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Jake Shimabukuro: Hawaii Four-O

Jake Shimabukuro: Hawaii Four-O

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 music started.

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
Clear Nylon


Peterson StroboClip tuner
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