Last Friday Sketch and I went busking at Pike Place Market. We had a pretty lame first set but, hey, we’re troupers and we hung around a couple hours until our next turn came up at our favorite spot.
We were down to one more song in our second set, and it was promising to be more lame than the first one. We were all, “Yeah, it’s the season. What can you do?” and were about to launch into our last tune–It Don’t Mean A Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)–when this guy stopped, said a couple of very nice things about the act, and tossed a bill into the case.
I said thank you very much and he wandered off. About that time I got a look at the bill and went, “That’s not a $1 bill!” Indeed, I was correct. Closer examination revealed it was a $50.
Boom! One generous person, at practically the very last moment, turned the entire day around.
A couple weeks ago I saw a new busker. She was playing accordion, and doing a good job of it, but her case was pretty bare. While I was listening she started to pack up. I said, “Quitting already?” and she explained how maybe she was just being impatient but the day hadn’t treated her well. This has happened to me countless times. But I’ve learned to do the whole set, even if it sometimes doesn’t pay off.
I don’t know why I didn’t let her know the moral of this story, even though I was familiar with it from previous experience. And the moral is: “Never give up! Never Surrender!”
Because you never know when that one person is coming by.
And to think, when I woke up last Sunday I thought the best thing that would happen to me was putting on new underwear!And to think, when I woke up last Sunday I thought the best thing that would happen to me was putting on new underwear! (Because I finally got around to replacing my elderly, tattered ones. And yes, it is kinda sad that this would be so exciting.)
The really scary part is that we almost didn’t do Sunday. Sketch had to move his art studio because the building it was in had just been sold and told me Friday that he might not be able to do the weekend. I said, “Can we skip Monday instead? Sunday has been really good to us.” Fortunately, he agreed.
So we came in to Pike Place Market on Sunday and were able to get the 10am and noon sets on our favorite busking spot. Our first set was a bit over $37 each (not bad at all) and then our second set was amazing. I don’t recall seeing that many bills larger than singles in a given set before. Two 20’s, a 10, and half a dozen 5’s. Add in the 1’s and the chump change and our second set was a bit over $67 each.
Do the math kids. That’s right, we each took home $100 (plus small change) for our two hours of playing. And Sketch was able to leave the market by about 1:30pm and still get some moving done.
It’s really not just the best this year, but in the top busking days ever!
This past Sunday I did a class A “screw the pooch” maneuver. I could’ve avoided it altogether if I’d just paid attention to the terse advice Han gave to Luke way back in that first Star Wars movie. But I’m getting somewhat ahead of the story. It went something like this…
Until the Monday previous to this tale, the winter busking had been nearly entirely dismal. We (Hobbit & Hare) kept hoping for a sign that busking season had opened up, but we were barely getting blips on the proverbial graph. That Monday, for the first time this year, we managed to cross $50 each for a two set day. Our Thursday was a trifle lame, but on Friday we did slightly better than Monday. Excitement ensued. We decided that, with the holiday weekend and all, we’d give a try Sunday at Pike Place Market to see what we could do.
Turns out we could do surprisingly well. We got there in time to claim the 10am slot at our favorite busking spot, the Joe Desimone Bridge. For the first 30 minutes of our allotted hour the money was coming in at a very nice pace. Then, around the 35 minute mark, I broke a string.
Were I still playing guitar, that would be no big problem. As long as I had a replacement string, or the string broke at the bridge and I had space to repair it, I could be up and flying in 5 minutes or so. A ukulele’s nylon strings take a day or so to settle in. The busking day was over.
Fortunately, ukulele strings don’t break very often. I think this string was like number 12 in the 14 or so years I’ve been seriously banging on the uke. I had busking weeks with guitar where I broke more than 12 strings. Unfortunately, that leads to a false sense of security on the subject. And it’s right there that the poor old pooch got it.
See, I own 2 nice acoustic ukulele and 2 that I can plug into a sound system. I bought the second of each type specifically because I was concerned that when the rare string broke, it’d be barely into one of my paid shows. If you suddenly have to stop the show when busking it’s a bummer. If that happens at a paid gig you’ve managed to not only put a black mark on the ol’ reputation, but also to spoil someone else’s special event.
That’s a Bozo No No, Timmy.
Since I was so laser focussed on the paid gig aspect, and one of my constant rules in busking is to carry the least amount of gear possible, I let the overconfidence take charge and didn’t carry the spare on busking jaunts.
In short, I didn’t listen to Han when he said:
You can’t really tell how a busking crowd is going to react from one minute to the next, but we were well on track to having a set where each of us cleared $50+ when that string snapped. That’s very disheartening. Especially when it’s the result of your own fuck up.
So I’m going to listen to Han from now on and also to that other philosopher, Blind Blake, who said, “That’ll never happen no more.”
Last night Hobbit & Hare played a couple sets at Gathering Grounds in Sultan, WA. It was a slightly smaller crowd than when we performed there last December, but they were just as appreciative and generous. In fact we had an H&H first, your basic personal best™… but I’ll get to that in a moment.
Coffeehouse gigs are often busking gigs. My friend Thaddeus calls them “tips and treats” gigs. Americans came up with the ponderous term “street performer” when “busker” already existed but busking is just playing for tips. Whether you’re inside or outside doesn’t matter. In fact house concerts are pretty much busking gigs, though there’s a built-in stronger urging to tip in a certain range.
So, you might be thinking, what about this personal best™? We had our tip bucket out last night–of course–and right after the last song a fella came by me (I was talking with another person from the audience) and I heard him say, “I tipped you a $20 earlier.” (This was true, I recalled it clearly.) And then he goes on, “But I’ve changed my mind.” (Bummer that.) “I’ll swap you this,” he says, as he snatches up a Jackson, “for this.” and drops a Benjamin in instead.
In all my years of busking, I’ve never gotten a C note in the tip bucket.
Trigger Warning: if you suffer from Paraskevidekatriaphobia it might be best to ignore the next paragraph.
Around two in the afternoon this past Friday, the 13th, I had the great good fortune to open the front door of my place just in time to see the mailman pull up with my new ukulele case. I got it on eBay from someone in New Jersey called “city-green” for the mere price of $33.49, with free shipping no less. Even with ordering it on the 3rd, when the postal services were still reeling from the holidays, it only took the ten days to get here.
There were cheaper cases available, some from the same seller, but I must admit the combination of the faux reptile skin and the red stitching got me.
“But, Mr. Hobbit,” you may be thinking, “what good is a new uke case without a ukulele to go inside it?” Well…
Introducing, Pierson, my new Ohana SK-75. I also got him on eBay (from Mim’s Ukes) and he arrived on the 3rd.
While I’ve had a number of ukulele go through my hands, I’ve never been much of a collector. In fact, lower down in this entry you’ll see my entire collection. It’s the second largest I’ve ever had. The largest collection was only 2 more ukes, and it didn’t last long. That’s right, it’s not a bad case of UAS, there was actually a reason for getting this ukulele.
As pretty much all my fellow ukesters know, a broken string will bring your show to a screeching halt. Unlike guitars, you can’t just throw a new string on and expect it to tune up and play. It takes a couple days for new strings to “settle in” sufficiently to take them out into public.
If you’re a hobbyist that can be extremely embarrassing. If you’re striving to be a professional, that can be a disaster.
I mean, picture it. You’ve just taken a 90 minute drive to play a gig in someplace other than your hometown. There’s a great audience, you’ve gotten everything set up just so, and smack in the middle of your second song… spang! There goes a string.
So… wtf do you say?
“Hey, folks! Thanks for driving through this monsoon-like rainstorm to hear me play. You kids are terrific but, alas, that’s the end of the show. Buh bye now.”
I don’t think so.
Mind you, again unlike guitars, broken strings are not common on the ukulele. In the 13 or so years I’ve been “serious” about the uke, I think I’ve broken 10 strings. When I was busking with guitar, I could break 10 strings in a week or so, depending on the weather.
When my custom Glyph was stolen back in June, 2015, the generosity of my friends and fans made it possible to not only get Lucky, the nice Hamano that’s been my go to ukulele ever since then, but also to pick up Cokie when I found him at such a terrific sale price. This meant that for the gigs where I need to plug into a sound system I had Indiana for my main uke, and Cokie as a backup.
That still left the problem of the acoustic-only gig. I do a lot of these, and I’m looking for more of them. The house concerts, private parties, and coffeehouse appearances are amongst my favorites.
For one thing, bringing your own sound system with you is a lot of extra effort. Even the “small” system that Sketch and I use sometimes for Hobbit & Hare means a bunch of extra things, at least one of them being pretty damn heavy.
So what if the venue supplies the sound system? There’s still extra stuff (cords, direct boxes, etc.) to keep track of.
But whether you’re plugged in or it’s an acoustic show, what happens when you’ve driven all those miles, hit your second song and… spang!?
So I needed a decent backup ukulele for those acoustic shows. But let me assure you, Pierson is not a “decent” uke, he’s an excellent uke! Beyond the fact that Ohana turns out good ukuleles to begin with (playable “right out of the box”), Mim’s setup efforts were the cherry on top of the sundae.
I don’t give half a hoot about “bling” on my instruments, but I do like a nice looking one. The woods, the build quality, the rosette, purfling, and binding… all make Pierson a beauty to behold. Plus, unlike many ukulele in the moderately priced to inexpensive range, this one comes with side dots (at the 5th, 7th, and 10th fret, just like I like ’em!). The tone and intonation are terrific, and he has volume for just days!
If you’re thinking I’m suggesting you buy an Ohana, and further you buy it from Mim, you’re absolutely correct! Both Ohana and Mim have established excellent and well deserved reputations. Mim sold me this ukulele for about 2/3 of its MSRP, all the while adding value with her careful and, yes, loving attention to detail.
I rarely do this sort of thing, but here is a family portrait of all the ukulele I own (less one broken one that I still think is fixable). Except where noted in the following list, all of them are sopranos, sporting concert gauge Aquila NylGut strings, tuned GCEA. All except Lil’ Hokum are solid wood, mostly mahogany.
T.R. is an Ohana SK21 sopranino ukulele. I got him quite a while back in a trade with the mighty Deach. He got his name because he’s just as wee and cuddly as a teddy bear, but I happen to know that Mr. Roosevelt preferred T.R. over Teddy as a nickname. T.R. is one of the two exceptions to the “sopranos only” rule, having a scale length of just 11 inches. He’s also tuned to F tuning (CFAD), one fourth higher than standard. He’s the only one with soprano gauge strings.
You’ve already been introduced to Pierson. He got his name because Louis Wu, the founder of Ohana Ukuleles, shares his name with the hero from Larry Niven’s Ringworld series of books. This series introduced us to an alien race known as “Pierson’s Puppeteers.”
Lucky is a Hamano H100. As I mentioned earlier, he was courtesy of the generosity of my friends and fans after my custom Glyph was stolen in June, 2015. I’m lucky to have such friends and fans!
Lil’ Hokum is an old banjo ukulele that I got from the estate of Hokum W. Jeebs. I have no idea who made him or what his model number is. He’s the other exception to the sopranos rule, having a scale length more like a concert, except on a skinnier neck. He’s tuned to the “other standard” tuning, ADF#B, because he’s just happier there.
Indiana is a Mainland Classic Mahogany soprano fitted with a MiSi pickup system. I got him a bit over 6 years ago with some of the money from my Uncle Layton’s will. He’s done a lot of shows with me, including two week-long runs with Snake Suspenderz as the pit band for Seattle’s legendary Moisture Festival. (That’s 9 shows over the course of 5 days.)
Cokey is a Koloa KU-600-E. I found him on an extreme sale (I think he totalled right around $150 after taxes) at The Trading Musician. I had enough money left from the Lucky fund to snag him. He still has his D’Addario strings on him because I haven’t gotten around to changing them yet. His name is a pun. Think about it a moment and you’ll get it.
They’re not the walls full of ukulele that I’ve sometimes seen, but they do a fine job for me.
home of Howlin' Hobbit, Ukulele Ace & recent Kalamazoo transplant