Much like carny folk and other street performers, there is a good bit of mystery surrounding one-man bands. What happened to these walking spectacles of sound that they perform alone? “Many people don’t know that a lot of us chose to be street performers because it’s fun and rewarding,” says Bernard M. Snyder, who has been a one-man band for nearly three decades. “I saw other performers, who had previously been guitarists/singers, put drums on their backs,” he says about why he became one. “It looked like they were having fun, playing to bigger audiences, getting more attention, and wearing bigger hats.”
The German-born Snyder became a one-man band in 1980, after having played in rock bands as a teenager. Starting off in Zürich, Switzerland, he began touring the world. He met his wife, a New Yorker named Tova, while in Israel and the couple have since settled in Italy. Snyder continues to tour as a one-man band and divides his time between Europe, the U.S. and Brazil. He has played for as many as 30,000 people and owns and maintains www.onemanband.org, which streams videos of his performances.
Who was your inspiration to start a one-man band?
Bernard M. Snyder: Every one-man band has his own style; it is not really a technical discipline in the way that guitar players compete to see who’s the fastest. The best-known one-man bands in my book are Don Partridge and, of course, Jesse Fuller. I don’t seem to run into many street performing one-man bands anymore.
You have a definite musical style. How did that develop?
I started out singing and strumming guitar, and when I was 14 I found myself in the Paris Metro, singing with those stunningly beautiful acoustics. Later I switched to the open air, streets and squares, and have always had a taste for really good acoustics. I guess projecting my voice in the open has left a mark on my style. I listen mainly to Brazilian music, maybe the syncopated rhythms have influenced my playing.
What instruments do you carry around with you?
The drum set consists of a bass drum, a snare drum, a hi-hat, and a crash cymbal. I have an acoustic f-hole jazz guitar with a tiny battery-run amp, and six harmonicas for playing in different keys. I activate the bass drum with my right foot, while the left handles one snare stick and the closing of the hi-hat. The second snare stick and hi-hat stick are attached to the neck of my guitar. And I hit the crash with a cord attached to my right elbow.
About how much does your musical apparatus weigh?
I’ve never weighed it in its set-up form. When I pack all the drums, cymbals, hardware, harmonicas, the little amp, a bag and some clothes for cushioning into the bass drum for plane rides, it weighs about 50 pounds.
What is your favorite type of venue in which to perform?
Nothing beats a square at night with good acoustics, not too many people strolling, and then when I play I slowly gather a crowd. After I finish the square is the same as before, a few people strolling, no trace of what just happened.
Where is your favorite place in the world to perform?
It changes all the time. When I’m hot, the best place is wherever I happen to be playing right then. When I suck, I just suck, regardless of where I am.
Have you ever collaborated with other one-man bands?
Yes. My brother is a one-man band, part-time now, but we had a duo act for a while. When I started out as a one-man band, there were a lot of us. Sometimes we would have jam sessions with two, three, I remember up to five one-man bands playing together. The song would normally be like “You take the first verse, you take the chorus, then you take the second verse.” The drumming was never really good on those sessions. Imagine five people going oompah, oompah.