Busking can be an opportunity to practice your music and stage presence while also making some money.
If you live in a city, chances are you’ve seen buskers on street corners looking to make some money by playing music. Though it may be a bit unconventional, busking is a fantastic way for musicians to practice their craft in a live setting while earning some cash at the same time.
In fact, artists as varied as B.B. King, Ed Sheeran, Tracy Chapman, and Beck all got their start busking on street corners. Celebrities like Paul McCartney, Bruce Springsteen, Dave Grohl, and Rod Stewart have also taken to the streets for high-profile busking sessions in recent years.
And though busking may seem relatively simple when compared to more formal gigs, there’s a lot more to a successful performance than meets the eye. For young musicians, busking will test not only your skill and stage presence but also your versatility, adaptability, and stamina. There’s a reason so many famous players began as master buskers!
What is Busking?
The term “busking” refers to playing music in a public space for tips or donations. While the overall concept is intuitive, in practice you can find a wide variety of musicians and artists labeled under the umbrella term “buskers.”
All different kinds of musicians, from guitarists and singers to keyboard players, bassists, drummers, and others can busk. The success of your act depends on a variety of factors, including your location, setlist, style, and flexibility. When done correctly, busking can be a fantastic way to hone your craft and make some money at the same time — seasoned buskers can take home more than one hundred dollars over the course of busy nights.
It’s important to distinguish between buskers and musicians simply playing in outdoor venues. Buskers perform on the street and charge no fee for you to stop and listen, while musicians on professional gigs will sell tickets. Buskers make all their money from tips and donations, usually left in a jar or instrument case by their feet.
Your gear needs for busking may vary depending on the type of guitar and style of music you prefer to play.
Essential Busking Gear
Before you can hit the streets to busk, you’ll need to grab some essential gear. Depending on your city and preferred busking location, you may need more or less equipment than what’s detailed here; read through this section carefully to get a good idea of the basics.
The most important piece of gear you’ll have to obtain is a permit. Most cities only allow buskers to use electric amplification if they obtain a musician’s permit (occasionally called a performance license) from the municipal government beforehand.
While acoustic guitar players can busk without problems, a permit is a must-have item for electric guitarists and singers. Your city may issue permits on request, or only at set times throughout the year.
Be sure to do your research to find out when you can apply for a permit. You should also check to make sure there are no other restrictions on when or where you can busk. New York City, for example, requires a permit to perform in a park with or without electronic amplification.
If you play acoustic or classical guitar, make sure your instrument has a pickup so it can be amplified if necessary.
Guitar & Effects
Once you have your permit, you’ll need to choose a guitar to busk with. Most buskers only carry one instrument for their set, so versatility and portability should be your priority. Tone and playability are certainly important, but you don’t need to take a premium instrument out on the street. Most of your listeners won’t notice the difference in sound quality anyway.
While rare, especially on busy streets in big cities, theft does occur. If you own exceptionally expensive instruments, consider buying a cheaper model to take out busking. It might not offer pristine tones or the greatest feel ever, but a $200 instrument makes you much less of a target to potential thieves than a $2000 one.
As with your guitar search, versatility and portability should guide your pedalboard decisions. If you can play without effects, don’t take any out to busk. If you do need to use some pedals in your setlist, take only battery-powered units; you’ll most likely be playing far from any outlet, and you’ll need to ensure you can still play without needing to plug into a wall.
Remember that the more gear you bring to busk, the more you’ll have to pack up and carry when you’re done! Keep your bag as light as possible, especially if you’re also bringing singing equipment with you.
Though you’ll most likely be busking outdoors, a microphone is still an essential piece of gear to have.
Amps & Microphones
As mentioned above, a battery-powered amp is critical for any busker. Using batteries rather than plugging in gives you the freedom to set up in the best spot without having to worry about finding a wall outlet. Because many battery-powered amps are designed to be played on the road and outdoors, they also tend to be a bit tougher than many other amps and will hold up better to the harsher busking environment.
Depending on the size of your rig, you’ll want to consider a couple different battery amps. The Roland CUBE Street is a legendary busking amp — take a look next time you see a busker playing guitar, and you’ll likely find one of these next to their feet. This model offers outstanding volume and projection, and is perfectly portable for its size. The tones might not blow you away in a vacuum, but they’re more than good enough for busking purposes.
If you’re looking for a more portable solution the Yamaha THR-10 is the best model for you. Designed to fit on a desktop, this tiny box can actually pump out some high volumes. It may not handle the loudest of environments, but the tiny size and high-quality sound more than make up for its lower volume.
Acoustic players may also want an amplifier to augment their projection and help them play to larger crowds. While both the Roland Cube and the THR-10 will work (Yamaha even sells a modified version of the THR-10 specifically for acoustic guitars), you may also want to consider amps like the Fishman Loudbox Mini Charge for completely acoustic-focused sound.
Singers will also need to bring a microphone, stand, and cable to amplify their singing voice for busking. As you look for an amp, make sure that it has an additional microphone input so you can plug both your mic and your guitar into the one device.
If you don’t already own a microphone but want to buy one for your busking, you can’t go wrong with a Shure SM57. This model is one of the most popular microphones ever designed, especially for recording and amplifying vocals. It’s also pretty durable for a mic, and can handle street environments without picking up extraneous noise or feeding back.
Even if you’ve got all your music equipment covered, you’ll need to carry some extra stuff. Unless you can find a public bench or prefer to stand while you play, a chair is essential. An umbrella is another necessity for hot or sunny cities where you run the risk of sunburn by playing in the streets for long periods of time.
Bring snacks and plenty of water with you to refuel during your set. Though it’s generally not a good idea to take lengthy breaks to eat and relax, make sure you stay full and hydrated while playing. If you need to use the restroom, never leave your music gear unattended or ask someone to watch it for you. Take it with you, no matter how inconvenient it may be.
While optional, a small handcart may be very helpful for carrying your gear to and from your busking location. With just a couple bungee cords and some organization skills, you can easily pack your busking rig and push it rather than having to carry everything back to your home. This is especially useful if you plan on riding a bus or subway to your busking spot.
Essential Busking Gear
- Musician’s permit
- Inexpensive guitar and microphone
- Battery-powered amp and effects
- Chair, umbrella, and handcart
- Food and water
As you create your busking setlist, remember to play both popular songs and tunes in your favorite style.
Preparing a Setlist
Your busking setlist will be unique depending on your favorite genres of music, but every setlist should have some things in common.
You’ll need an hour’s worth of music at the minimum; two hours of different songs is ideal. Though pedestrians won’t be around to hear you play your set for a second time, the people working in buildings near you will. This goes double if you’ve only rehearsed five or ten songs. It’s always a good idea to keep things fresh.
The most important tip is to only play songs you know cold. They don’t have to be the most complex songs, and they certainly don’t have to be deep cuts, but you should never stumble or struggle to get through a part of your set. Stopping and restarting a popular song in the middle because you can’t nail the chords in the bridge will destroy your audience.
No matter what music you love, you’ll need to incorporate some popular songs — many pedestrians don’t stop to listen to music they don’t recognize. You don’t need to hammer people with overplayed hits, but make sure that you mix in a solid number of recognizable, catchy tunes.
Research the most popular songs requested of buskers and learn as many as you can. Online lists (like this one) and guitar forums can help you form a better idea of what songs people may or may not request. Top current hits are always a good idea to learn, as are classic ballads that can be performed with just an acoustic guitar.
However, remember to play what you know. If you’re a jazz or classical guitarist, it’s far better to play outstanding jazz and classical then to butcher “Wonderwall” every hour. Learn some popular tunes before busking, but if you just can’t stand a certain song or can never seem to quite nail it, drop it from your setlist and find another one that works better.
Don’t be afraid to work in jams or more improvised chord progressions every once in a while. Though they shouldn’t be the focus of your entire setlist unless you’re an expert at them, melodic and abstract pieces can provide a great change of pace to more classic, universally known songs.
Setlist Preparation Tips
- Learn popular songs for buskers
- Only play songs you know well
- Be prepared for requests
- Incorporate the occasional jam or ambient song
Capoes are an essential tool you can use to arrange songs for one guitar or change the key to better fit your singing range.
Solo buskers must take extra care to rearrange every song they play into a recognizable form. If you’re playing alone, you may want to tilt your setlist towards popular acoustic ballads you can play with just one guitar. Any other songs will need to be rearranged for your instrument; the goal should be to preserve any distinctive riffs or licks while making it sound good on an acoustic axe.
When arranging a song, don’t just take the lead guitar part and play it alone (or the rhythm part in most cases, for that matter). The melody is the most important part of any solo arrangement; you should play the vocal melody rather than the lead guitar accents to help people walking by recognize your song more easily. Work in as many chords or partial chords as you can.
Most popular songs have melodies which stem from the chords, so with a couple extra notes you should be able to play the basic chords and hit the melody from the same finger positions.
A looper pedal can be immensely helpful for solo busking, as it allows you to track the rhythm guitar and then layer the melody and lead guitar accents over it. The Boss RC-1 Loop Station is a fantastic option for busking; it’s got 12 minutes of total recording time and features simple one-button operation. The battery life is also long enough to get you through a full set without needing to recharge.
How to Arrange Songs
- Focus on the melody and most recognizable guitar parts
- Ensure the arrangement is easy to play with one guitar
- Use a looper pedal if possible to layer different parts
Using percussion instruments rather than a full drum kit is a great way to balance the volume when playing with multiple other musicians.
Playing with Other Musicians
If you’re playing with another guitarist, bassist, pianist, or even a drummer, it may be easier to leave popular songs in their original arrangement. However, the extra players present a different challenge: volume.
In crowded subways or street corners, multiple players with amps and a drum set can create extreme noise levels and drive people to move away, rather than stop and listen. Make sure you don’t turn up your instruments too loud as you play. Asking drum players to use a cajon, congas, or stripped down kit rather than a full set can also help reduce noise levels.
Using brush sticks is another great option for drummers intent on playing behind a kit. The brushes will significantly reduce volume while preserving the full range of sounds a drum set can offer; they sound especially good for jazz, blues, and more relaxed styles.
Busking near animals isn’t a great idea, lest they jump into your case and fall asleep!
Know When and Where to Busk
No matter how incredible your playing skills are, or how classic your setlist is, nobody will hear you if you pick the wrong spot to set up. Location is just as important as your sound when busking. The more people there are in your area, the more will stop — and the more chances you’ll have to earn some money.
When determining where to busk, go for a crowded area with lots of foot traffic. You want to find a space that plenty of people walk through so more people have the opportunity to hear. Avoid busking directly next to homes or apartments whenever you can, especially late at night. Noise complaints can trigger the revocation of your busking license.
However, busking at a random spot on the street means you risk people walking by without ever stopping. Places like street corners, train stations, squares, and public parks offer natural stopping points. Set up your equipment there if possible; just make sure you don’t block foot traffic as you play to give fresh crowds a chance to cycle past.
Busking is a great way to practice your repertoire any time you feel like playing in front of a small audience. If you’re concerned with improving your live act rather than with making money, you don’t need to worry as much about when you choose to busk. However, if you’re busking for income, you’ll need to time your sessions correctly.
Busking is most profitable at rush hours and at night. Many musicians play an early morning set while commuters head to work, then return for the nighttime when people are out walking and heading to restaurants and bars. Weekends, especially Friday and Saturday nights, tend to be the most profitable times of the week.
Finally, take care that you don’t infringe on another busker’s turf when setting up. While no busker can technically lay claim to a spot at all hours, in some cities well-established buskers play regularly at a certain place and may react unfavorably if you set up there during their set time. Before you pick a spot, check with any other buskers nearby to confirm it’s available.
As you look for places to busk, try to avoid setting up too close to other musicians. If anyone confronts you about your choice of location or tries to force you to move, just pack up and leave. It’s always better to move than to risk a fight or stolen gear.
Busking Location Strategies
- Look for busy streets or stations with lots of foot traffic
- Don’t block intersections or crosswalks
- Play during rush hours and at night
- Weekends are the most profitable days
Make sure to play for as much of the total time you’re busking as possible; don’t take extreme breaks between songs.
Playing Tips For Busking
Once you begin playing, keep the music going for as much of the time as possible. If you’re busking with bandmates or other players, limit your chatter between songs to calling the next tune and clarifying any music questions. Avoid starting conversations or taking lengthy breaks without music whenever possible.
If an audience forms as you play, feel free to make eye contact and engage with listeners. Taking song requests can be a great way to keep people entertained, and one of your most profitable strategies when busking.
You can try to play any request that you may not know on the fly, but don’t make a fool of yourself by stumbling through a song you don’t know the rhythm or melody to. Rather, note it down and rehearse it for your next busking session — if it does well, you may even incorporate it into your standard setlist!
Original music is a hotly debated topic among buskers. While many buskers play original songs to get the word out, and may even sell CDs or merchandise, it’s harder to attract a crowd with your own songwriting than with popular songs. If you choose to incorporate original music into your setlist, keep a reasonable number of covers to win more fans.
Keep a music case or jar displayed prominently at your feet for any coins or cash people drop by. Plant a couple dollars of your own “seed money” in the jar at the beginning of your set to encourage other people to add more. While playing, try to track which songs are most successful and make a note of them for the future.
Avoid repeating the same song within too tight of a timeframe. Most songs should only be played once an hour at most, though you may be able to sneak in some exceptionally popular repeat hits every 45 minutes or so. A good rule of thumb is to play 8-10 or more new songs for each repeat you play.
Each busker is different, and they all play for different lengths of time. At minimum, you should expect to play for an hour, though many pros remain on the street for four or more hours at a time. The longer time will help you adjust
New buskers may want to start with shorter sets and gradually expand as they expand their song catalog and grow more familiar with the busking format. Depending on the time and location, you may find that the ideal playing time varies from place to place. Play until you feel tired or need to use the restroom. Don’t push yourself to exhaustion or extreme boredom — few of us play our best music when extremely tired anyway!
Most cities have enough foot traffic to allow you to recycle your setlist over the course of each busking session. You can choose to simply work popular songs back into the mix over time, or play through a list of songs in order then repeat the list from the top when you reach the end. As long as you have an hour’s worth of music, you should be fine.
Most importantly, don’t get discouraged after a tough set. Myriad different factors, from location, weather, and time to the general atmosphere, can influence your success on any given day. The more you busk, the more comfortable you’ll feel and the better you’ll play.
Important Playing Tips for Buskers
- Keep rotating your setlist; avoid repeating tunes too quickly
- Engage with listeners and take requests if possible
- Don’t take long breaks between songs
- Stay positive and upbeat
Always lay out a case or hat when busking to collect tips from your audience.
It may take a bit of work and gear to get started as a busker, but the rewards are more than worth the investment. Busking is one of the few consistent opportunities around for musicians to make money while also gaining the opportunity to practice their songs and stage act in a low-stakes environment.
Remember to be persistent as a new busker; stay upbeat and work on your repertoire even if you have a bad set once in a while. Busking is a great skill to have under your belt as a musician. And who knows, maybe you’ll be next on the list of famous musicians discovered as buskers!