Ben Monteith EXCLUSIVE Interview!
Published on 05 November 2021
Ever considered busking?
Going out into the throngs of a city centre and performing music for money takes skill, dedication and not a little courage. The hours can be long or cut short by weather. Your audience can be huge or non-existent; they can also be encouraging, hostile or completely indifferent. It takes guts to step up and face those odds every day, especially if it’s your primary means of income. Do you know anyone who does this?
We do. Ben Monteith is a familiar sight to shoppers in the busy bustle of Glasgow’s main retail thoroughfares. For years, Ben has been out, come rain or shine, to sign for the public. Not only that, he’s enjoyed a level of success online via viral videos that have passed the 50 million views mark! There’s even more to this story, like a Taylor endorsement deal and a tour with Emilie Sande, but we think it’s best if you hear these tales from the man himself.
We recently invited Ben to perform the first of a special set of Shure Sessions for us here at guitarguitar, and decided to follow that great performance up with a detailed interview. How often do you hear the story behind a busker’s life? Not often, and most won’t be as dramatic as Ben’s, so without further ado, here is his story...
Guitarguitar: So, why don’t we start at the start? What was your inspiration to start playing the guitar when you were younger?
Ben Monteith: To get out of my Maths class in school! (laughs) Music was the only subject where I got on with teachers. They brought in a guitar teacher and he needed five students but only had four. The school was gonna drop him if they didn’t find a fifth student, and they told me I’d get out of two classes a week. I looked at my timetable they were both my Maths classes so I was like, ‘Sign me up, man!’
He was an amazing guitarist. He was teaching Spanish classical but all I wanted to play was Green Day and Blink 182, just loads of punk rock stuff, so we came to an arrangement where I would learn a piece and he’d teach me how to read tabs so I could play Blink!
GG: Nice one! What sort of age were you?
BM: I was thirteen.
GG: Cool. So, how long was it before you started bringing singing into it, as well as playing?
BM: I didn’t start singing until I was about 17 or 18. I tried singing a little bit in my bedroom, but I actually had a crush on a girl who worked in a coffee shop which did open mic nights. I had no clue how to approach her, so eventually I learned her favourite song, which was Iris but the Goo Goo Dolls. I sang this at the Open Mic night, and (slight dramatic pause) sixteen years later, we’ve got three kids together (laughs). It definitely works: if you want to get yourself a bird, man, sing her a tune!
GG: Haha, that’s good! I like that!
BM: That’s the abbreviated version.
GG: Brilliant. Now, when you were practising your vocals, did you have any problems with neighbours complaining?
BM: It was an issue sometimes. I’ve mostly been blessed with really nice neighbours who were all good with it. I had one old guy that was like, ‘You need to stop! You need to stop!’
BM: Yeah, he’d get really annoyed. And he was in the flat across from me, so I did start rehearsing in my back bedroom and that seemed to solve it. Nowadays, I’ve got kids, so I would never be playing after 9 o’clock anyway, so it’s never been too much of an issue for me.
GG: It’s always interesting to know. It’s one of those ones: if I can hear my neighbours...
MB: Yeah, they must be able to hear you too! Yeah. That is the logic behind it, haha!
GG: Exactly. Now, when did you transition from the likes of open mic gigs to going out busking? That’s a whole different experience, right?
MB: It was actually out of desperation. I used to have a job delivering furniture for a company who actually ended up selling on. I was forced to sign on and I hated it. I think I had applied for twenty-odd jobs in a few weeks and there was nothing back, not so much as a ‘thank you’. It was so soul-destroying, walking into the Job Centre where they’ve got bouncers growling at you.
A friend of mine had done busking part-time and had ended up doing it as a full-time job. He said to me, ‘Why don’t you come out with me one day and just see how it goes? Learn a few covers, because that’s what’s gonna make you money: familiarity.’ You’re trying to grab people’s attention on the streets, so something familiar works well. I went out, did a few hours and made £35. I was like, okay, I could easily do this a couple of times a week and get the exact same as they’re giving me on Jobseeker’s Allowance. So I immediately went and signed off, went self-employed, and I’ve been doing it full-time for 8 years.
"Busking is almost like the ultimate apprenticeship for performing"
GG: Wow, that’s incredible! That’s definitely better than signing on, to say the least! For busking, are you allowed to find any spot you like and stay as long as you want to stay?
BM: So, each city/county/whatever has their own busking bylaws. Glasgow’s are available to look at. The busking community in Glasgow is really good, really nice. I would say that 99% of buskers in Glasgow are really sound people. They look out for each other: if somebody’s struggling to get a pitch, they’ll try and let them share, or say, ‘I’ll finish a couple of hours early so you can take over’. Everyone’s really nice.
You get a couple of ones that are a bit more stuck in their ways, but the law of thumb is that you need to stay at least 50m apart from each other, and it’s first-come first-served as far as the pitches go. You stay there as long as you like, really. I tend to do it a few times a week, and it’s more seasonal for me, if I’m not travelling about doing music elsewhere, doing shows. I’m usually there most of the day, but I tend to share with someone, so that it’s not constantly me. You try and be sensitive to shops, especially where there’s a lot of residential flats above the shops. In the past, there’s been a lot of tension between buskers and people who live above the spots, especially if it’s the same person there every day, singing the same songs! It can probably get a bit monotonous!
GG: That’s an interesting point about repertoire. You write your own material, but as you say, to reel people in, you have to do covers. Presumably it’s not always songs that you’d personally prefer to do, right?
BM: Oh yeah, definitely!
GG: How many songs do you have available to you in your repertoire?
BM: They come and go, because I’ll learn a bunch and then get bored with them and stop playing them. Then I forget the lyrics! (laughs) I really struggle, I’m severely dyslexic and I really struggle to get lyrics into my brain. It’ll take me at least a week to get most of a song into my brain. There will always be one line or one part of a chorus that I’ll forget, so I’ll always have my phone there in case! Once I’ve busked it another week, it should be in there.
Spotify playlists and New Music Friday and all that, they’re really good sources of going, ‘Right: what’s popular? What is the general public listening to?’ I sneak in a lot of cheeky wee rock songs, like Foo Fighters, Green Day, maybe some Deftones stuff. I’ve done stuff that I like because I feel like doing it, know what I mean?
GG: Aye, definitely!
BM: I tell people that I play pop pish (laughs) because I’m a complete sell-out. I am! In the music community, if you were to base it on ‘being a musician’, you know, a guy who’s into rock n roll would not be singing Katie Perry or Miley Cyrus. That’s all stuff I’ve sang, you know? Because it puts money in the case, which puts food on the table.
BM: It pays the bills, you know? So, I’m a complete sell-out. I don’t care: if I think I can sing it in tune, then I’ll do it and see if it makes me some money.
GG: I suppose it’s a different thing from a solo gig in a venue, when people have paid specifically to see you. On the street, you’re having to gauge the temperature of a crowd who can and will walk right past you if they don’t like what they hear. You’re gonna have to have those songs in your armoury, aren’t you?
BM: Yeah, I mean busking is almost like the ultimate apprenticeship for performing, it really is. I’ve been lucky enough to have sold out the Classic Grand a couple of times, I’ve sold out Stereo three times, I’ve just sold out King Tut’s, so I’m super, super blessed. But it’s a whole different ball game, when someone pays money and they know what they’re coming to see. They know what they’re going to get: they know what they’ve paid for. When you’re on the street, you’re trying to capture people’s attention enough that they will be willing to go into their pocket to give you money, you know what I mean?
BM: It’s not always the easiest task, it really isn’t, but it also can be so much fun as well. You meet all sorts of people! (laughs)
"When you're on the street, you're trying to capture people's attention enough that they will be willing to go into their pocket to give you money, you know what I mean?"
GG: I bet you do! Back at the beginning, and maybe even now, how did you feel when people would just walk past you, or give you a comment?
BM: Yeah, sometimes it can really knock your confidence if you let it. I’ve had people walk past and say ‘You’re shite, mate’. I had a couple of people spit at me.
GG: No way!
BM: But they were, like, disturbed individuals, d’you know what I mean? I think that’s the thing, though: music is so subjective. What I love to listen to is definitely not gonna be what someone else loves to listen to. I always try to keep that in mind, rather than let it destroy my confidence. If I did, it very easily could. It very easily could make you go, ‘I’m never singing in front of people ever again’. I’ve had those days, definitely. So you remind yourself that it’s a subjective thing.
Some days you’ll be lucky enough that everyone walking past digs what you’re doing, days where a couple of hundred people end up gathering and it’s almost like a wee outdoor gig, so it’s really cool and fun. Then you have days where you’ve hardly made any money and it’s just not worked.
GG: It’s not easy, man! You mentioned Deftones earlier, and it made me think of guitar tunings. Do you stay in standard, or do you tune down to Eb or anything?
BM: I stayed in standard for a long time. I’ve been recording an album during lockdown and it’s almost finished. I’m about two tracks away. I don’t actually know guitar theory, even though I know I should from what I learned at school. I’m one of those guitar players that gets by with a capo, just playing simple chords. Or I’ll watch somebody’s fingers when they play a tune to learn.
When we were doing live shows, my setlist was stupid, it was like: capo 1, no capo, capo 6. My guitar players was like, ‘You’re driving me insane!’ I remember Dave Grohl, who’s one of my heroes, saying in an interview that he’d never used a capo on anything. Everything he’d ever written was in standard tuning, or Drop-D for Everlong and stuff like that. I thought that was really cool, so this whole record is tuned down a full step and standard, so it’s D standard. I love it because I actually wanted to get my hands on a baritone guitar. I just love low end. I love when an acoustic guitar has meat and bones to it. I really wanted that on the record, so I tuned it down, stuck a set of 13s on it. I mean, it isn’t even as dramatic as it can go, but still, it’s enough that I really like the sort of vibe that it’s given the record.
GG: If you’re in D standard, do you keep your guitars that way for busking now? Just stick the capo on the 2nd fret when you need to be in E standard?
BM: I’ve actually started taking out a wee Taylor GS Mini that’s in standard. It’s easy enough to cart about, so if there’s any songs in standard, I’ll do them on that. My two Taylor Big Babies are both tuned down a step. I don’t think I could go back to standard now. It just feels so jingly-jangly and loses that meat. I’m far too obsessed with low end. I love it!
GG: That’s what happens when you grow up with heavy music, right? The last 20 years has all been pretty much downtuned. It’s ingrained. You mentioned using 13 gauge strings. Is that heavier than you’d normally use?
BM: Yeah, when I was in standard, I would typically use 11 gauge Elixirs. Now I’m using 13s, which is great as well, because they stay in tune better, they’re more reliable. It’s kinda rough when you’re playing guitar as much as I do, and you end up busting strings all the time. It’s nice that the 13s hold up a bit longer.
GG: Especially when you use Elixirs! They’re worth the extra, but they’re not cheap strings.
BM: No, they’re not! I got used to them because I tend to be quite a sweaty-handed person and my strings just get torn up immediately. After one day, if they didn’t have a coating on them, they’d be destroyed.
GG: Once you’re used to that nice zing, too.
BM: Yeah, the brightness. You lose a lot of dynamic.
GG: Exactly! I’m glad you agree, haha! What picks do you use?
BM: I use Jim Dunlops, light ones. I think, because I’m so heavy handed as a rhythm guitarist. So the .60mm Dunlops, the grey ones. I just bought a bunch with the grips.
"In the music community, a guy who's into rock n roll would not be singing Katie Perry or Miley Cyrus. That's all stuff I've sang because it puts food on the table."
GG: Ah, the Max-grip ones. Do you want to know something really mental? See the .60mm Max Grip: do you know who used them exclusively?
GG: Eddie Van Halen.
BM: No way?
GG: The shred maestro himself. That was his favourite.
BM: I can’t believe he used such a light pick.
GG: I think he was quite a small guy and he used 9 gauge strings.
BM: All my mates, and the guys that session with me when I play shows, they’re always slagging me for my little flimsy .60mm pick! They’re like, ‘I don’t know how you play with them!’
GG: Well, man, now you can put them straight, haha!
GG: So, guitars. You’re a Taylor endorsee. I gather there’s a fun story about how you became one?
BM: Yeah! The idea with busking was to keep everything small, compact and portable, so that if I was going about anywhere, my rig would be really, really easy to use. I bought Taylor’s wee micro guitar and it’s great. I’m using that with an AER amp, and with the EQ on the AER, you can make that wee fellah sound almost like a jumbo, really. So I was jamming away on my pitch and these four American dudes came up to me. The first thing I clocked was that they all had embroidered hoodies saying ‘Taylor Guitars’! They came up and they were so nice, so friendly and excited. They said, ‘Hey, we’ve just came from a meeting at guitarguitar’. They’d just come from Germany and they’ve got their own private jet.
GG: They do!
BM: Which is pretty frickin’ James Bond of them! Haha. Bob Taylor wasn’t there, but his business partner who owns half the company was, and their head of distribution was there, and both of them gave me their personal card. They said, ‘we want to work with you, we want to welcome you into the Taylor family’, and they didn’t expect anything from me. Just so friendly and nice, and I have been blown away by how generous they are as a company. They’ve taken really good care of me.
It’s funny, I’d just sold out my first show at Stereo about a week before that. With the money I made, I decided to buy myself a nice guitar. A lifetime guitar: spend two or three grand and get myself a badass acoustic guitar. I went through every guitar shop in the town, man. I was trying not to get myself a Taylor, because I wanted to get a Gibson. I was playing them all, and the shopping experience could have gone on forever, because we were just having fun playing the guitars!
At one point, my mate was like, ‘try this Taylor, it sounds beautiful’. I tried it and went, ‘Ya bastard, it sounds great!’ I was mulling it over and that’s when I met these guys. I thought, wow, that is just such incredible timing, so I got a 710e dreadnought. They gave me a generous discount, and I was able to buy my dream lifetime guitar. I’ve had it for 4 years now and I use it on every recording, in every show.
GG: That’s such a brilliant story! So, that one isn’t coming out busking, haha! Did you say Baby Taylors and a GS Mini?
BM: I have a GS Mini, a Big Baby Taylor but then I have another Taylor I bought off my friend who was leaving the country. He’d had it for ten years, played the crap out of it. I was like, ‘I’ll buy it! What do you want for it? I’ll take it!’ I took it, sanded it down and brought it to my tattoo artist! I said I wanted it to look like me on a guitar, because he did my back, neck, arms and everywhere else. He did an incredible job, it’s beautiful and is definitely one of a kind.
GG: Amazing! That’s the guitar we’ll see in the photos and in the live session. Now, you’re working on your own record. Let’s talk about your songwriting process: how do you go about collecting tunes and such?
BM: I’m very much a personal songwriter. I always approach it from the frame of mind that if I’m not connected to the song, why the hell would anyone else be, you know? So that’s why I always tend to write very, very personal stuff.
I’ve always been a rocker and a metalhead, and I always pictured that if I got lucky enough to be successful in music, it would be in those genres. I accidentally fell into this: I did a cover, it went mental, I put out a couple of cover albums, they did really, really well and I thought: I need to write something that matches what people like. I can’t just scare the shit out of them with, like, some mad heavy rock record. So, I sat down with my acoustic guitar and wrote a wee EP called Safe, which was super personal. It was a good healthy outlet for me.
So, with his record, I wanted to bridge that gap between my love of rock n roll and the acoustic stuff that I’ve done. I’ve really taken my time because it’s my first full-length solo album. The way music is now, we see way more singles and Eps that ever see someone putting out a full record. I get that, but I was like, ‘Man, I want once in my life to be able to say, ‘I wrote a record, I put it out and I gave it all I could’, you know what I mean? I’ll just release loads of singles from it along the way. Hopefully people can connect with it and enjoy it.
"I applied for 20-odd jobs in a few weeks and had nothing back, not so much as a 'thank you'. It was soul-destroying"
GG: Yeah. And is there an ETA for its release?
BM: We’ve released two singles so far. Being unsigned and having no budget to record is one of the most painful things, it really sucks. I have my own little mini studio where I can demo things. At a push, I could record a really nice acoustic track. My friend Matt Spicer was so generous with his time: he’s been spending days on my tracks, playing about with them. I would demo a track to a click so that when he came in, we had the bones of a structure, and then we could start mucking about with all kinds of stuff. There’s a lot of tracks that are really rocky, there’s a lot that are plain acoustic and there are some where we put synths in. The 80s are trying to come back, man. I don’t know if you’ve noticed this?!
GG: Oh, Ben, the 80s are absolutely, entirely back! Vapourwave and all that. The world has gone neon again.
BM: It’s so strange! It’s like when you’re a kid and you hear your parents saying, ‘It just goes full circle son!’, and we’re like, ‘Aye, right’, but it bloody well does! I guess a bit of that has seeped into this album with drum sounds and stuff. If I like how it sounds, I’ll just go for it, consequences be damned.
GG: Absolutely! That sounds exciting. So yeah, the last thing I’d like to touch on is your voice. I’d like to know how you developed your voice and also how you look after it when you’re out busking in all kinds of mad weather?
BM: Emm, I don’t know that I’ve ever taken care of my voice very well! (laughs) Now that I’m getting a wee bit older I’m a bit more concerned about it. I used to just smoke fags and drink coffee. Even when I was a kid I had a deep voice, my Mum said people would laugh about it, haha! So, I’ve always has this deep raspy voice.
I don’t smoke anymore, I managed to give it up about four years ago. That made a big difference to my vocals, even just being able to breathe more. It sucks, I loved smoking! I thought it was wonderful (laughs) but it did really put a heaviness on my lungs.
If I’m doing a show, I’ll try to do a vocal warmup. I still haven’t had any vocal training. My vocal warmup is driving to the venue in the car, singing along to a song at a really low register, and then I’ll maybe get a wee bit higher until I feel comfortable.
"I just love low end, when an acoustic guitar has meat and bones to it"
GG: So a lower pitch, yeah?
BM: Lower pitch. And I won’t push the volume, either. For busking, obviously I don’t do a warmup but what I do is I tend to play things another step or two down from where I’d normally have them. If comfortable for me is Bb, then I’ll just stick the capo on the 1st fret instead of the 3rd, do the song, and once I’ve ran through the full set once, I can feel where the sweet spot is, when the voice is comfortable.
GG: Brilliant, that’s very sensible!
BM: I will get vocal lessons one day, I really should. Weirdly enough, I ended up on tour with Emilie Sande, and one of her backing vocalists is also her vocal coach. They are just the most awesome, wonderful people and really nice, but just listening to them warm up every night was like, ‘Oh my gosh’ The noises they make! It’s absolutely mental! Watching a professional do it really blew my mind. She starts warming up four hours before a show.
BM: Yeah. It starts off slowly for the first hour or two, and she’s still doing things like hair and makeup. Then that last hour is super nuts. Then she does another 45 minutes after the show to warm down. I had no idea!
GG: How was that tour for you?
BM: That tour was the most unheard of, unrealistic thing ever (laughs) because she did a BBC show in Glasgow called Street Symphony where she picked 5 buskers to sing a duet with her and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. I got to do my own song, it got scored and I got to play it with a 20-piece orchestra, which was absolutely insane.
Her tour manager really liked what I did, and he said to me, ‘I’m not promising anything, but I’m gonna see if I can get you on this tour’, which was 26 or 27 dates all around Europe. I was like, ‘Okay!’ (laughs) The weeks went by, and Emelie even being willing to consider it was very cool of her.
BM: I came on the tour as a crew member, and the tour manager described it as ‘the stars have aligned’ because this kind of thing never happens! So, I was helping load in and load out, and I actually ended up having a fuckin’ blast, man, because I even did the spotlight once, just to say I’d done it!
BM: I did backline, flying lights...I had no idea how much thought goes into a show. It’s incredible, the attention to detail. It got to the point where I kept forgetting, ‘Oh shit, I’m supposed to play in half an hour!’ So, I got to play to between two and a half thousand and three thousand people every night for 26 shows and she was so lovely to let me do it. All of her team were like a family, man. It was an incredible experience, it really was. I was completely bricking it, to be honest. These guys really looked after me and gave me a once in a lifetime opportunity.
Promoters saw me on tour and starting approaching, talking to me about doing some small headlining shows...and then the pandemic happened. (laughs) Everything’s went down the toilet! It’s just a case of ‘we’ll see what happens’ but in the meantime, I’m still busking to put food on the table. I’m still out there.
Now, that is some story! Ben is one of life’s genuine good guys, and it’s wonderful to hear about his years of hard work and relentless dedication beginning to pay off. There are more gigs on the horizon, and more releases of his own music, so make sure you keep an eye on Ben’s Facebook page and Etsy shop. Ben's full Shure Sessions guitarguitar performance is available to watch right above here and it is well worth your time!
Thanks to Ben for giving up his Friday night for us, and thanks to you for clicking through and reading our interview today. There are tons more over on the guitarguitar interviews page, so make sure you head there for more exclusive one-to-one’s with some of the greatest artists on the planet.
There will be more interviews and Shure Sessions soon, so keep coming back to our guitarguitar News pages for details!