Saturday, July 31, 2010

Guitar or Banjitar: An Essay on the Artifice of Busking

My Monday afternoon busk in the park was kind of a drag until Albert came along.
May I join you? he asked as he seated himself alongside me on the faux wooden bench.
And do you mind if I play along? he asked as he pulled a harmonica from his shirt pocket.
That'll be great, I replied.
Don't see many banjos anymore and by the way my name's Albert, he said.
No, not many. This is actually a banjitar, a six-stringer, I replied.
You are kiddin' me! he said.
I kid you not, said I.

Albert had that park-guy look. His NY ball cap was dirty, dirty, dirty, and his blue denim shirt was one big crusty wrinkle. His khaki pants were too short and scruffy, and his used-to-be white sneakers were worn and thin. The hair sticking out of his ball cap was unkempt, his face was unshaven, and his breath smelled of stale tobacco (or something).

I need to put in my teeth. I just got my teeth pulled and it's hard to play the harmonica with no teeth,
said Albert after we played just a couple of tunes. He reached into his shirt pocket and grabbed two sets of dentures and inserted them into his mouth.

What do you call that instrument, again?
he asked.
A banjitar, I replied.

Less than half an hour later Albert got up and left.

See ya. This has been great, he said as he smiled and gave me a wave good-bye.

I smiled back a good-bye and went about my busking with my banjitar.

Later that same day as I browsed the usual busking blogs on my laptop (it's a habit of mine) I happened upon James Cunningham's Busking Canadian Style. James is a professional busker in Nanaimo, British Columbia. In this particular entry James stated that of the 58 busking permits awarded last year in Nanaimo, 97% were issued to guitar players. (James plays an accordion.)

This was the phenomenological grist for this very Guitar or Banjitar blog entry. Having played guitar many, many times on the busk, I do believe that guitar guys like me are a dime a dozen, are commonplace, and in fact, invisible. Whenever I am guitar busking on the street, I just know that the people passing me by are bracketing me as another middle-age wannabe Bobby Dylan -- which I really am, I guess.

Playing my banjitar on a busk has the opposite effect. The banjitar is a people magnet, tending to attract far more coin and conversation than my guitar.

The banjitar I play is an Alabama, chrome plated with a mahogany back. It came in a gold stitched hard black case, which also combines as a rather elegant busk pot. I bought my banjitar at B-Sharp, the best little guitar shop on the Prairies.

My busking guitar is a blond twelve-string Simon & Patrick that I bought from a colleague, Kent. (Kent is a guitar guy. When I purchased my twelve-string from him, he had a collection of seven guitars; now he has six. I paid just fifty dollars for the guitar and case and I love that guy!) My twelve-string has carried me through a few bands over the years: The Grand Trunk Troubadours (still going strong after seven years, named after College Avenue, formerly 16th Avenue, the street on which the Grand Trunk Railway station once stood, and where all the original members of the band met while studying voice at the Conservatory), Seahorse (strictly a busk band, so named because we needed a handle with a nautical connotation for our audition on the Inner Harbour in Victoria, British Columbia, and Friday Harbour (our latest coffee house folk band).

The wonderful thing about playing a twelve-string is that it allows me to be better than I actually am! Typically, a twelve-string is for chord strummers, providing a bell sound fill to augment folk and country band performances. My particular finger style, when applied to my twelve-string, showcases my adequate ability at its very, very best, fooling most of the people most of the time.

Compared to my twelve-string, the banjitar has a billy tinny sound. It looks like a banjo; it sounds like a banjo; it is a banjo -- for guitar players. It has six strings tuned to the standard guitar E-A-D-G-B-E. I employ my same finger style frail method on my banjitar as I use on my guitar. I do pack my banjitar for band performances, but use it only sparingly for tunes as The Midnight Special, Lodi, and Tom Dooley.

When I go busking the reverse is true. I pack my twelve-string along, but use it only now and then, depending on the type of pedestrian traffic and the level of the street noise. At every gig occasion I tend to pack along both instruments, and I shall offer some two bit tips and advise on the artifice of playing either the guitar or banjitar.

  • Any guitar player instantly becomes thrumdextrous when playing the banjitar, and being proficient on both instruments can be impressive.
  • A banjitar provides the blare without the amplification, that necessary sound power buskers need when playing on busy streets.
  • A banjitar will add gust to most performances, and therefore can be a keen delight for a lot of listeners.
  • To suddenly switch from guitar to banjitar during a show is a positive transmogrification in the very carnival sense of entertainment value.
I adjure you guitar buskers out there to consider plucking a banjitar, especially if you want to add to your mercenary adventures. The beauty of busking is to present that loose and carefree spirit to which certain people are prone to stop, look, and give a listen. The busk is really about the artifice -- the strange ability to attract people and add a segment of joy to their day.
Singer-songwriting buskers will always rely on the comfort of guitar strings to compose their tunes, and there will forever be that peaceful easy feeling of tranquility that a strumming guitar can so readily provide around the metaphorical campfires of our lives.

Certainly do not abdicate your guitars but remember this:
A busk is a busk is a busk -- and I can guarantee that when you decide to take up the banjitar, people will offer more than just pennies for your thoughts and thrums.


  1. Hey I've been to Friday Harbor! It's so interesting to see it written the Canadian way (with a 'u"). Actually, it wasn't until my second year that I started to spell it the American way.