The maddening inconsistency of Balboa Park busking

“Hotel California” is the busker’s “Freebird.”

Chet Harrison
  • Chet Harrison

“As long as the buskers are getting along with each other and not fighting…everything is fine,” said Chet Harrison, a guitarist and fiddle player who makes his living as a busker in San Diego. “The rangers are pretty ’laxed. But if somebody complains about something, they come down on everybody. At times it can be pretty pleasant, at times it can be a drag. Sometimes I have to not play in the park.”

Chet got lucky on the 4th of July and got $100 tip from a couple who listened to his playing for almost an hour. He posted a picture of his guitar case and the big tip on Facebook with the tag “these are a few of my favorite things.”

Another of Chet’s favorite things is the spot in front of the Botanical Building. This is where I found Chet playing guitar, sitting cross-legged on a ledge by the Lily Pond under the shade of a cluster of palm trees. The opened guitar case contained mostly singles (around $25); three $5 bills were visible as well as a few scattered quarters. Not bad for the couple hours that he had been playing.

Chet mostly plays original compositions on his classical nylon string guitar, a 1981 Takamine C138S Concert Series, a $900–$1000 instrument. He plays finger-picking style, mixing fast arpeggios, tremolos, quick licks, and flamenco strumming repeating a similar theme for each technique. His music flirts with dissonance in a jazzy way. His technique is purely classical, giving it a touch of romanticism. But the influence of heavy rock and bluegrass is distinctly there.

“‘Romanza, Take Five,’ my own crazy version of ‘My Favorite Things,’ are just a few I’ll cover,” said Chet. “I’ll do some singing if the crowd seems to be into singing, I’ll do ‘Little Wing.’ There’s probably, like, a dozen songs I can sing if I feel like it. When I was a kid I worshipped Jimi Hendrix. I’m not famous, but I’m kinda doing the same thing, you know? I’m just shredding on my guitar.”

Despite having a soothing voice, Chet dislikes his singing, so for the most part you will only hear vibrating strings. Looking at his crystal blue eyes is like peering into a gentle soul of an old bohemian hippie who has no time for negative energy. Sporting a blonde ponytail, Chet hides his almost non-existent hairline under a wide-brimmed black fedora with purple lacing. A white beard and wrinkled face mark his years of busking experience under the sun. Missing one of his front teeth does not stop Chet from smiling.

Chet’s tips

Chet’s tips

“I used to dress up, but it doesn’t make much of a difference [in tips],” said Chet. An untucked button-down shirt, black dress pants, and old green shoes make up the rest of his outfit.

“I try getting along with everybody, and I think I do a pretty good job. A lot of buskers have tempers, but I don’t. It helps if you don’t have a temper. You know it can be like anarchy out there. There’s probably a group of around ten of us [buskers] that have been around for years.”

Chet has been busking on and off in San Diego since the 1980s. For the past six years he has been going to Balboa Park almost every day he is able.

“I was a teacher for a long time...ahh, shit, what year was this? I stopped in 2004, 2005 or something like that… I guess it was earlier than that… maybe 2003 or something… I was really busy for around ten years with an easy, high-paying sales job. It was a terrible thing because my music suffered a lot. I actually forgot to play fiddle in that period of time.”

Chet’s life timeline memory is flimsy, but from what I gathered, he was a substitute teacher for the San Diego Unified School District, at some point owned a record store, busked for a whole year in the early 2000s, got a well- paying job, and when his kid grew up, Chet went back to busking.

“It’s actually hard, especially for a guitarist… And I am the loudest guitarist I know!” Passersby rarely pay attention when Chet is doing soft arpeggios. He garners more attention when he crescendos to loud chords and flashy fast licks.

“The year I got the job was because I wasn’t making enough money to live on and I even had roommates. The reason I’m making more money now...it’s not because I’m a better guitarist, it’s because I understand how to busk better. I am a better musician than I used to be, and I’m really old, so I’ve reached a pretty good spot, since I’ve been playing so long. The reason I’m doing better is because I understand how to do it. I could play a lot of amazing shit a long time ago, but that didn’t mean I was going to make a lot of money busking.”

“Great job!” A little kid walks by Chet giving him two thumbs up and a smile. It’s high noon during free-museum Tuesday, and the park is flooded with several groups of kids and their guides. Couples stroll holding hands. Families tour around the park. Different languages surround me as I listen to Chet’s guitar. “Ve mijo, dale un dólar,” a Hispanic lady hands over a dollar to her eight-year-old son who was dumbfounded by Chet. The kid approached nervously and dropped the dollar. Chet smiles and whispers a quick thank you, carrying on his song uninterrupted.

Shirtless joggers swiftly pass by with headphones on. Others walk their dogs and stop to have a conversation with other dog walkers. Dozens of tourists pose and take pictures by the koi pond near Chet. The ones who stop and listen seem to be musicians or music nerds. Less than half of them tip, others compliment Chet’s playing and give him a thumbs up from afar. In the course of three songs, around 20 minutes, a dozen people drop tips in his guitar case. The rest and the majority of the people in the park stare at their cell phones. Many play Pokémon Go.

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