Playing cover songs can boost your visibility, warm up a crowd, or be a way to earn a living. Whatever the end goal, there is more than one way to approach playing someone else’s well-known – or little known – song.
I perform other people’s songs for the majority of my income. I slip in the occasional original, but mostly I am hired for restaurants, bars, private parties, corporate events, weddings, and the occasional pig roast outside a cemetery to play songs people know and love. I have a broad stylistic range spanning from the 1920s to the 2010s, mainly based around the ’60s through ’90s rock music that inspired me to start playing – and continues to inspire me today.
While playing cover songs was not my plan when I embarked on a career in music all those years ago, it has become a decent way to earn a living and was always something I enjoyed doing. Like most musicians, I started out learning other people’s songs, and playing the greatest songs of all time and getting paid to do it is a pretty sweet deal.
Back in the days of early rock and roll, most bands were cover bands, or at least they did not write their own material. Artists like the Beatles and Bob Dylan came along and changed all of that forever, but both of them spent years learning and mastering other people’s material before they started writing their own. Dylan has mentioned many times in interviews that he credits the many hours spent performing other people’s songs as one reason his own songwriting is so strong.
Today, a large percentage of musical artists are writing and co-writing their own material, but the tradition of recording cover songs is as strong as ever. I’d even say there is now an expectation that every group will have at least one or two strong covers – and the list of big-name artists releasing “covers-only” albums keeps growing. Aside from that, many emerging artists release covers online in the expectation that piggybacking off of the familiarity of the original song will boost their visibility, and that can be a solid strategy. The band Pomplamoose has worked that strategy to great effect on YouTube, and most of the artists I know who are active online release covers regularly as a part of their marketing strategy.
I’m sharing my personal experience and knowledge of others’ experiences because I never had a road map in this department on my way to a music career. I’ve heard many conflicting opinions over the years on how to cover a song, and the approach will probably differ wildly based on your context. With that in mind, here are three possible pathways to explore as you work to integrate cover songs into your live set and recorded releases.
Imitate the original
Might as well start with the one that’ll cause controversy. Most music business and performance advice you will read is all about “Be yourself, be original, do not imitate…” Of course, I agree with that, to a point. But consider that none of the greatest artists (in my humble opinion) started that way; they all had idols and heroes who made sounds they admired and, in many instances, tried to copy note for note. If you ever hear Metallica’s version of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Tuesday’s Gone,” it will blow your mind how much they sound exactly like Skynyrd. Who knew? I’m sure being able to sound exactly like Skynyrd at will was an effective and somewhat hilarious strategy (considering Metallica’s genre of music) when the band was playing in bars and people were shouting “Free Bird!” at them.
Imitating the original recording is a great place to start with a cover when you are learning the song, and maybe even learning music for the first time. What better way to learn to write songs, play your instrument, and hear your voice as compared to a “real” singer. You can also pick up your heroes’ bad habits, though, if they are straining or pushing to make the vocal/instrument sound. It’s always important to relax and not push (I strongly suggest vocal training for all vocal performers). But for educational purposes, imitation can be a tremendous tool.
If your goal is to be in a tribute band, you’ll want to know every song note-for-note the way the original artist plays them. It’s not “wrong” to approach rock music like a classical musician would; you have the benefit of the original artists’ recordings to guide you and, while rock sheet music is often very wrong compared to the recording (especially online tabs!), good transcriptions of classic and modern rock songs do exist. Use both your eyes and ears to learn the tunes and attempt to “nail it” like a trapeze artist or gymnast attempting to nail a series of flips. If you happen to sound similar to a specific artist without even trying, it can be helpful to know one or more of their songs. “Hey! You sound just like Peter Gabriel! Oh man, they sound just like The Killers!” or “That dude is like a bald Chris Cornell!” can be a great way to warm up a cold crowd of strangers.
This pathway does have its limits when it comes to recordings. Why listen to Joe Schmoe’s version of “Hey Ya!” that sounds identical to the original when I can go put on Outkast? Many tribute bands do sell CDs as they want to have something to sell, and nobody’s version is exactly identical to someone else’s no matter how close (that’s where the art comes in, as a good friend of mine says). One of the greatest covers of all time, the Beatles’ “Twist and Shout,” is really not significantly different from the Isley Brothers’ original. Not even the greatest mimics can get the sound exactly the same. And if the original version isn’t very well known, people will think that you are the original!
It should be noted that sonic imitation is often used commercially in original songs. I’ll bet you dollars to donuts that Adam Duritz knows a few Van Morrison tunes exactly like the records and that Gotye probably owns the Complete Police Recordings and can whip off a note-perfect version of “Message In A Bottle.” Some of these artists will deny it, and maybe authentically it is unconscious for some. Their record labels use the imitation to promote them, though: “He sounds like a modern Sting!” The fact is, everybody comes from somewhere and is a sum of their influences, even if some people’s influences are less obvious than others. Nobody probably picked up on David Bowie’s Anthony Newley imitation outside of the UK. But Dylan’s Guthrie imitation was obvious and he was among a sea of other Guthrie imitators! So the skills you gain from imitating other artists’ recordings do have more than one practical application.
Throw away the original
If you already know a fair approximation of the original, you have more freedom to make different artistic choices. In jazz, this has been done for years, mostly pioneered by the great Miles Davis. His mid ’60s recordings of certain standards like “If I Were A Bell” take the originals way off the map into new, uncharted territory. The guitarist Eugene Chadbourne takes this approach to great extremes, often veering wildly and dissonantly to where the only recognizable connection to the original is the title of the song.
There can be no doubt as to the artistic value of doing it your way. You don’t even have to know how to play an instrument or sing to cover a song your own way. David Bowie held a cover song contest on his website in 1999, and one person entered a version of “Velvet Goldmine” which was just him singing a cappella and resorting to “la la la” when he didn’t know the words. Bowie and the rest of us on the site thought it was hilarious. Daniel Johnston covers some songs this way on his self-recorded albums, which are genius examples of home recording.
Often this approach can have great comedy potential. Ben Folds’s cover of Dr. Dre’s “Bitches Ain’t Shit” (need we include a warning about explicit/objectionable lyrics?) and Pomplamoose’s version of Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies” are two examples that come to mind. When there’s a drastic difference between you and the original artist stylistically, the audience can connect to the absurdity, and even gain new insights into the song.
So make a joyful noise unto the universe and sing it your way. Don’t pay attention to anyone’s previous versions and don’t learn the tune completely if you don’t want to. Play with the structure. Play with feeling! It’s good to have a core idea of what you believe the song is about before you smash it to bits. The originality of your approach may draw a number of listeners to you as you reveal a side of a previously known song never heard before. If you already are a skilled musician, this approach has the potential to open up new artistic territory for everyone who comes after you to follow.
This is not generally the approach to take at the cover bar, however, especially with dissonance. You can get away with some dissonance, but by and large, people want recognizable, pleasing, mainstream sounds. Don’t get fired!
Maybe you want to take this approach to reinvent a favorite artist’s song but you don’t feel up to the task because, frankly, you’re not even sure who you are yet as an artist. One of my favorite articles on finding your own artistic voice is by Dr. Eric Maisel. The article is mostly aimed at painters and sculptors but can certainly apply to musicians. He talks about abandoning your library of what you think “good art” is so that your own unique set of images (and sounds) can appear. Seems ironic to apply this to a cover tune, but if you are using the tune as a basis for your own self-expression it’s helpful to have some signposts to what that “self” part is!
The middle path (rock/pop)
Before we dig into this, I want to emphasize that I think the important point in deciding how to approach a cover song (especially for recording) is to make conscious and definite choices about the ways to approach the arrangement. Whether you imitate the original or deviate wildly, the important thing is to make the decision which way you are going to go. Of course, you can change directions if your original choice isn’t working; adjustments in direction are part of the creative process.
So a third way to tackle an arrangement is to combine the approaches and do a little bit of both: a cover that is faithful possibly in spirit to the original but deviates stylistically or sonically. Perhaps you change the genre of the song completely but you are singing the song like the original singer. There are infinite variations on this, but the goal is the same: Take the original version of a song and try to make it our own without leaving the solar system.
Perhaps the greatest example of this is what some feel to be the greatest cover of all time: Hendrix’s version of Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower.” The rhythm is different, the instrumentation is different, it’s slower, but the chords and melody are still the same, and you can even hear Jimi imitating Bob’s harmonica in tone and notes in different places. Jimi owns the tune, but it still bears resemblance to the Dylan original. Jimi does leave the solar system, but he wasn’t from Earth to begin with.
Pomplamoose’s cover of “Come Together” is another great example of this. They obviously know the original recording very well yet play it with drum machines and synths in a completely different style. I keep referring to them because their covers strategy has been an integral part of their success, and it’s good to have some modern examples of cover song success!
This approach does NOT mean to be bland or uninspiring. I think most covers end up in this barren territory unconsciously as many people neither have the skills to imitate nor the boldness to truly own an original piece of music. Or maybe they just haven’t thought about it that much. The key difference between blandness and razor-sharp is making definite (and good) choices.
In summary: make definite choices when you approach cover songs. It’s helpful to have studied the original, possibly learning it note-for-note, before deviating from it, although this is not mandatory. In finding an original perspective, you might need to abandon ideas of “good” music and search for something your own. The rules for performing covers and recording covers are slightly different; people might want you to sound more like the original when you’re playing live (especially in the cover bar), whereas in recorded versions, the general public tends towards something they haven’t heard before. There are exceptions to these “rules,” especially if the source material isn’t known widely. Listen to the great cover songs not so much for their sounds as for their approach; pay attention to what definite choices were made and how that works/doesn’t work in your opinion.
Got a favorite version of a cover? What is it? How did the new artist approach the song?
Chris Huff has been a professional singer, multi-instrumentalist, songwriter, and producer for over 20 years. He has worked as a sideman with Peter Yarrow (Peter, Paul, and Mary), Echo and the Bunnymen, Chuck Hammer (David Bowie, Lou Reed), and Tom Kitt (Broadway composer of Next To Normal). Chris also wrote liner notes for David Bowie’s Live And Well CD, and has two full-length albums of original music available on iTunes.
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