Is it better to play a song that was originally written and performed by someone else as close to the original recording as possible, or is it an opportunity to make it your own?
To answer this question, we’ll have to explore the various circumstances in which covers are played. For the purposes of this article, I’ll be focusing exclusively on covers that are performed in a live setting.
Let’s first look at some variations of musicians and bands that play covers. These include, but are not limited to:
- Top 40 bands
- Solo acoustic performers
- Wedding bands
- Classic Rock bands
- Blues bands
- Jazz bands
- Tribute acts
- Country bands
These are the most popular types of situations where cover songs are exclusively played. There are, of course, many other circumstances and capacities where musicians will be replicating well-known songs, but for now let’s stick with what the majority of cover musicians experience.
Among these, it’s only in wedding bands and with tribute acts that I feel you want to stick to playing the song as close as possible to the original. With all others there is definitely some wiggle room.
It’s important to point out that it is nearly impossible to replicate a song exactly as it was recorded. Even well-known artists play their songs at least a little differently live. Recording in the studio and playing live are two different animals, and there are many variables that come into play with each.
That being said, there are certain aspects of a popular song that should be honored. They are:
- Signature riffs/melodies
However, there are exceptions to each of these. Let’s dig deeper.
If you’re playing a song that is very well-known where people will be singing along, you should sing the right words.
If you start to change it up too much for any reason, you’ll lose people in the crowd. Some bands like to stick in little inside jokes by changing a word or phrase, and if it doesn’t affect the overall performance or confuse people that are enjoying the tune, then it’s okay – and even fun!
This is a topic that would need to be addressed song-by-song, as each situation will warrant a specific approach. You just want to be careful not to change up too much and detract from the meaning that is being conveyed in the lyrics.
What is perhaps the single most important and fundamental practice is to learn the song correctly FIRST, then if it’s appropriate, put your own spin on it.
In addition to lyrics, the melody is what gets people singing along.
There are certain songs that the melody is rigid and should be adhered to. There are others, though, that there is room for more improvisation. A good rule of thumb is to stick to signature melodies – ones that are iconic from the perspective of the general public.
A chorus melody is usually a place where you want to maintain the authenticity, especially if there are harmonies. More often you’ll have the opportunity for some flexibility with the melody of a verse, or at the end of a song.
Most of the time, you want to play a song in the original key. It makes it easily identifiable for the listener. However, there are times when changing the key is not only an option, but is more advantageous for the whole.
Some bands will tune a half-step down for the entire show, making it less of a strain on the vocalist. In that case, most of the songs won’t be in the actual original key, but will still be played in the same position.
There are also times when you’ll find it works better to change the key of the song to best fit the vocal range of the singer. The professionals do this often. This again is something to deal with on a song-by-song basis. As long as it still sounds like the original to the listener, then changing the key is always an option.
It’s no secret that bands tend to play songs a bit faster than the original recording when being performed live. The nature of a full-band playing at a loud volume with people in the room dancing and partying tends to kick up the adrenaline for the whole band, making it almost a given that songs will be somewhat rushed. As long as you’re close, and everyone in the band is on the same page, then there’s nothing wrong with a few ticks up on the BPM.
There are also cases where you can take a cover song and drastically alter the tempo, either by slowing it way down or speeding it way up. This works great with certain songs, and can become a unique part of your show that fans will talk about and remember. A band that I used to see would play “Hotel California” by The Eagles in double-time. It was fun to watch and the integrity of the song remained intact.
Do what works for each song based on the wishes of the band, the reaction from the crowd, and the vibe of the gig.
There are a lot of songs that are so iconic in popular culture that even a casual listener will recognize a thematic instrumental part. Slash’s repetitive guitar part in “Sweet Child O’ Mine,” the bass breakdown in “Brown Eyed Girl,” and the drum intro to “Walk This Way” are just a few examples.
These songs and many others became popular (and remain so) partially due to the instrumental hooks, and people expect to hear them when listening to the song. The fact that songs were written and recorded with certain signature parts should be respected when playing covers. After all, had these melodies not become so popular, you wouldn’t be covering them.
The upshot of all of this is to do what’s best for the band you’re playing with, the venue, and most importantly – the listener. While we all are playing music for ourselves to some degree, without the audience, we wouldn’t get gigs at all.
What is perhaps the single most important and fundamental practice is to learn the song correctly first, then if it’s appropriate, put your own spin on it. Work with each other in the band so that it comes across as a cohesive decision, and always try to be well rehearsed.
You’ll have more fun and gain more fans when you both honor the integrity of a song, and make it your own at the same time.