As Upper West Side commuters waited for the 1 train on a recent morning, the usual dreary rhythm of the subway was broken by the sound emanating from one man’s guitar. Buskers are often unceremoniously ignored by seasoned New Yorkers, but this searing solo, stretching over several minutes, seemed to have a jolting effect on many in the crowd. Books were lowered and headphones removed. A few people took out their phones to record the performance on video. When Guy Daniels is on the platform, people listen.
As Daniels neared the end of his morning set at 72nd Street and Broadway, a group of schoolchildren exited a train and instinctively rushed to gather around him. Daniels, in his glory, put some extra showmanship on display for the kids, dramatically lifting the neck of his guitar skyward during the soulful climax to the blues classic “The Thrill is Gone.”
Daniels has built up a fan base among subway riders with his mix of covers and extended improvisational solos over looped backing tracks that he records himself, spanning genres from pop to funk to reggae. His distinctive sound is instantly recognizable — he plays his acoustic guitar through an amplifier to conjure a rich, distorted tone, combined to great effect with his nimble fretwork and expressive singing.
In spite of his head-turning talent, Daniels, 47, is a relative newcomer to the busking circuit. He started playing the subways as an occasional guest performer with a more experienced friend, and enjoyed it so much that he struck out on his own in the summer of 2015. “What I immediately fell in love with was the rawness of it, he said. “That you can actually set up and just start playing.”
In the subway, Daniels says, there is a special purity to the relationship between performer and audience. There’s no such thing as a captive listener. Not everyone will be into his music, but when the response is enthusiastic it feels earned and sincere. “It’s so real and beautiful and honest,” he said. “You don’t mean anything to one person, but then somebody else is like, ‘I’ve missed three trains. I hope I’m not late to work.’”
Donations are nice, but busking offers benefits that extend beyond the monetary realm. On subway platforms, he’s met new people, gotten referrals for gigs, and found new guitar students for his teaching business. “This is the type of awesome stuff that happens, just from coming out,” Daniels said.
“This is the best experience I’ve had in the city, and I grew up here,” he added.
A Yorkville native, Daniels first took up guitar seriously at the age of 10. He threw himself into music during his teen years at Collegiate School, and by his twenties he was a skilled instrumentalist and a member of the acid jazz group the Abstract Truth. Despite some success, playing in the band stopped being fun along the way. “I hadn’t really cracked the code to what I wanted to do,” Daniels said recently, looking back. Marriage and children followed, and family life took precedence over his performing career.
Daniels rededicated himself to performing after a difficult breakup a few years ago, turning his heartache into inspiration. He started singing seriously for the first time, and wrote a suite of songs that forms the core of his upcoming album. “There’s life that’s going into this music that I’m sharing, and that’s why I don’t regret any minute,” he said.
Playing — and busking, specifically — are therapeutic. “Being in that raw rush of people going to work — we all have challenges, we all have stuff we’re dealing with,” Daniels said. “It’s important to go out and share, no matter how you feel.”
Daniels approaches busking with professional discipline, rising before dawn so that he can claim a prime location by 7:30 and start playing as the early birds start their commute. ”The location means everything,” he said. He hauls his kit wherever he goes — a guitar case and a Samsonite suitcase loaded with his amp, strings, microphone and stand, and a massive package of AA batteries — and prides himself on quickly setting up and breaking down. He’s enjoyed exploring the subway system as a performer and comparing the nuances of the crowds at different stations, from the warm folks on the Upper West Side to the artsy crowd in Union Square. The people are the reward in this business, he said.
Back at 72nd Street, during a short break between songs, one stranger came over to thank Daniels for his playing and invite him to an upcoming concert. “That was special,” the man said, shaking his head in wonder. “I’m happy the train took a little too long to get here.”