Interpreting pop songs as instrumental covers can be a challenge. Here are tips to take your musical transformations in exciting directions.
Whether your tastes tend towards Billie Eilish, Beyonce, Led Zeppelin, or B.B. King, there are countless amazing songs available for any indie artist to cover. What happens, though, when you decide to reinvent your favorite popular tracks but leave the singer out entirely?
This is a challenge I’ve enjoyed tackling on a number of projects, including my first album with the Michael Gallant Trio and Rock Rewind on a Steinway, a solo piano album of rock covers I recorded for the Steinway & Sons label last year. Here’s a deep dive into how I did it with one song in particular with some lessons learned that I hope will help you create powerful instrumental covers of your own.
“Where Did You Sleep Last Night”
This classic folk song was famously played by the likes of Bill Monroe and Leadbelly, but it was Nirvana’s version from MTV Unplugged that inspired me to record this cover. The Unplugged performance’s somber, simmering, meditative tone — and Kurt Cobain’s world-weary vocals — made a huge impression on me when I first heard the track, so the decision to include it on my album for Steinway was a no-brainer.
The song presented challenges, though. It’s essentially a four-bar melodic phrase that repeats over and over, albeit with vivid and interesting lyrics — and the singer’s performance — to hold the audience’s interest. Since my version had neither lyrics nor a singer, I had to come up with other ways to keep things interesting.
Give yourself permission to stretch out
This is what I told myself to get started. Some instrumental covers are near-karaoke facsimiles of the original, while others are barely recognizable interpretations, re-built from the bones out. With this song, I decided to go heavy in the direction of reinterpretation. After all, simply repeating the same motif, over and over for minutes, would get very boring very quickly.
Rather than follow it as a strict roadmap to be followed, I viewed the original song as a fascinating set of shapes and colors by which to be inspired and to use if or when needed. I knew I’d state the melody clearly at the beginning (I wanted listeners to easily recognize the song, even if I took the performance in uncharted directions) and reiterate variations of that melody periodically throughout to help ground things. But I would also let whatever needed to happen in between happen. It was freeing to tell myself that the original recording was there for creative fuel when I needed it, but that it didn’t have to constrain me in any way.
As you reinvent your own songs as instrumental covers, give some thought to how close or far from the original composition you want to go. Some songs lend themselves beautifully to near-literal interpretations — I’ve heard several wonderful, creative, note-for-note instrumental covers of “Bohemian Rhapsody” for example — and others that favor an approach like the one I took here. However you decide to proceed, make sure you feel creatively free and excited to interpret the song however you feel it.
Decide what elements of the original are most important to feature
As described above, some great instrumental covers are meticulous in how they mimic every vocal flip and flourish of the original. Others go in the opposite direction. It’s all good, as long as your interpretation conveys what you find most vital about the original recording you love.
With “Where Did You Sleep Last Night,” the mood and atmosphere — dreamy, macabre, tragic, and almost gothic — were amazing elements I wanted to preserve and enhance in my own version. The core melody and harmonic progression underneath were also simple but evocative and had to be included — though I saw them as creative springboards, not strict instructions.
Finally, there’s Cobain’s injured soul, sandpaper vocals. My interpretation was heavily improvised and I didn’t know ahead of time how nearly anything would play out. But knowing which moods, elements, and qualities of the original I wanted to encapsulate in my own interpretation set me on the right path when it came time to play.
As you work on your own instrumental covers, be sure to focus in on what excites you about the original vocal recording. Then do your best to infuse your own interpretation, no matter how close or far it may be from the original, with the same.
When it comes to filling the space left by the vocals, think outside the box
My favorite chunk of Nirvana’s recording is the final verse, when Cobain screams the opening stanza up an octave, then creates one of the most explosive brief silences I’ve heard on a recorded track, before wailing the final refrain.
In my instrumental cover, adding any sort of distortion to my solo piano sound didn’t make sense — but for that final verse, I could certainly jump the octave like Cobain did, and I could use the tools at my disposal to channel the grit, sorrow, and intensity captured in his voice. I did this using volume, attack, and most importantly, dissonance. When I played that last iteration of the melody, I hammered it out in big right-hand octaves, making sure to include lots of crunchy minor seconds to add tension and dirt to something that would otherwise have felt too clean, too sanitized, and very much not true to the source material that inspired it. What came out wasn’t a literal translation of Nirvana’s final verse at all, but it wasn’t meant to and didn’t have to be. To my ears, the spirit, energy, and intensity were there, and that’s what counted.
In your own instrumental covers, experiment with harmony, volume, tone, pitch, density, tuning, tempo, instrumentation — anything you can think of that might help evoke the feelings you get from the original vocal recording, but with vocals and lyrics themselves absent. You might be surprised at what ends up capturing the essence of your source material, the key elements of the original that you want infused in your own version.
It’s a privilege to make a beloved song your own. As you experiment, rearrange, and perform, remember to honor the original however you see fit and do whatever is needed — musically and sonically — to pass your love of the original on to everyone who will hear your instrumental cover.
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How do you approach creating instrumental covers of your favorite songs with vocals? 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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One thought on “Turning popular songs into instrumental covers”
I’ve made a serious cover on Lenard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” which is more of my interpretation. I have had good reviews from friends and family. Although I’ve release many original albums, I have never done any covers. I guess I always thought I would have to get written permission from the composer. But reading your article has me wondering if I have had that wrong. If I release a cover and give credit to the original composer and credit to myself performing it, am I legally safe? I know CD Baby allows for that configuration when setting up the album for release.