Talking with David Shanhun about life as a professional musician

Talking with David Shanhun about life as a professional musician.

Have you ever toyed with the idea of ditching your day job to play guitar for a living? I have and, for a brief time, strumming and singing were my primary means of earning an income. The life of a professional musician is lots of fun, that’s for sure. However, trust me, there are plenty of easier ways to ‘earn a crust.’ One guy who chose to go ‘pro’ is David Shanhun, and from what I can see, he’s doing all right. I wanted to find out David’s secrets to success, so I met with him for a chat.

The venue for our meeting is a café in Auckland’s Browns Bay.  I arrive first, order a flat white and then look for a quiet place to sit.  Despite the fact that it’s raining ‘cats and dogs’ outside, the café is pretty busy—Auckland’s café culture is alive and well. So, to avoid possible distractions, I choose a covered area outside. Ten minutes later, though, when a burst of wind threatens to blow coffee all over my t-shirt, I figure outside isn’t such a great idea after all. So, inside it is. Heck, interviews have been conducted in war zones, so I’m sure I can handle a few talking diners and piped ‘oonst oonst’ music.

Like any self-respecting musician, David turns up late. I thought, maybe, he’d driven into a giant puddle (the rain was that bad). However,  he confesses that he lost track of time while editing a video, which sounds like a perfectly valid excuse because David has a heap of self-made videos on YouTube.

He orders a drink and, kindly, a pot of tea for me, and we get down to business.

I ask David how he got into music.

When I first started out, I loved Dave Mathews and John Mayer — they were my two go-to guys. So I worked all that stuff out. Then I started classical guitar.

I grew up with my parents pushing at the idea that I needed a degree, and, fortunately, my guitar teacher at school let me know that there was a classical degree in Wellington. It wasn’t really my thing, but it meant that I could tick the box of doing the degree — and it was at least musical.

During Uni, I got into Chet Atkins and Tommy Emmanuel—all those guys. One of the best things, weirdly, that happened to me was not finishing my degree.”

After bailing from university, David taught guitar privately and at high schools.

“People kept telling me to complete my degree. I would ask why, and they would say that I’ll be able to teach in high schools, and I’m thinking that I already am. I started asking how will having a degree help me achieve my goals,  and, they’d tell me without ever asking what my goals were. At that point, my goal was to be performing full time.”

Though David has no regrets about cutting short his university education, he says that, while at university, he learned valuable guitar skills and built character.

A live performance of Coming Home by David Shanhun.

For me, the number-one thing for getting gigs is visibility — David Shanhun.

Taking the plunge

I know first-hand how tough it is to make a living as a musician in New Zealand, so I ask David why he chose this less-travelled path.

“I was always very interested in music, and I sang a lot as a kid. But, I remember very clearly I guy at school singing a Third Eye Blind song and everybody joining in. I just loved the community that he built.”

David says he became a full-time musician seven years ago at the age of 27.

“It was clear-cut.  I was going to do it. I was new to Auckland, and I gave myself a year to perform as much as I could. After three months, it grew — from week one I was able to pay my rent.”

As, myself, a working musician, I’m impressed by the number of gigs David plays, so I ask how he gets so much work.

“Ten gigs are the most I have played in a week, and one year, I played nearly 300. One thing I did when I was just starting out was to say to venues that I will come in and do a demo for an hour.

For me, the number-one thing for getting gigs is visibility — I’m happy to go busking if I need gigs because the people who see me, out of every 200, someone will have a birthday or a celebration of some kind.”

David says that playing at bars, even if they don’t pay much, is worthwhile because they generate work.

These days, many musicians promote themselves through social media site, like Facebook. David has a good online presence, but he says that it took a long time to get there, and getting gigs via the internet is difficult.

“It’s hard to promote online, and {for someone wishing to hire a musician} seeing in the real world is better.”

And, being seen can create exciting opportunities, as David discovered when he landed a support slot for classic rock band Foreigner a few years ago after the right person saw him performing in a café.

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The challenges

All musicians know that playing gigs isn’t all ‘beer and skittles,’ so I ask David about the challenges of his lifestyle.

“One of the big ones is the social aspect. It’s hard to find time for friends because I play during normal social hours. Friends get tired of trying to organise get-togethers with me.”

David hints that, although he meets lots of people when he’s performing, the life of a musician can get lonely.

“A couple of years ago, two of my best buddies moved away within a similar time frame. Both had flexibility with their work, so were able to meet up. That was tough for me because two people that I could actually hang out with had gone away.”

“I’ve also noticed in the last year or two that fitness is a massive part of being able to have energy on stage. In New Zealand, three-hour gigs are standard, which is, actually, a really long time to keep a high level of energy and engagement.”

I ask whether he’s ever had problems with his audiences.

“I had a drunk guy at a wedding once who kept walking around the back of all my stuff while I’m trying to play. I had to keep redirecting him. He stood on a bunch leads and broke them, so it was game over. Then, he asked why I wasn’t playing!”


Tips for using loops from David Shanhun.

Guitar & gear

Crazy ‘Bout Guitars is all about  … well, guitars, so I finally ask David about his.

“My guitar is set up nicer than most. It’s a Takamine ND-15c, and I have the neck super straight, and once a year, I take it to be checked and adjusted. When there is no tension on the strings, though it’s hard to see, the neck is slightly curved reverse ways.”

David says that he needs his guitar to be as player-friendly as possible to be able to do the amount of gigs that he plays.

“I couldn’t do a three-hour gig, take a break, and then another three-hour gig on some other guitars, the way they’re set up.”

A key piece of David’s equipment is a TC Helicon VoiceLive 3, which is a vocal and guitar effects looping pedal.

“It’s super portable and makes setting up for gigs really easy. I can have separate outs for microphone and guitar, or I can create a mix and go directly into a speaker if I’m playing a small show.”

Of course, the TC Helicon VoiceLive 3 is a looping pedal, so David makes good use of it, particularly for solo gigs, by building up tracks to play over.

The trick to good looping, says David, is variation, and he admires loop artists whom create “rise and fall” in their loops.

“Sometimes it can be as simple as having a half-second stop—that last beat before a chorus—and you’re back in.  It gives you a little breath of change.”

As far as effects go, David uses reverb on his voice and guitar. He also has a small amount of compression on his guitar to even out the volume when he’s fingerpicking or strumming.

Aside from the TC Helicon VoiceLive 3, David often uses an octave pedal, a Boss OC3, which allows him to create bass tones.

“I can double notes from the bottom E-string up to just slightly the D-string. There is no doubling on the G, B and high E.”

David points out that the effect works on notes, not the strings. So, if, for example, if he plays higher up on the A-string, like an octave, that note isn’t doubled.

Advice for getting started

If your dream is to get out and perform music, making it happen can be tough. To get the ball rolling, David recommends writing a list of all the songs you can play.

“It’s an easy way to make a start because you know you have a certain number of songs to get going. Also, hang with people who are doing it, you will get more confidence, and play the style of music that’s true to you.”

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Andrew Healey


Andrew is an Auckland-based writer and musician.

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