Monday, February 11, 2013

Mother Always Said I'd End Up On The Streets ...

Some years ago, after several life changing crises, I found myself at a crossroads - which is great for a blues man!

After bankruptcy, divorce, loss of employment and finding myself with no where to live, I had a stroke just to put the icing on the cake.

After coming out of hospital, I remember thinking that if I'm going to end up on the streets, I'll do it in style ... and that's where the whole story began. I borrowed enough money to buy a cheap black suit, a battery amplifier and I started my new career.

First Of All, Some Basics! 


I remember reading year ago about the lives of the old blues men, who played guitar on street corners and in parking lots near tobacco warehouses to scrape a living together. They would also play at 'house rent' parties and bars, where often the recompense was a meal, some drinks and a bed for the night. As they moved around from town to town, their music developed and adapted to the needs of their audience. A street blues guitar player was at best a distraction from a hard, drab life and at worst, a beggar, who could be pitied and ignored.

In the folk boom of the 60s, the life of a street musician was romanticized even more. What is the reality of making a living playing blues guitar, and what do we need to make it a success?

 What To Wear!


Is this important? You bet! Try to put yourself in the shoes of someone walking down a busy street, presented by a man or woman playing blues guitar on the street. The first impression is extremely important, no matter how good the music. Of course, the music itself has to be top class - just because it's street music doesn't mean it can be a lower standard. If anything , the music has to be higher quality, so that people are attracted to the sound.

Your visual impression at first sight speaks volumes. You 're not a bum, but a musician playing the old blues music, so dress with respect to yourself and also your audience. It also helps a lot if you stand out from the crowd a little. I wear a black suit, white shirt, black tie and a wide brimmed black hat. This outfit reminds me of the old standard studio photos of classic blues men, and is also a little different in today's world. Give yourself a name (maybe invent an alter ego) and display this name on a poster attached to you amp, for example.

The Equipment


Here's a list of the equipment I consider to be indispensable for a street playing blues guitar man:

Blues Guitar (duuuh!)

Of course, you can add any items you feel you need, but bear in mind that you'll have to transport it all. I use as simple trolley and strap everything to it with elasticated bungie chords. I can pack it all away in less than five minutes (if I have to!)

What Kind Of Amplifier Do I need? 


 A basic guitar amp with two channels, assuming that you are going to sing. I started out with microphone on a stand, but it's a bit heavy and cumbersome. I now favour a headset mic, which comes in at around $50 for a reasonable sound.

My current amplifier is a 30 watt job bought from Thomann. There's a lead acid battery inside which takes around six hours to charge, giving a playing time (both channels) of between 6 to 8 hours, depending on the volume used. It's quite heavy at 10kg, hence the trolley.
Channel has basic tone and volume controls - use for the voice, and channel two has volume, gain, low medium, high gain controls. The second channel is ideal for balancing the string sounds of an acoustic guitar. Price is a very reasonable $120.

The Guitar


Bear in mind where you are taking this guitar. For example, could it get knocked? Very easily! Could it get stolen? Of course - anything's possible.

I once left a favorite guitar on the subway by mistake, as I was tired and distracted. It goes without saying that I never saw it again. Happily, it's possible to buy a perfectly good guitar nowadays without breaking the bank. For some time I used a Vintage parlor model, complete with on board Shadow equalizer and tuner, which cost around $200!

My current street guitar (see photograph) is a Martin 000X1AE, which incorporates a strip pickup under the saddle and volume/tone controls inside the sound hole. The spruce top is not varnished (or hardly) and can be delicate, but the neck, and rest of the body is artificial - not wood at all! Martin don't say what it is, except that it's not plastic or a wood pulp derivative. Whatever it is, it's extremely tough. I've knocked it a few times without any evidence of the contact. I carry it in a soft case strapped to my back.

The sound is definitely Martin through and through, with very nice basses. This small bodied guitar is great for blues finger picking, which is all I do. Current price is around $600 - get one! (No, I don't have shares in the company.)

Where To Play 


This is a tough one, as it depends on you and your town. Let me tell you how I approach it. First of all, if you see a few people playing in the street, then you can assume that it's at least tolerated by the police. After this initial assessment, there's nothing left to do but try it out!
I walk around a good deal and watch people as they cross intersections,etc, or on the edge of a pedestrian shopping precinct. It helps a lot if people can stop and listen without obstructing the flow of other people, or of traffic. The picture shows a market in the center of a city - an ideal venue for a street musician and a great place to play blues guitar.

Ready To Go!


Here I am set up on the edge of the city market square shown in the last section. I like to have something at my back (there's always the chance of someone doing something you don't like behind you, or trying to steal something while you are distracted. After all, this is the city!)

You attract some attention while setting up, as people are naturally curious. It takes a little courage the first few times, but gets easier every time. It helps if you bring an attitude to you work. For example, I'm always smiling and chatting to people and give the impression that I belong there. It's my street, it's where I play and I have every right to be there. Of course, I don't have any right to be there, but if you play OK, and not too loud, the police will (probably) leave you alone as it adds a little color to the activities and to the general ambiance.

Start with something simple and attractive - it won't help your cause if you try and play to your maximum ability and mess it up! Play to 75% of your capabilities until you get into it. This way, your playing will be sure and sound great for the passers by.

Can You Make A living? 


Making a living playing blues guitar is always difficult and can only be achieved by earning relatively small amounts from several related activities. For me, street playing has always played a significant role.

However, playing on the street just for tips won't cut it. It's best to offer something else, such as CD at a very reasonable price. This option doubles the amount earned on the street..

My other activities include live gigs and teaching, and I get many contacts from the street. Often people ask me about teaching blues guitar and others offer me gigs at private functions, parties and in their bars or cafes. I'm happy to say that blues is the way I make my living.

I hope you enjoyed this insight into the life of a street musician - take a look at the video below to see more.







  1. How many songs would you suggest as a minimum to keep in your repertoire?

  2. Hi Darrell - about an hour's worth, say 15 to 20 solid songs. Most people don't hear most of them, as they pass on, but some people do hang around and so it needs to be entertaining.

    Also, store owners and others that are near by don't want to hear the same thing over and over again; I generally play for an hour and then move on.

  3. Great blog entry, Jim. The opening sentence made my day. (Just hold out for a good price.)

    I really enjoyed the video too. It was informative, but mostly just interesting in its right. And great production value too. Nice job.

    - chance

  4. Hey Chance (is that your real name?) - thanks a lot for the comment. I really enjoyed doing the vid, but didn't realize how much work goes into a decent presentation. Worth the effort though.