Level Up Your Band Part Six: Understanding Cover Songs

Fill out your set with the right kind of covers…

Ultimate Guitar
Level Up Your Band Part Six: Understanding Cover Songs

Welcome to Level Up Your Band, the series that teaches you how to build a successful band from the ground up, and to avoid the common pitfalls to which lesser bands succumb. Check out previous parts here

In last week’s edition, we talked about ways to optimize the writing of your own material. But, especially in the early stages of your band’s career, originals aren’t the only thing you’ll likely feature in your set.

Covers are important to starting bands. They can fill out a set if you don’t have enough original material, and bringing a bit of familiarity is a great way for getting an unsure audience on side.

I should note that learning covers successfully draws on a lot of the things that we’ve talked about in the past few editions, including understanding the difference between micro and macro tasks and using the time outside of your sessions effectively. If you haven’t already, I’d recommend you check those past editions out.

Those broad points aside though, there are three rules specific to covers that I’d recommend adhering to. You can check ‘em out below. 

Don’t overreach

One crucial mistake that bands often make with covers is learning material that at the absolute peak of their abilities. The logic seems to be that, by learning a musically complex and tasking song, they’ll demonstrate just how musically proficient they are, winning people over in the process.

However, that approach tends to backfire for two reasons. Firstly, most people in the audience at your shows won’t be musicians, and aren’t necessarily rating your performance based on your virtuosity. Secondly, and perhaps most crucially, playing complex covers only works if you can pull them off, something, which most bands don’t.

You should always be challenging yourself in the rehearsal room. But, when it comes to performing on stage, you want to appear in command and in control. Overreaching by playing a complex cover will make you look a lot worse than picking a simple song and doing it well, so don’t be afraid to pick more straightforward material.

Avoid the obvious, as well as the obscure

Picking the right covers for your set is a balancing act. You want to perform songs that will be familiar to enough of your audience, but not so much that they’re overplayed. With that in mind, don’t just go for the biggest hit by a given band as your default cover. Delve into their back catalogue a bit more and pick out a track that, while still recognizable, has not been covered to death by any number of two bit pub bands.

On the flip side, you don’t want to pick a track that is so obscure that no-one in your audience will ever have heard it. Part of the reason that you deploy covers in your set is to get the audience on side, to win them over with a bit of familiarity. Running through a cult band’s obscure B-side isn’t going to do that.

While I think this rule should be abided by on most occasions, there is one scenario in which it can be bent, and that’s when interpreting, rather than simply covering another artist’s material. In that instance, you can sometimes get away with playing the familiar because your twist on it brings something new. Similarly, reworking unfamiliar material makes it feel more like part of your creative statement, rather than someone else’s material.

Be cautious of novelty

For some reason, beginner bands always seem to think that a novelty cover is a great way of winning over an audience. I’m here to tell you right now that, unless you’re Weird Al Yancovich, it definitely isn’t.

Please, for the love of god, avoid “ironic” covers of pop songs, rocked-up versions of television show themes or writing “hilarious” new lyrics to well known tracks. The problem with comedy is that it doesn’t always work. What you find funny in the rehearsal room, where insularity and in-jokiness reigns supreme, is not necessarily going to translate to the stage, and there is nothing worse than using up five minutes of your set time with a joke that falls flat.

Of course, if you’re aspiring to be a comedy rock band, then disregard this rule. Chances are that your dual love of rock and comedy means you’re well versed in both forms and have a better chance of deploying material that will actually make people laugh. If you’re not though, then stick to playing good material well – it’ll be much more endearing to your audience.

3 comments sorted by best / new / date

    I would add another point - adapt the covers to suit your style. I've seen bands go from a pure thrash metal set straight into a note-for-note cover of Wonderwall. If you're gonna pick covers that don't necessarily fit your own songs, twist them up a little - change the tempo, modify the guitar and drum parts, make them fit in with the rest of your music.
    "Avoid the obvious, as well as the obscure" Yeah that's what we did with my previous bands, we picked the covers that were known but rarely performed by underground bands. Like for example Hangar 18, Five Magics, Cowboys From Hell, Cemetery Gates, Heresy, etc. Covers that lots of metalheads loved, but few bands performed couse the lead parts were really difficult XD