Making someone else’s music your own
There’s a common misconception that artists who do cover versions lack originality. After all, if an artist has already produced a song, surely it’s the way the song was intended to be. Who are we to think we can improve on someone else’s creative output?
Simmer down, buttercup. If anything, a well-thought-out cover version can be the highest level of tribute one can offer an artist. There are even occasions where the cover version can – whisper it quietly – exceed the success or impact of its namesake.
Whatever your opinion on covers, they can be undeniably fun to play around within a band setting. Where writing original music is relatively rule-free, and the only limits are your creativity, with cover versions you have a slightly more limited framework to operate in. Despite how this sounds, these limits can actually force you to think more creatively. They put you in a box and challenge you to find an answer.
There are choices to be made; do you try and honour the original and play it straight, or do you use the original as a guide and forge your own path. Played live, the natural instinct is to inject extra energy or power into a cover, hence why cover versions have become staples in certain artists live sets. However, in this post, we’re going to look at a slightly different discipline, which is recording a cover. We can’t fall back on the power of live performance here. Instead, we need to think much more about the legacy your particular version leaves. Once’s it’s committed to tape, there’s no ‘next performance’ to put it right.
Let’s look at some of the points to consider when recording cover versions.
Choose your weapons
Clearly, first things first, you need to decide what it is you want to cover. This is the fun part. Do you stick to something from within your own genre? Do you pick something your fans are likely to know already? Do you go completely left-field and choose something for shock or ironic value?
Whatever you choose, you’ll need to consider the mechanics of how it translates into your music world. The vast majority of songs consist of notes, chords, scales, melodies, harmonies and other accepted music norms. These can be learned, and then translated into other musical languages. So don’t rule anything out because it “wouldn’t work” – any song will work, you just have to find the answer.
Look for an angle
So you’ve chosen your song. Now the work begins. In most situations, an artist or band will be familiar with the song they’ve chosen to cover. They may already be able to play it – or at least its component parts – in something approaching its original form. This is a positive start.
Consider now how to take that next step. How do you translate those component parts and begin to put your own personality and spin on things? A good step here is to look for a hook – i.e. something that catches people’s attention – and build around that.
Consider the extremes
If you’re going down the route of changing things up completely, a good strategy often is to take things to their logical extreme. Make a slow song slower, a fast song faster, or a heavy song heavier. Much heavier. Or, alternatively, vice versa. There are no rules here.
In the studio, you’ll have much more time to play around with different tones from your instruments, as well as tinker with things like tempo, dynamics and overall impact. Consider using a multi-fx pedal like the Boss ME-80 to gain access to a much wider spectrum of tones than you’d otherwise have available.
Switch the gear up
Another well-worn studio trope is switching instruments up. Metal fans may be aware of the way 00’s act Fear Factory took Gary Numan’s synth classic ‘Cars’, and switched out the synth motif for a note-accurate, detuned, filthy guitar riff on a seven-string Ibanez like this one. It shouldn’t have worked, but it totally did. It’s always baffled us why nobody has taken the short, staccato stabs of Mars, from Holst’s ‘The Planets’ and used them as the base for a metallised cover version.
There are plenty of ways you could do this. Switch out monophonic synth bass lines from electronic music to play them with an actual bass guitar. Recreate classic drum breaks using acoustic drums. Or, go the other way. Take a brass line and transcribe the notes into MIDI and play them through a soft-synth or virtual instrument in your DAW. Or take a classic electric bass melody and pump it through an analogue synth like the Arturia Microbrute or Novation Bass Station.
Make yourselves proud
The final tip is a simple one. You’ve clearly chosen the song you have because it holds some sort of sentimental, emotional or personal appeal. Do it justice! Give your version the time, creativity and love it deserves. Use the original as inspiration, rather than a rulebook. Cover versions, when done well, show a different side to an artists creativity. Anyone can write a song, but converting someone else’s into something new? That takes real skill.
Journalist, PR and multimedia specialist. Write professionally on subjects ranging from musical instruments to industrial technology.