
and there’s a lot of contrary motion
going on. So trying to scale everything down
to four strings was definitely an undertaking.
In making the arrangement, there were many
moments when I wished I had a couple more
strings. But then I realized that, since the ukulele
is such a simple instrument, I just needed
to take the song and strip it down to its bones.
So, I started by thinking about how the song
might be played from beginning to end on
a monophonic instrument, like a saxophone
or trumpet. That was actually tricky, because
there are a lot of areas in the song where it’s
hard to separate the melody from the harmony.
Once I had the bones in place, I fleshed out
the arrangement by adding what I thought was
essential. A lot of trial and error was involved.
Luckily, since “Bohemian Rhapsody” is such a
well-known song, I discovered that some of the
more obvious parts could just be implied in the
arrangement, as I sensed that listeners would fill
in what was missing in their minds.
While your version of “Bohemian Rhapsody”
is a solo interpretation, you’re playing with
a band on most of the record. How do you
approach those two contexts differently?
When I’m performing solo, I don’t always know
exactly what’s going to happen but I know I can
just go with whatever I’m feeling. But when I’m
playing with my band, it’s like I’m in a relationship—
I have to give and take and be sensitive to
others’ needs. I have to remember that there are
other musicians up there onstage with me who
also want the same outcome: to create something
beautiful that everyone can walk away from feeling
like they’re in a better place than before the
One of the other amazing things about playing
in a band is that we hardly spend any time together
and don’t know each other that well on a personal
level, but because we share these moments
that are so personal, so deep and heartfelt, we
connect on a level that’s strangely deep. There’s
nothing I wouldn’t do for those guys. They could
call me up at three in the morning and say, “Hey,
my car broke down,” and I’d be right there.
Shimabukuro’s custom Kamaka uke features abalone inlays of his initials across the
10th to 14th frets.
Photo by Danny Clinch
In concert, you’ve been known to stretch out
and improvise a bit.
Yes, I think improvisation is very important
in music. It’s like having a conversation with
someone you haven’t seen for a long time. You
meet up at a coffee shop and just start talking.
You have no idea what the other person’s going
to say or what you’ll say—it’s all about just
going with the moment. Ideally, each part of
the conversation leads organically to the next. If
music really is the universal language, then we
should be able to spontaneously communicate
with our audiences and with other musicians.
That’s important because, through improvisation,
everyone feels like they’re an indispensable
part of the music. And, for me, that’s when the
real meaningful stuff happens. It’s beautiful and
heartfelt and honest and real—and exactly right
for that moment.
Jake Shimabukuro's Gearbox
Five custom-made Kamaka four-string
tenor ukes that feature curly koa construction
(top, back, and sides), ebony
fretboard and bridge, rosewood binding,
mother-of-pearl and abalone inlays,
gold-plated Schaller tuners, and Fishman
Acoustic Matrix Natural I pickups
The Leon Audio Active DI Box
D’Addario Pro•Arté Tenor J71
Peterson StroboClip tuner