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Official - Blues Men Takes To The Streets

It often sounds very romantic. Picture the scene - the blues man performing on the streets just like years gone by. See what it's like practically and also what you need to have to make a go of it. Jim Bruce relates a little about his life as a blues singer on the street in France. Everything you need can be found underneath - the equipment, where to play, practical tips and that crucial ingredient - attitude!

First Of All, Essential Basics!

I recollect reading somewhere about the lives of the musicians who traveled around to play the blues on street corners and in parking lots near tobacco factories to scrape a living together. They would also perform at 'house rent' gatherings and bars, where often the reward could have been a meal, some beers and a bed for one night.

As they moved around from place to place, their music developed and evolved according to the preferences of the people who came to hear them . A street player was at best a distraction from a difficult , monotonous way of living and for many, a bum, who could be ignored.

In the blues folk boom of the nineteen sixties, the way of living of a wandering musician was romanticized even more. What is the reality of playing blues guitar on the street , and what should we have to make make a go of it? (I'll take it that you can already play great acoustic blues guitar, or at least competently.)

Is It important How I Dress ?

Of course ! Imagine yourself in the position of a man or woman passing along a busy thoroughfare , presented with a performer making music on the street. The first look they cast your way is extremely vital, no matter how excellent the  sound. Of course, the music itself has to be top quality - just because it's street music doesn't signify it can be a lower standard. In fact, the music needs to be higher quality, so that busy people are attracted to the feeling.

How you are perceived at first sight speaks volumes. You're not a bum, but a musician, so dress with respect to yourself and also your audience . It also helps a lot if you are a little different from the rest of the crowd . I put on a black suit, white shirt, black tie and a wide brimmed black hat.

This outfit is similar to the old standard studio photos of old blues men, and is also a bit out of the ordinary in our modern world. Call yourself by another  name (possibly invent an alter ego) and display your new name on a poster taped  to your amplifier, possibly.

The Equipment

This is a short list of some things I think are indispensable for a street playing blues guitar man:

Guitar (of course) - Chair- Amplifier and mic - Tuner - Something with wheels to carry everything - Sunglasses!

It goes without saying, you may include other things you feel you may need , but bear in mind that you'll have to transport everything. I use a shopping trolley and fasten everything to it with elasticated chords. I can pack it all away in under 5 minutes (if I have to!)

What Type Of Amp Should I Use ?

A basic amplifier with 2 channels , assuming that you want to sing. I started out with a microphone with a stand, but it was too heavy and cumbersome. Nowadays I favor a microphone attached to my head , which costs around 50 dollars for a reasonable sound.

My present amp is a 30 watt job purchased from Thomann & Co. It features a lead acid battery inside and it takes maybe six hours to charge, which provides a playing period (both channels) of between 6 to 8 hours, depending on how loud you play and sing. It's a bit heavy at 10 kilos, which is why I use the trolley.

Channel one has basic tone and volume knobs - use for the voice, and the other sports volume, gain, low, medium, and high gain controls. This second channel is great for balancing the string sounds of an acoustic guitar. The cost is great value at $120.

The Guitar

Bear in mind whereabouts you will be performing with your guitar . Ask yourself , could it be damaged? It's very possible! Could someone steal it ? These things happen - anything's possible. One time I mislaid a special instrument on the metro in error, as I was tired and not paying attention. Needless to say that I never recovered it.

Happily, it's easy to purchase a reasonably excellent guitar these days without breaking the bank. For some time I performed with a Vintage parlor guitar, which featured an integral Shadow equalizer and tuner unit, for less than $200!

My current street guitar is a Martin 000X1AE, which incorporates a strip pickup under the saddle and tone/volume controls inside the sound hole. The top is spruce, is not varnished (or hardly at all ) and could be delicate, but the neck, and rest of the body is some kind of man made material - not wood at all!

Martin won't explain what the material is, but do say that it's not plastic or a wood based product. No matter what it is, it's really durable.  I've banged it a few times without any evident marking.  I carry it in a soft case strapped to my back.

The sound is definitely Martin no doubt about it, with very nice basses. This parlor size guitar is great for picking the blues, which is all I play. Best price tag is around $500 - go for it ! (No, I'm not trying to sell them.) 

Where To Play

This is a tough one, as it depends on your location. Let me explain how I approach it. First of all, if you see a some folks playing outdoors, then you can assume that it's at least tolerated by the authorities. After that, there's nothing left to do except get out and do it!

I walk around a good deal and observe people as they cross crossroads, etc, or on the edge of a pedestrian shopping area. It'll help your cause a lot if people can pause to listen without obstructing the natural flow of other pedestrians, or motor traffic.

I nearly always perform next to market areas in the city center - this is a lucrative spot for a street blues man.

OK - Now We're Ready!

I prefer to have something at my back, removing the possibility of people doing something you don't like behind you, or trying to steal something while you are distracted. Remain vigilant, this is the city!

You attract some funny looks while preparing to perform, as folks are really curious.  It may require a little gumption the first few times, but gets easier every time. It helps if you bring some attitude to your occupation . When setting up, I'm generally smiling and chatting to people and give the impression that I belong there. 

It's my place , it's where I perform and I have the right to go there. Of course, you don't have any right to be there, but if you put out some good sounds, and not oppressively loud , the police will (possibly) let you stay as it brings a little interest to the activities and to the overall ambiance.

Kick off with some music that's simple and nice to hear - it won't help much if you try and perform something very complicated and mess it up! Play up to 75% of your capabilities until you get into it. This way, your performance will be confident .

Is It Possible To Make A Living?

Living from playing blues guitar is mostly hard and can only be managed by earning rather small amounts from several related activities. For me, street playing has really delivered an important portion of my total income.

However, performing on the street just for tips will not cut it. You need to offer something tangible, such as a a CD at a cheap price. This often doubles the amount earned with street performances . Some of my other activities include live gigging and guitar tuition, and I have a lot of contacts from my street playing. More often than not musicians may ask me about blues guitar lessons and some others offer me gigs at private eventsPsychology Articles, parties and in their bars or cafes.

I'm pleased to say that blues music is my living.

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Jerry Bird is a blues fanatic and spreads the word about the best of the blues through his articles.
Blues guitar lessons with Jim Bruce

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