As a musician takes to the streets, it’s usually with the hope of engaging the casual passerby and making a little bit of money for their hard work.
Busking and street performing can be a lot of fun and it can even be a great way to get practice playing in front of an audience and making a bit of money on the side.
But if you’re looking to craft the ideal street performing set list, there’s no such thing. It depends on where you live, what the audience is interested in, and how well you play specific songs. Plus, you might have certain limitations in terms of instrumentation.
In Calgary, Alberta, Canada, where I live, country music has a major presence, and heading to the streets with a few country songs in your pocket is usually a good plan.
In the same way, you’ll want to customize your approach to your locality, as well as what you’re good at. But here are some songs many people know and love, and will appreciate hearing.
1. Garth Brooks – Friends In Low Places
Now, I’m not a fan of the song myself, but if you’re looking to win over a bar crowd and make a few friends, then few songs will immediately connect with people like “Friends In Low Places.” You’re probably going to run into the same crowd on the street, so it should go over well even for a busking audience.
If your town isn’t big on country, no one knows better than you do, and you can probably skip this one. But for drunken singalongs, there just isn’t anything quite like it.
If you’re looking for something similar, you could also try “Save a Horse (Ride a Cowboy)” by Big & Rich. A few Johnny Cash numbers can’t hurt either. If you’d like to go more modern, Keith Urban is not a bad choice.
2. Bryan Adams – Summer Of ‘69
Everywhere you go, people love this song. I used to like it a lot myself (I’ve just heard it and played it too many times).
There’s simply no denying that Bryan Adams has some classic numbers, both catchy and memorable. This is one of them.
When people find out you can play “Summer of ‘69”, they might just go crazy. Surprisingly, it goes over well with both rock crowds and country crowds too. Oh, and it doesn’t hurt if you’re playing it in Canada (Adams is Canadian).
Alternately, you could also try “Run to You”, also by Adams.
3. Neil Diamond – Sweet Caroline
Here’s another favorite singalong, particularly in bars and pubs. But honestly, it plays well to most audiences, whether it’s in clubs or at weddings. It helps that it’s got that famous call-and-response built right into it.
I’m not a fan of the song myself, but many people are, so don’t go by my preferences.
Another crowd-pleaser in this vein is “Brown Eyed Girl” by Van Morrison. If you’re offended by this comparison, I apologize.
4. Matchbox Twenty – 3AM
I have yet to play to a crowd that didn’t appreciate the smooth sounds of Matchbox Twenty. This is one of their most known songs, even though they weren’t functioning as a band unit when they first recorded it.
Plus, there isn’t a shortage of songs from the 90s that are campfire worthy like this one. “Save Tonight” by Eagle Eye Cherry comes to mind.
If you want to get people to sing along, this is a good one to know.
5. Green Day – When I Come Around
So, you might not be bringing your Marshall stack and electric guitar to busking spots in your town. But you can still bring your best 90s pop punk rock attitude!
“When I Come Around” is one of those songs everyone knows, love it or hate it. Let’s just say the song is more known for Billie Joe Armstrong’s incoherent vocals than just about anything else.
If you’re looking for more songs along these lines, you’ve got lots to choose from by the likes of Sum 41, blink-182, Treble Charger, and so forth.
6. Tom Petty – Free Fallin’
Sure, there are many Petty songs people know and like. But let’s get real – no song captures both men and women (or boys and girls) like “Free Fallin’”. This is a great song for campfires too.
Now, do beware of being too subdued, because being heard on the street is a skill unto itself. You’ll need to project to be heard. Fortunately, the song has several builds built right into it.
If you’d like to try your hand at other Tom Petty songs, you might also look at: “I Won’t Back Down”, “Learning to Fly”, or “Refugee”.
7. Bon Jovi – Livin’ On A Prayer
I know what you’re thinking, but I didn’t give you a no Hair Metal guarantee, so just bear with me, okay?
This song has become a classic in its own right, as hard as that may be to believe. Seriously, you will see it right alongside other songs on this list by the likes of Tom Petty and Neil Diamond.
And really, who can resist singing along with the “woah” chorus hook?
If you’re looking for alternatives, try Van Halen, Def Leppard, or Motley Crue. Just be forewarned that some of their songs are difficult to learn, and some won’t lend themselves to acoustic interpretations (such as “Pour Some Sugar On Me”).
I’ve found that 90s music tends to go over well with most audiences these days. Some songs will hang around forever, but with many millennials entering their 30s, it only makes sense that there would be some growing nostalgia around “the last good decade of music” (seriously, that’s how some people feel about it).
To me, it makes less sense to dig into oldies than in the last decade. Certainly, it can’t hurt to know a few tunes from the 60s, 70s, and 80s, because there will always be people that ask, but since the 2020s are only a few years away, I wouldn’t suggest falling too far behind the times.