Busking with your ukulele

Reilly wrote me recently and asked if I had any tips for busking with a ukulele. As well as asking for general tips, in our ensuing conversation she asked a few specific questions. I’ll try and briefly cover each.

First, I do the greater majority of my busking at Pike Place Market, which doesn’t allow any electric amplification. If you’re in an area that does allow that, get yourself a ukulele with a pickup and one of the small, battery-powered amps. If you’re also going to be singing, make sure the amp has two channels; an XLR input for a microphone as well as the standard 1/4″ instrument jack. And get a decent mike. The Shure 58 is always a good bet for such use. It’s the workhorse of the microphone world and very sturdy. They can be found all over the place for around $100.

If you’re not allowed amplification, you’ll need to have a ukulele with excellent volume. Remember that you’re probably going to be somewhere near traffic sounds, or in a farmer’s market, a street festival or their ilk, where there will be lots of people around, talking to each other, the merchants, etc. If your uke doesn’t really speak out, you’re going to end up pounding on it for the volume which not only tires you out faster, but also wrecks the sound of the ukulele. Rattly strings aren’t as nice as tuneful and toneful music.

Reilly asks:
“how do I find out if it’s legal to busk where I live/if I need a permit/etc.” but as someone told me, “a good way to figure out if something is illegal is to do it and see what happens.”

I don’t know where you live, Reilly, but if it’s anywhere in the U.S. and you’re on public property, busking falls squarely under the 1st Amendment. There are municipalities that have passed ordinances against it but everywhere they’ve been challenged in court on 1st Amendment grounds, they’ve lost. Alas, that doesn’t mean you won’t be hassled, possibly cited and fined or even arrested and, of course, fighting such a thing in court is expensive and time consuming.

If you’re truly concerned about the issue do the research yourself. Don’t go into City Hall and ask the bureaucratic drone behind the counter. They’re probably clueless and their initial reaction will be to tell you that you can’t do it, because that’s what bureaucratic drones are good at.

she also wonders:
I’m also pretty shy by nature so I thought this would be a good way to get me used to an audience (especially since this is one that will usually ignore me as they walk by!), so any tips in regards to that, or how to actually get people interested enough to stop for a second and/or tip.

It’s hard to do from the get go, but have a show rather than just standing there strumming and singing. In a place where there are a lot of buskers standing out from the rest of them is a good bet. Since most buskers I know are guitar players simply using ukulele instead is a good start.

How you dress will make a difference too. You don’t have to go all out with a “costume” (though that doesn’t hurt) but dressing to stand out a bit is good.

Lastly, Reilly is curious about:
And last but not least, how long should my “set” be or how long should I spend in any given area? 2-3 hours?

2 to 3 hours is going to exhaust you if you try that right from the get-go. There’s a vast difference between hanging around in your room for hours strumming and singing and putting in the extra energy needed to project over the noise, attract the attention, etc. that busking requires.

I’d suggest putting together a really strong one hour set at first. Load it up with all the tunes you play best and work from there. If you’re doing well and want to play a bit more on your first times out, do your hour, take a break, and then start again.

Oh… and before you go out that first time, make a list. You’d be surprised at how quickly your mind can blank out when you’re trying to decide what to do next, especially if you’ve managed to attract some listeners and you want to keep them hanging around.

Hope this helps a bit, Reilly!

If anyone has further questions on the subject, feel free to leave them in the comments.

5 thoughts on “Busking with your ukulele”

  1. Thanks, Howlin’! I’ve got a daughter that is looking at some busking and we started looking into it. No license required in her town! I may try a bit myself on an afternoon at some art shows around here.

  2. really helpful article im 44 and just now learning to play the ukulele and was wanting to busk for something to do this really helps thank you for the article

    1. your first question depends on how well you sing and/or play the ukulele. I don’t know what city you’re talking about, but if you want to make any money at it you need good foot traffic and cities are usually better in that department.

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home of Howlin' Hobbit, Ukulele Ace & recent Kalamazoo transplant

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