How To Approach A Cover Song

Elvis Presley Covers Blue Suede Shoes

   A cover song is a song that has been recorded by another artist and that your band will be playing. Some famous artists that have played cover songs are Elvis Presley, The Beatles, Van Halen, The Rolling Stones. A lot of current artists will play cover songs as well and go on to have big hits playing them. The good thing about playing cover songs is that the song has already been marketed to the masses and has been proven to be a well loved hit. So your chances of having success playing the song is very high. There are a couple ways you can approach playing a cover song.

   The first way of course is to play the song exactly like the original recording. My band tries to do this with the current hits. These are songs that everyone is listening to right now and so they’re very familiar to the listener as currently recorded. We will take the time to learn all the parts note for note as well as duplicate little nuances in the playing and phrasing. So when we play the song it’s instantly recognizable to the audience. It’s a good way of guaranteeing that the song is going to go over well when we play it.

   The advantage we have as a live musician is the simple fact that we are free to add to or change up the song that we are copying. We do that to a certain degree with every song we play including the current hits but employ it to a greater degree on older or lesser known songs. Which brings us to the second approach to playing cover songs.

    The second approach you can take to playing cover songs is to completely change the style and sound of the original and make it your own. This usually works the best on older songs that are still familiar to the audience. For example we took Paint It Black by The Rolling Stones and sped the beat up, added a driving punk rock guitar and added a harder edge to the song. It sounds more like a punk rock song but people still recognize that it’s Paint It Black. We’ll also take a song and combine familiar elements from other songs into it. For instance we combine Pink Cadillac by Bruce Springsteen with the main riff from the Peter Gunn theme. The two songs fit together perfectly and we always get a good round of applause when we play that song.

   If you listen to covers by Van Halen you can really tell that the band has made those songs their own. The Van Halen versions of Dancing In The Street and Pretty Woman are still 100% Van Halen. When you hear Elvis Presley sing Blue Suede Shoes you don’t even remember that it was written and recorded by Carl Perkins. Another very famous cover song that gets credited to The Beatles is Twist and Shout which was originally made famous by The Isley Brothers. Elvis, Van Halen and The Beatles have taken the songs to a new level with their own original sound and approach to them.

   If you are playing in an all original band it’s a great idea to throw in a few cover songs as well. It’s a real treat for the audience to hear you play a song they know and they’ll love it even more if you make the cover song your own.

Author: Live Musician Central

My name is Matt Rushton. I have been playing in bands for 27 years. I've been playing professionally for 21 years. I have opened for Sheryl Crow, Barenaked Ladies, Joan Jett, Little River Band, and Quiet Riot.

4 thoughts on “How To Approach A Cover Song”

  1. A lot of musicians turn their noses up a t playing covers. But my own research has shown that originals bands who play at least some covers in their sets play on average 50% more gigs a month than originals only.

    Agree with the your suggested 2nd approach about completelty changing the style of a song when covering.That way band members can all contribute some creativity even to an old song!

  2. Thanks for the input Gareth. I see the same thing between my original band and my cover band. My cover band plays at least 75% more gigs than the original band. I love playing original music and I love playing a lot of gigs. So I don’t mind playing covers at all.


  3. I have discovered that a lot of the bands that, as GarethB states, thumb their noses at playing covers are simply unable to play them. They don’t have the experience or talent to effectively emulate others. So, they only do their own originals. Sadly, most of these are crap.

  4. You make a very good point Reg and sadly, most original band songs are crap. But, you never know when you’ll hear an original that blows your mind! So, it’s good to get out there and listen to some original bands when you can. Then after you listen to an original band you can go party like there’s no tomorrow listening to a cover band!

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