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.