Whether you’re dancing on piano keys or dreaming on acoustic guitar, reimagining your favorite songs for solo performance with just you, your voice, and a single instrument can be as fun as it is challenging.
How do you transmute the fully-produced power of a commercial track — thick with drums, effects, backing vocals, and who knows what else — into an instrumentally stripped-down rendition that sounds like you and still carries the punch and magic of the original? Here are some tips to get you started.
Lock in the melody and lyrics
These two elements will make your uncluttered version of a song instantly recognizable, regardless of what else you do with your arrangement. Take the time to listen to the original track on loop, memorize the lyrics front and back, and internalize the melody so you can play it in your sleep. This may seem obvious, but the more comfortable you are with these core elements, the easier your re-arranging job will be.
Learn the chord structure, plus all key riffs and rhythms
For many songs, there’s nothing terribly iconic about the arrangements, the words and melody are what make the song what it is. But other songs are known and loved for elements beyond what’s being sung. Make sure you’ve nailed down the chords and full harmonic structure of the song you’ll be performing and memorize any instrumental riffs or rhythms that are key parts of its DNA. Whether it’s a wah-guitar part, backing vocal line, or synth stab, spend time shedding on it so you can reproduce similar notes and rhythms on your own solo instrument.
Decide how faithful you want to be
If you want to keep the same tempo, time-signature, overall groove, and vibe of the original in your stripped-down solo performance, all good. However, you may want to turn a scorching fast dance track into a slow-burning torch song; you may also want to reinvent a standard 4/4 hip-hop track as a lilting 6/8 ballad. It’s all up to you; just be mindful of how closely you want to stick to the original interpretation and build your arrangement from there.
Choose what’s important at every moment
Let’s say the original, recorded version of the song you’re playing has a full, dense arrangement — bass, synths, electric guitar, acoustic guitar, acoustic drums, electric drums, lead vocals, backing vocals, and assorted studio effects. There’s no way you can convey every detail of that musical information in a live performance using just a single instrument and your voice.
Instead, go through the original recording and decide for yourself, for every section, measure, or even beat, what the most important element is. If the intro is defined by a catchy bass line, make sure that’s represented when you’re introducing the song and try to have whatever else is going on musically in the original be implied, rather than explicitly stated. Then, if there’s a great syncopated phrase that defines the chorus, see how it sounds to temporarily abandon the bass line when you get there and play that new part instead.
Be creative with what you have
It can be hard to make a piano sound like a TR-808, or a ukulele sound like a brass marching band. This is where experimentation comes in. Perhaps banging percussively on the low register of the piano can give your interpretation some of the rhythmic impact the classic drum machine contributes to the original; maybe strumming the top line of that marching band horn part, in octaves, on your stringed instrument can provide some of the brass band’s propulsion. It’s all trial and error in the context of your instrument and performance, so experiment and see what works.
While the fully-produced song you’re arranging might have something going on sonically from beginning to end, you can use space and quiet to your advantage in your instrument-plus-vocal interpretation. Adding breaths of silence can create and relieve tension; it can also draw your audience in, making them eager to hear what comes next. So even if your original source material is loaded with sound from start to finish, why not experiment with the exact opposite?
Keep it interesting
Many great songs are simple and repetitive when it comes to chord progressions and rhythms. There’s nothing wrong with this, and it can work quite well when you have a whole studio’s worth of instruments and textures helping propel things. But when it’s just you, your voice, and a single instrument, that sort of simplicity and repetition can make things feel dull.
If you feel yourself or your audience losing interest after the fifteenth I-IV-V progression with exactly the same rhythm, try throwing a few different chords in to spice things up; similarly, you can play with everything from meter to vocal tone to rhythmic interpretation to create an arc for your performance that will keep your listeners wanting more.
Trust your ears
There’s no right or wrong way to boil down a big, fully-produced track into a solid, single-instrument-and-voice performance, so do what feels and sounds best to you. Remember that some of the most amazing stripped-down reinventions of songs are utterly left-field in their interpretations, while others hew very closely to the originals.
How do you approach reinventing big, fully-produced tracks for stripped-down performance? Tell us in the comments below.
Michael Gallant is a musician, writer, and entrepreneur living in New York City. His debut album for the Steinway & Sons label, Rock Rewind, features solo piano reinventions of Pearl Jam, U2, Halestorm, Janis Joplin, Bob Dylan, Radiohead, and more. Read his recent article for the National Endowment for the Arts and follow Michael on Twitter at @Michael_Gallant and Facebook.com/GallantMusic.
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6 thoughts on “Re-arranging big songs for solo performance”
The way I usually learn – and arrange – a cover song is that I start by just playing it from memory. Sometimes it might be a song that I haven’t heard for 30 years or more.
If I think “I like this song”, I take a listen to the original or search for the complete lyrics, and take it from there.
My simple point is that playing the song from memory automatically makes you arrange it in the way that you recall the full arrangement. Sometimes when I listen to the original, I realise that I play different chord progressions to the ones that the guitar plays on the actual track, but my “wrong” chords capture the overall sounds and harmonies way better than sticking to the actual chords in the song.
Here is an impression that came to me of a New Years party that I played years ago: seated at the piano, imagining percussion, bass, rhythm instrument, and lead instrument all within the scope of my ten fingers. They are all there and can be implied in the performance. The creativity comes in how the parts are all boiled down to the piano solo, and how the vision of the recorded track (which is still in my mind) is projected to what I am doing here and now. It’s a visualization process, and can be done with every song I play. It also keeps me totally alert and engaged, which energizes my performance and communicates with my audience.
I definitely agree with the whole changing tempo and feel concept, as long as it works nicely. One fun thing in a cover situation, I came up with kind of by accident (how many tunes and tones happen that way, right?). Was in a trio where we did stripped-down classic rock with either 2 acoustic guitars or acoustic guitar and bass, plus a drummer. One gig, the drummer didn’t show as he and his van got into an accident (yes, the accident mentioned before), so we had to quickly come up with some alternatives. One of the crowd pleasers was “Wonderwall” and the lead singer already had been whistling the piano breaks later in the song. But, with no drums to drive it along, the bass part just felt and sounded kind of noodly during sound check. I wound up dialing in a super slow-attack-and-release distortion tone on a pedal and it gives a passable feel of the cello/strings fills when running the bass through it. We wound up keeping that rendition on the roster, and the drummer just did some super basic percussion, snaps, & claps on the later gigs where we did.
I’ve done some crazy arrangements of covers but they turned out to be the most popular tracks on my Souncloud: Bananarama’s “I Heard A Rumour” as a bossa nova. “Dark Eyes” by Bob Dylan as a Synthpop tune. “Get Into The Groove” by Madonna as a downtempo R&B. “Boom Clap” by Charlie XCX as a wall of sound Shoegaze song. Odd but fun and very rewarding as creative projects!
I’ve been a solo artist for most of my career so I can totally relate to this article but I’d like to add an unusual twist to it. I began playing solo gigs in bars with just an acoustic guitar or piano 30 years ago and although I have played with a few bands over the years I still mostly perform solo. I’m also a songwriter with close to 300 copyrighted songs and my songs are usually created and composed on on a single instrument with the result being an acoustic voice and instrument rendition that I am also able to easily perform live. I’ve recorded two CD’s of my original material and both times I brought in some very talented players to enhance my songs and give the recordings a full band sound. In doing that my finished products were no longer just acoustic, voice and instrument renditions but fully produced recordings with drums, leads, background vocals and many other instruments. I loved the experience but because of the sound of the finished products I found myself having to re-think how to present some of my own songs in a solo environment. Even though I had written and originally played them as a solo artist, based on the sound of my fully produced recordings I had to re-work the way I performed some of the songs to try to better present them in the way that others had heard them and were familiar with. I just thought you might find it interesting that I had to use some of the techniques mentioned in this article on my own songs!
Some good suggestions in this article. I often make arrangements of well-known tunes, it’s a lot of fun. One thing that’s not mentioned in the article is the importance of the groove you decide on. A truly original arrangement of a cover will most likely NOT use the same groove as the original. It may not even use the same time signature. Don’t be afraid to make an uneven form or even have some odd-metered bars IF THAT’S WHAT YOU’RE HEARING. I remember once at a rehearsal we were playing the guitarist’s tune: I said it seemed like there was a bar missing in the form. He said yes, he had another bar there, but he took it out because otherwise the form would have been 33 bars instead of 32. “So?” I replied. “Put that bad boy bar back in dude, it clearly belongs there!”