Category Archives: busking


Gig in the Swan Centre, Rathmines

I just finished playing a set of an hour or so as part of a community day that’s happening in Rathmines today. Great fun πŸ™‚ (I’m writing this to the soulful strains of local jazz singer, Emilie Conway, who was on after me.) A lovely sunny day for it β€” although the glass dome of the centre was right above me as I powered through my more ‘up’ covers. And now I’m chilling out at ‘The House of Tea’ having afternoon tea, if you please…


Here’s what I played:

Englishman in New York – Sting
Imagine – John Lennon (via Herbie Hancock)
Why, Georgia? – John Mayer
The Wild Rover – trad.
Alberta – trad. (via Eric Clapton)
Trust You – moi
Oh, Pretty Woman – Roy Orbison
Just The Two Of Us – Bill Withers
Way Down In The Hole – Tom Waits
Suspicious Minds – Elvis Presley
Better – Tom Baxter
Something For The Weekend – The Divine Comedy
Seven Days – Sting

I put out my tip jar (and my nifty cat) and got more tips than I do on the average night at the restaurant! I’m still trying to crack the secret of getting tips at the restaurant. I think the fact that I was very visible today helped, and also that I was more playing the role of a busker. In the restaurant I’m tucked away, out of the view of most of the tables, and it’s less common to tip a musician in a restaurant. Maybe people think the musician gets some of the service charge? (They almost certainly *don’t*…)

The tea I’m drinking is a delicious Darjeeling, recommended by the waitress (who sounds like she’s from the north). Kept warm on a little tea light burner. Lovely little cafe, this πŸ™‚


I played my best for him (pah rumpah pum pum)

Jonny Boyle sent me a link to this story about Joshua Bell (one of the world’s most highly acclaimed violin players). Have a quick read and come back to me…

I spent the last three months busking in Melbourne, sometimes – like Mr Bell – in a subway. I can empathise entirely with the story. My guitar isn’t worth 3.5 million, for example, but a significant number of people commented on the fact that I was busking with a quality instrument. I usually replied that it was the only guitar I owned, so I had no choice. If their objection was that one shouldn’t play a really good instrument on the street, I disagree. I also never once felt unsafe, but I realise that a sense of personal safety is rather subjective.

The best advice I got from fellow buskers was to persevere. Joshua Bell did really well getting $32 in forty-five minutes. It’s a fascinating social dynamic that’s at play and one of the things buskers commonly think about is whether or not to ‘seed’ their open guitar case or hat with a few coins to encourage people. I, rather obstinately, used to mostly start with nothing in the case. The amount of times I wanted to shout for joy at the first person to chuck something in!

I could probably count on one hand the number of people who stopped to listen. (I’m not counting the patient people in cafes or in open-windowed apartments who were within earshot of my chosen spots.) The reason I favoured the subway was the great acoustics and the fact that I had people’s aural attention for the duration of their walk from one end to the other. Unless they were on the phone, of course, in which case I’d either sing louder or exaggeratedly softer, depending on my mood.

Always, though, I played my very best for them and it felt wonderful. Thank you, Melbourne πŸ™‚

Not me, obvs, but you get the message...


Singing with Sting

The story – told rather breathlessly when I got home – of my impromptu jam with Sting in the subway of Flinders Street station in Melbourne.

PS You can see the pictures on Jenny’s Flickr site. Thanks to Jimmy Mulkens and Dominic Miller for sending me these shots, which I will treasure.


I tweeted on Friday that I’d be busking a U2 song. The Irish band (THE Irish band?) were in town this week to play dates on their 360Β° tour at the Etihad stadium. I brushed off ‘Where The Streets Have No Name’ that morning and went into town, eventually getting a spot in the Flinders Street station subway at rush hour to sing it on repeat for the passers-by. And very satisfying to sing it is, too! I took it down a couple of semitones to suit my range and had a great time belting out what must certainly be the archetypal U2 song: euphoric, defiant, numinous.

Imagine my surprise, then, dear reader when Jenny and her friend Ulla appeared in the tunnel complaining that I hadn’t been answering my phone (or checking my voicemail, or texts, or facebook, or Twitter…!) and could I please stop now because we had tickets for the gig! They headed off to hear Jay-Z’s support slot and I dashed home to drop off the guitar and have a quick shower.

The Etihad stadium is big – it holds over fifty-six thousand people – and it was amazing to be part of the crowd for the impressive show that the band put on. The stage was a marvel to behold – literally a spaceship with the wonderful screens that have surely revolutionised the stadium concert experience.

The most impressive element of the production for me was The Edge. Bono lauded his remarkable gifts when he did his introductions of the band members, but, just as he didn’t have to say anything about himself, the gifts of the guitarist were self-evident. The moment when my jaw dropped at his talents was the coda of ‘Stuck In A Moment You Can’t Get Out Of’. The song was poignantly introduced as a paean to their sadly departed friend, Michael Hutchence (whose absence has been evident here in recent weeks, as the band he fronted continue with other singers), and Bono and The Edge did the song themselves, accompanied simply by Edge’s acoustic guitar. The coda section features The Edge on backing vocals (“…and if the night runs over, and if the day won’t last…”) and his falsetto was bang-on, powerful and assured. Another impressive Edge moment was in ‘New Year’s Day’: he plays the piano riff and then launches into the guitar solo that he’s played pretty much every night for thirty years. It’s the musical equivalent of Martin Luther King calling out the words of the old negro spiritual at the end of his “I have a dream” speech. (I don’t mean that every time they play it it’s a moment of great historical significance that draws on the familiar to harness the now…but that it feels just like one.)


Tuning down

I have taken to tuning down a half-step when busking. A lot of the songs I’m doing are pretty high and, much as I’d like to be able to sing those notes, the reality is that it’s simply a matter of physiology and I can’t.

That’s the beauty of guitar – it’s so easy to play songs in a different key. I remember doing transposition as part of keyboard skills in university and how difficult it was. On the piano, if you change key, the whole “feel” of a piece changes because of the arrangment of black and white keys. On the guitar, with the aid of a capo, you can put a song up a tone or two without there being any noticable change in how the chords “feel”.

Going down is a different matter, though. The method of tuning down a half-step (a semitone) is one that a lot of singing guitarists use to give themselves the option of singing things a bit lower. (To go lower still, it is necessary to change the chords you’re playing altogther. Not impossible, but would necessitate pretty much learning the song over again.) One of my guitar idols, Stevie Ray Vaughan, used to always tune a half-step lower and it’s also something that my friend Hamlet Sweeney does.

Stevie Ray Vaughan also used thicker strings and this was something suggested to me this week as a remedy for my sore fingertips. (I’m playing for a few hours every day now and my poor fingers are a bit ragged.) It’s an area I’ve never really ever paid much attention to – string gauges – but I’ll maybe try a thicker set next time and see how it goes. It should give me a bigger, richer sound, too.

SRV died in 1990 in a tragic helicopter accident and I still remember my dad telling me about it. I had had my first guitar for just a few months by then and I’d never even heard of him.  Check out his instrumental version of Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Little Wing’.

Busking (start of a new category, methinks…)

When I started busking in Melbourne, I went straight for Swanston Street. It’s the main boulevard leading from the main railway station, Flinders Street. (My using ‘boulevard’ is not mere poetic hyperbole – one of Melbourne’s early planners admirably insisted that the main streets be ninety-nine feet wide.) More footfall, I reasoned, would be better for my purposes.

Swanston Street shops

Not so. I don’t have an amplifier or a dog (two things that seem to be viable options for the ambitious minstrel with expansive notions). My aunt, who has long suffered and enjoyed (I hope, in unequal measure) the buskers of London, gave me a few tips. Buskers regularly position themselves at the bottom of escalators in the underground tube stations, thereby taking full advantage of the wonderful acoustic properties of the porcelain-tiled caverns.

Melbourne’s main train station, Flinders Street, is off limits for buskers, but there are two wonderful subways that are outside the ticket zone which share the same architecture as London’s subterranean network.

I quickly found that singing on the main streets was just too much effort. People tend to be more hurried on busy pavements and would only hear me for a brief window of time as they passed by. Traffic noise – and there is a tram system in Melbourne, too – is always going to win.

Centre Place

Thankfully, Melbourne is renowned for its smaller streets and laneways, which are often closed to vehicles. They also tend to be between tall buildings, and so you get a great acoustic. Another good thing about the lanes is that people are more at their leisure – they aren’t rushing past with the crowd. I’ve found about a dozen spots around the city now where I like to go and sing.