Monday, December 30, 2013

Busking, Dead or Alive

My dearest Van Hammerheads! Your dark lord Van Hammersmith is here again, eating military hardtack crackers and drinking discount brand beer, dispensing opinions (not wisdom) and thoughts (not knowledge). I am very happy to announce that today I will be answering my first fresh question in YEARS. That's right, these past few questions have been from the archives, but my man Seamus has come to me at the very end of 2013 looking to hear what VH thinks.

Remember, I will answer your question too. Email me. My name is vanhammersmith. I am at Just remember that I won't answer your email, but I might answer your question here on this website. And then, somehow, I will be your friend. Remember to like me on facebook and follow me on twitter, because I'm a goddamn social media whore.

Hey Van,

Your column is the tits, long time fan. I have a question for you. What is your take on busking? Have you had any experience with it youself and do you have any tips on where, when and what to play? I live in Santa Rosa, CA and just started experimenting with it myself. I have had some luck and managed to pull in about sixty bucks over a period of four sessions. I'm not doing it just for the money, more for the fun and experience of it, but it is still nice to pull in some extra cash if I can.

Looking forward to hearing your ideas,


Oh, Seamus. Yes, I have ideas, and yes, you are going to hear them, because you have joined a very special under-class of the human race. What would Karl Marx say about buskers? Probably something like each according to his available spare change, to each according to his ability to make you smile on a street corner.

Yes, you are going down, down among the classes. You will become either a talented dabbler in the "street arts," or just slightly above hobo status.

By the way, some of the most memorable buskers I've come across have been hobos. Although not proper hobos, because I've heard that "hobo" is actually based on the term "homeward bound," which suggests down-on-their-luck fellas hitching rides in box-cars across the continent with their shit wrapped up in a hanky tied to a stick, trying to get back to Whiskey Road, Arkansas where dear ol' Pa makes "Crazy Juice" in a barrel in the barn and there's a fresh young thing down the dirt road that will chase you with a shotgun for leaving her after that first roll in the hay, but then she'll remember why she fell in love with you in the first place: because you play the spoons better than any dumb bastard in three counties.

And you assholes are saying "Spoons?" And I'm like, yeah, spoons, dummies, because if you're busking, just about anything will pass for an instrument. I've seen guys with the most broken-down shit you can imagine out there playing. Half a tambourine. The old standing-shuffle-clap dance. Anything passes.

I remember one time I was working a day job as a shipping clerk. We kept the back door open because it was so hot in there, and there was some goof who stood at the corner of the block all the time playing a slide whistle. You know: deeeeyoooooooweeeeeeeyoooooooweeet. He knew "Amazing Grace" and I think a Christmas song. I no longer remember which one. The thing was, he was brutally horrible at it, and although he could usually eventually find each note, he had a the rhythm/timing/tempo/etc of a five year old after eating three pieces of birthday cake and a can of soda.

Imagine stupid little Timmy-Johnny standing there with pink frosting all over his face and his eyes bugging out, singing the song he knows for Gammy and Gramps: "AMAZINGGRACEHOWSWEETTHESOUNDTHATSAVEDAWRETCHLIKEMEEEEEEEEE!"

Now imagine this atrocity is being performed on a mickey-fickey slide whistle. We used to talk about what we wanted to do to that guy. Beating him to death with stuff was mentioned a lot, and as you can expect, we often speculated on whether he could play slide whistle using his farts after we shoved the thing deep up his ass. That's right. His ASS.

I also remember a guy who played a two string ukelele in front of a grocery store. I used to pass him on my walk home every day. Jolly fellow. The first time I saw him I was tripping on acid and he was wearing a top hat and had a long scary beard. I almost jumped out of my skin when he smiled at me. I thought the Ukelele Satan had come to claim my soul. He probably collected more coins after losing the freak-show outfit. But he didn't play songs. He just twiddled his last two remaining strings. I always thought, man, why not use some of that change to get some new strings? How much are ukelele strings? A dollar? But he probably wanted a beer with that dollar.

Thing is, he should have viewed that dollar as an invenstment. With better strings, maybe he would have sounded better, collected more coins, and been able to buy even more beers. But whatever, he's the pro.

So maybe, Seamus, you've ahead of the game just having a guitar. Although I've also seen buskers with good guitar rigs with no idea how to play. "Imma play G all night. Imma get rich." I knew a girl who wanted to learn guitar herself so she could go down and teach the busker on the corner near her apartment how to play another chord.

Anyway, here are Van's tips for busking. Liquor stores are all right, but a bit obvious. Grocery stores are good. Street corners in busy shopping districts. The obvious spots. Places with good foot traffic. Play stuff people will recognize, but not "Amazing Grace" and not Christmas songs all summer long. Classic rock. Beatles. Standards. Sing if you can, but if you sing badly, just play. If you play badly, don't got to the same place too often, or you'll get "This guy again?" attitude.

Smile. Smile like you love just playing. Smile and make eye contact with people, and let them know that you're there for the fun, not the money. And try not to look like a hobo, but also don't try to look like you're some rich dick-hole out having fun with the 'poors.'

I don't know what the busk scene is like in Santa Rosa. I only remember passing through that town once and stopping in a little bar, hungrier than hell, and asking to order food. They didn't serve food, but brought me a plastic cup with some popcorn in it to go with my beer. Oh well. That's life on the road. If Santa Rosa is like the rest of the world, just have a good time, look like you're having a good time, and try to make other people have a good time. That might make them want to give you some change.

Have I ever busked? Just once. Drunk. At a funeral. I was asked to leave.

By the way, if anyone wants to use "Drunk at a Funeral" as an album or song title, I think that would be pretty cool.

All right, everyone. Get your guitars and get out there. "But Van, it's cold out." I said GET OUT THERE! You've got music. They've got nickles and dimes. GO.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The Dilettante Singer Question

Welcome, my rock and roll friends. Van Hammersmith is here once again to share his experience and wisdom. Or experience at least. I admit, there have been many, many time when I have been unwise, and the ensuing adventures always had something to teach me. To tap into my store-house of wisdom/experience, ask me a question at vanhammersmith at the Follow me on twitter.

Okay, that was the cough syrup talking. Cough-cough. All right, let's see what we're dealing with this week.

Hoi there, Mr Hammersmith!

My friend asked me into a band like half a year ago, and my friend (the singer, a girl) said we would be going to studio next autumn. We had trainings once a week and we practised also at home. Well the singer didn't show up for rehearsals, and believe me, she appeared twice, TWICE to the them during almost six months. It was always a surprising hindrance or possibly she didn't even mention why she was away. She's a pretty good singer and always says she wants to do the thing, but... she talks but doesn't act. And she's the typical "if you don't agree with me, I'm gonna leave" person.

I really enjoy jamming with the other guys in the band, and it is actually funnier than playing with our singer, but they want to stick with her. We always ask her why she was away, but we've never been on her throat shouting at her about the matter. Any thoughts?


Well, hellllllllo, Miksu. Yes I do have thoughts. I have serious thoughts that burn deep down in the furnace of my soul, because I have to talk about one of the chiefs time-wasters and band-breakers out there.


Pity the fool who unknowingly forms a band with a dilettante, because they will hold you back from achieving even minimal levels, Miksu dude. A dilettante is described as a person with only superficial knowledge of a subject. I would push the definition further to include people of superficial interest or commitment, which is definitely where I would categorize your Miss Whitney Penelope.

I bet she's a pretty good singer, right? And good looking? I bet all the guys in the band like her, and each of you has at least once fantasized about the band getting huge and you guys hooking up for an amazing, raw, emotional love affair, but things not lasting and eventually recording a critically and commercially exceptional  album that is about your failed relationship and you would get rich and famous and you two would sometimes still hook up for out of this world sex, but in between tours, you would also hook up with an absolute train of supermodels.

It's okay to think those thoughts when you've alone at night, Miksu. It's natural, even healthy for a young man. Just don't do it too much or you'll turn into a werewolf.

Anybody here old enough to get that joke? No? Back in the olden days people used to warn teenagers not to jerk off, because it will make you turn into a werewolf, as if that would be some kind of a deterrent. I don't think anyone actually believed it, but parents told their kids that because they were sick of finding come in the laundry basket.

Anyway, I think I may have gotten side-tracked, but what I mean to say is that Miss Missy Prinsissy might be a good singer and maybe you think the band will "go somewhere" with her as its frontie. But that's never going to happen with her, because she is not prioritizing the band. If she would rather do just about anything else than go to scheduled rehearsals, then there's not much chance you'll ever get her to commit the time necessary to actually break through in any way, even on the most minor local level. She will drag you down.

If you are serious about "making it," then this band is not for you. On the other hand, it seems like you have a good thing going with these guys. If you're playing for the fun of being in a band and making music every week, stick with them. Maybe over time they'll listen to your arguments about replacing your part-time lead singer.

Think about this, too. The band can gradually form an identity separate from her. You guys could become like Crazy Horse, sometimes playing by yourselves and sometimes playing with her. Crazy Horse! I don't think I've ever mentioned Crazy Horse in one of these before.

For all the good little boys and girls, beware forming a band with a person whose passion is not on the same level with yours. Maybe a player or singer will say they're into a project when they're really not, or maybe they will be passionate but flakey. Either way, recognize these individuals and make the determination if they are going to hold you back. Then decide if it's time to start firing your friends.

Oh yeah, baby. Keep the questions coming to VanHammersmith over at, and be sure to like me on facebook like some of viral marketing whore.


Tuesday, December 10, 2013

The "I Fell In Love With My Singer" Question

It's Tuesday (or it was when I wrote this) and your guitar-loving pirate friend has returned again with solutions to your problems. Or at least vague, unhelpful advice and thinly-veiled mockery. Remember, I'm looking for fresh new questions. If you need me to chime in or your misery, hit me up at "vanhammersmith" over @ "" (That should throw the robots off my trail).

Today's question!

Dear Van Hammersmith dude,

I play guitar, and I think it's safe to say I'm not that bad. I've played in a few gigs here and there, but nothing too serious. Well I found out a few months ago that my friend Jack is amazing at guitar, and he also shares the same dream as me. So he introduced me to his neighbor. She has the most amazing voice ever. Well anyways, we fell in love with each other. Is that bad? Like, can the band still work since me and her are doing each other?

And Jack is going into the military soon. He's amazing at guitar, do we replace him? I don't want to have to kick the person out that replaces him when he gets back. And our style of music that we play really doesn't need 3 guitars. Do we even replace him? We can still kick ass with just the guitar and singer.

Please help, your pothead-guitar playin fan, Dude.

Okay Dude, you've got two problems here, and both are SERIOUS BAND-DISTURBERS. Second question first! Jack is going into the military soon. That can mean a lot of things. Maybe you won't see him for six months, or a year, or three years. You might not see him for... a while. Maybe he's going overseas somewhere really dangerous and he can't even tell you about it because it's a "Black Op." I don't know. But here's a rule of thumb on replacing band members who are "going away for a while." (jail, rehab, the military, on the run, long surgery recoveries, amnesia, etc).

By the way, I always get ripped for sounding sexist in these replies. I acknowledge that both boys and girls play the rock, but because you're talking about Jack, I'm going to use the male pronoun and avoid the annoying he/she thing.

Six months or less: If he's non-critical to the sound, just try to get along without him. If he is critical to the sound and you have paying gigs coming up, bring in some hired gun-slinger to play the gigs with the clear understanding that this is purely a cash-in-hand situation, and he'll be punted when Regular Joe is finished dealing with his personal demons.

Six months or more: When you're looking at half a year stretching into a year or more, your have to face facts that this dude is not a part of the band right now. Waiting destroys momentum, changing the lineup will change the project... it's a two-faced coin, and each side is a knife. Or something.

Here's what you can do. If you can get away with one guitar, go for it, but keep your options open for new players. Let them know you've got this army buddy that will be back, but not for a long time. If they want to participate, that's great, but be clear there may come a time when the lineup will have to be "reorganized." (Awk-ward).

The thing is, it's important for young developing players and songwriters to have bandmates to bounce material off of. It sounds like you and your man Jack have a good thing going, and it may be hard to find another player to "fill in" that spot while he's away. Like, "Hey bud, try and sound/be more like Jack when you play this one."

On the other hand, playing with other peeps will help you learn your craft. I would say find someone if you can. I'm free on Tuesday nights, but I'm not paying for gas.

As for relentlessly banging away on your lead singer, I always say get it when you can, especially when there's LOVE involved. Let's face it, most rock songs are about love or trying to get laid. It would be anti-rock to suggest you curb your appetites for either. However, take heed of these warnings if you are going out with your lead singer:

One: If you guys break up it will destroy your band.

Two: If you guys get pregnant it will destroy your band.

Three: If you guys become a faction of two against the other players it will destory your band.

Four: If you prioritize your relationship over the band it will destroy your band.

Five: If another band member also falls in love with her it will destroy your band.

Six: If you guys back each other on musical decisions because of your relationship and not because of your real musical opinions, it will destroy your band.

Seven: If you guys have sex in the tour van or in the same room while other band members are trying to sleep it will destroy your band.

Eight: If you get jealous of other dudes checking out your girl while she's looking sexay on stage, it will destroy your band.

Nine: If you can't handle dudes from other bands talking to your girl it will destroy your band.

So go ahead! Get down, make love, have an awesome experience! Just be sure not to, you know, destroy your band.

And remember to send me your questions, everyone. I'm here to help.

Love you tender,

Van Hammersmith.