Next to your original material, it’s often a good idea to have a few cover songs up your sleeve so, during the set, you can treat your audience to something they’re a bit more familiar with. Sometimes, it can be hard work to make a song fit with your style, so here, Guestblogger Kevin Okkema offers up a few tips on how to craft the perfect cover song.
#1. Match the Key
When I play weddings, I’ll often let the bridal pair pick out the cover songs they want to hear. Luckily, they’re often songs that actually suit my singing and playing style (like Ed Sheeran, Jason Mraz, John Mayer and so on), but of course, they just as often request a song that’s a bit further out of the reach of my vocal range. A good example is when I was asked to play a Mariah Carey song… it took a bit of tinkering to achieve but the first thing I did was change the key.
Always Step a Semitone Down
If the original vocals are sung in a way higher register than your voice can handle, then it makes sense to sing it maybe two octaves lower, but will that make the song have as much impact as the original? Unfortunately, not always. In that case, it’s worth sitting yourself down behind the piano and figuring out which key suits your voice best. Something I always do is play the chorus on the piano and sing along, then try playing the same part a semitone lower, and lower, and so on – until I hit the key that feels most comfortable to sing. As soon as I’ve found the right key, then I’ll write out all the chords of the song to match it. If you’re familiar with the Nashville Number System then, of course, this process goes much quicker.
#2. Adapt the Style of the Song
Making a song sound fresh by covering it in a different style always works. This makes your audience feel like they’re hearing something new yet familiar. If you normally play small singer-songwriter songs on your guitar, how cool it would be to convert a massive, big-production song into an acoustic masterpiece (just think what tracks like Free Falling by John Mayer or Crazy by Ray LaMontagne could sound like).
Understand the Song
If I’m working on a song that’s already well established, then the first thing I do is try to understand the song. I write out the chord progressions and check where any instrumental hooks lie, since it’s essential to include those in your version to keep it immediately recognisable. Of course, that doesn’t mean you have to play the hook on the same instrument as the original. Then I’ll play the track through a few times and see what changes I can make in terms of intonation. Do I want to make the song more intimate than the original? Do I want to give it more power? To finish, I take a look at whether or not changing the rhythm and timing will work. If you play in a reggae or soul band and need to adapt the song to your style, then this is a really important point. The options are actually endless, because in terms of instrumentation, you’re free to depart from the original and take things in any direction you want.
#3. What Do You Want Your Cover to Convey?
Maybe once every decade or so, you’ll hear a cover song that makes you think: “Wow! I’ve never looked at it that way before.” I had exactly that feeling when I first heard In My Life by The Beatles covered by Johnny Cash. The quality of his voice combined with the lyrics actually gave me a deeper understanding of the words than the original recording ever did. While no one can be Johnny Cash but Johnny Cash, that doesn’t mean that you can’t achieve the same thing.
Read it Out Loud
It makes sense to pick a song that already resonates with you, then try to find a way of emphasising the meaning of the lyrics or bringing it out in a different way. It can also be worth sitting and reading the lyrics out loud a few times, without any music so you can pinpoint the lines that really give the song its meaning and try to bring those out in your version.
Now, I’ll start playing the chords underneath and see how the song unfolds. It can really help to change the chords here and there, so if you want to give a really happy song a more sombre feel, then you can simply swap the major chords for minor chords. This can make a song like Happy by Pharell Williams suddenly sound a little bit sarcastic, which can be really fun to play.
So ends my tips for covering songs. Of course, there are countless ways to approach a cover, so if you have any of your own tips, let us know in the comments below.