Should Beginner Bands Start With Cover Songs or Originals?

We have a thing to ask you, music aficionados.

Ultimate Guitar

Rather than focusing on globally-renowned artists as usual, this week we figured it's time to dedicate some tome to young acts. And we mean really young, the ones just getting started in the rock world.

So you figured out how to play, you've got a group of guys sharing the same vision and taste, but before you fully get involved with your life's biggest mistake, there's a question to be answered - covers or originals?

If you happen to be in a band, the mentioned question has probably popped up quite a few times. We'll discuss the two sides a bit and then it's time for you to share your experiences in the comments.

Why originals?

'Cause that's what it's all about. You didn't pick up an instrument because you wanted a steady gig at a local bar, you did it because you dreamed of becoming the next Hendrix. It's seems kinda redundant saying it, but making original music and expressing yourself through it is the point of playing an instrument in the first place.

Why covers?

'Cause those songs are what you guys love and there's no shame in playing them. Metallica started as a cover band, and so did quite a few other giants. Plus a good cover is bound to get the crowd rocking, now isn't it? Not to mention that some of the greatest hits from biggest acts around the world happen to be covers. He even had a list on this a few years back.

So what to do?

The road to success with originals is quite a bumpy one and not everyone's capable of creating a hit tune. On the other hand, if you get tangled up with covers too much, you might never return, and there's only so much a cover band can do, making a living through music typically not being one of the options.

There's a vast array of factors to be taken into consideration here, but we'd like to hear your thoughts on the matter. Do you prefer visiting gigs of cover bands or the ones playing their own music (talking strictly about smaller bands playing clubs)? And if you happen to be a musician, what are your experiences with the whole covers/originals matter? Let us know in the comments.

64 comments sorted by best / new / date

    Originals are the results of playing enough covers.
    JD Close
    Play covers and practice and learn them by yourself. But when it comes to being in a band, write as much as you can
    Anyone can play covers by themselves, but learning to play the song with other people is much trickier.
    No, originals are the result of wanting to make something yours, and no amount of covers will do that for you.
    It's true. Nobody ever, ever, ever learned to make their own music by learning somebody else's music and studying what they learned to write music of their own. Nobody ever, ever, ever in the history of music, except for maybe a few poseurs.
    Yeah, the best writers don't even listen to other music. They create everything on their own. That's what creativity is all about man. YEAAAAH!
    That's not even close to true, most great bands got their inspiration from other music. Maybe not all, but a lot have.
    That's not even close to true, most great bands got their inspiration from other music. Maybe not all, but a lot have.
    Most of band time should be spent writing. Do covers to strengthen your playing and, when you develop a setlist, you'll obviously need covers because few starter bands have many originals. Continue writing and replace covers with originals once you feel they're good enough.
    Just play whatever you feel like playing man
    Yeah, play what you have to. I hate it when people say 'We're not doing covers'. Even huge mega bands have covers in their sets. Playing originals is cool, but you still need to throw in a cover or two.
    We started with originals but they were actually kinda weak ! So I think bands should start covering and learning from the great and then take their own path !
    Start with originals, write as much as you can, around 100 songs a year will be perfect. Eventually you will write amazing songs. Playing cover songs is fun but don't only play covers, it will really slow down the process of becoming an amazing songwriter and the more experience you have in building songs with your band, the better you're gonna understand music.
    Write original music from the start. You can play originals before you can play covers - you write to your current level of ability. If you have any talent it'll show through before amazing technique. At least you'll have a decent creation of your own rather than a sloppy rendition of someone else's music. Include covers of songs you love, of course, but playing only covers doesn't develop your composing ability any more than listening to music.
    If it's a smaller band I would rather they play three or four original songs and one cover song (assuming they only have ~30 minutes to play, the song count would go up with more time in a similar ratio.) That way you can get a nice taste of what the band is actually about, as well as a new take on a familiar song that can help win the crowd over.
    "You didn't pick up an instrument because you wanted a steady gig at a local bar, you did it because you dreamed of becoming the next Hendrix." - While that assertion itself is quite the generalisation, it's also worth noting that Hendrix spent the early part of his career playing other people's music in rhythm and blues bands (and that a few of his most famous songs are covers themselves). The Beatles and The Stones started out playing covers, in fact you'd probably be hard pressed to find a band (other than a group of already seasoned musicians) who didn't start off playing covers - at least for the first few rehearsals and gigs while they figured out what they were doing.
    If you have never been in a band before, sure play covers to learn how to play with others. However if you are experienced and have plans for the band, you have to decide from the outset whether you are going to be an originals band or a covers band. A covers band doesn't play originals. If you are a covers band in a pub and it's totally rocking after AC/DC and you play an original, the audience leaves the floor, the manager gets angry, and you don't get hired again. For an originals band, as noted in the article, a couple of covers may get the audience rocking in between your originals, but guess what? After the gig the audience will ONLY remember the covers, and none of your originals. Furthermore if they liked those covers they expect you to play those covers at future gigs. You have now become a cover band. It's really best to play a total of zero covers in your original band if you want people to pay attention to your original songs. If you find that people aren't dancing to your original songs, write better ones. I'd like to add that this statement in the article: "there's only so much a cover band can do, making a living through music typically not being one of the options." Is incorrect. It is far easier to make a living playing covers as there is far more demand for covers. Average pay for covers band: $800-$1000/gig Average pay for originals band: $0-$100/gig
    It depends what you're going for really. If you just want to be a bar band, play covers. People will enjoy them, you'll get a good reaction, you'll get paid, it'll be great.If you want to be your own band, go on tour, see your country, see other countries, ink a deal, whatever, dont ever play covers. Unless you are somewhat established and have a large following, and you want to do something funny and play a cover, sure, play a cover. One cover. But other than that, you want people to hear your music. You want people to like your songs, not someone else's edit: if you want to be an original band, never "play covers to fill your set until you have all originals". Absolute worst excuse of all time. Buckle down, write your own songs, and play shows once you have them. If you dont have a set of originals, you're not ready to play your own shows.
    Agreed, it depends on what you want to do. Original material takes a lot of time and there's so much trail and error involved, plus you'll probably end up writing lots of crappy songs at first, but in the end it's totally worth it if you stick with it.
    I'm in a beginner band, and we only play originals at the moment. Reasoning? Your band is not The Jimi Hendrix Experience. Your band is not Led Zeppelin. Your band is not even Red Hot Chili Peppers, Foo Fighters or Rise Against and the matter of the fact is this: While pulling off a cover IN YOUR OWN STYLE is a great idea, you need to develop your own style first. I love all the bands I just mentioned and tons more, but nobody wants to be in a band that people know as "that band that did a kind-of okay cover of that one Zep song that one time." Stick to originals for the start. It's your music you want stuck in their heads, after all.
    You're so wrong, Hendrix did many covers at the beginning, as did Page and Plant. The Beatles did tons of originals, it's how they started. Same with the Stones, every great guitarists will talk about who their inspiration is. There's always an inspiration, everyone had someone. Whether you get good enough is another thing, but no one wants to hear original boring crap you have to mix it up.
    My band started up with only covers, for two gigs, then we started to mix it up. Now we have enough originals to fill a set, but we keep doing covers just for the fun for ourselves and the crowd, it's around 75% originals now. But we replace some of the covers we've played with new covers, just to keep it fresh for ourselves, and the fans who have been to many of our shows.
    'DC fan
    I usually start with maybe one or two covers to get everyone in the band playing together and see how we work, then when everyone's comfortable we write
    Covers first. That way you will learn how you all play together and become tighter when it comes to writing.
    Why not start with a couple of cover songs to really get started? If you have never played in a band before, you need to learn to play in a band. Also, you can get good ideas at band practices. I would say the band members need to learn to play with each other. It's easy to do with a couple of cover songs. You don't need to play them live. You can just jam. And after you have enough original songs, start gigging. How are covers going to hurt you? I think if none of the band members have written any original songs before, it is best to start with covers. Also, your first band is usually not going to be that special.
    1. Play some covers 2. Steal anything you can from them 3. Get it all together 4. Profit!
    I'm in a beginner band. We started off trying to write originals, but it just wasn't working, so we got about 7 covers by a range of bands, which we used for our first gig, and we're a much tighter group because of it. We've just started writing our own stuff and we hope to have an EP by September! So I'd say covers to get used to playing together, and when you're ready, start writing.
    link no1
    The way I've always started a new band is to ask the other members what cover song they would like to do (within a genre) so we all have a song we like. I find starting with a few covers helps to loosen you all up and really get you working together. Not to mention help any people in the band you don't really know to have something 'in common' to talk about, since a lot of band members I find through advertisements or through friends. Obviously originals are where you want to end up but covers are a great place to start. Personally I think throwing a bunch of covers in live helps in your first few gigs as well since they're songs the crowd knows and can get more involved with, knowing the words etc.
    Playing covers is a good learning tool, especially for guitar players. Not only do you learn new tricks and licks from the songs, but you also learn what parts are key to any given song and where and how much you can experiment. Look at all of the cover versions of songs that have become widely popular over the years and think about what they all have in common. It isn't so much that the original song was good or bad, it was what the second artist did to make it different than the original version. Along a similar line of thought, there is one key factor that will make any song popular, and that is making some part of the song super-catchy. So many people are too focused on creating and playing original music simply for the sake of creating and playing original music that they miss that key factor, but here is one of life's cold, hard facts : if you don't play songs that people like, you won't be getting very many gigs. And if you aren't getting gigs, it won't be long until you don't have a band.
    Personally I think that it's okay to start as a cover band but eventually when you start playing garages or even pubs try to minimise the amount of covers in your set and try to have a good ratio of covers and original
    Generally, club audiences like covers when they're played identical to the original. Imitating the originals does not allow you to develop your own style; you spend all your energy imitating rather than developing. And if you become good at it, audiences don't want to hear your songs, no matter how good they are. So playing covers is a trap; it can pay well for a while and during that time you don't develop your originals and wake up one morning realizing you've lost 4 years and that nobody will take you seriously if you decide to drop covers. Originals take a lot of work, but it's well worth it.
    That's why I'm still doing original stuff despite being in 2 covers bands. I started doing it purely for the challenge and also to keep up motivation/skills after my originals band split up due to uni, but I don't intend on doing it forever for the reason you've said, I guess it's good that the covers and original gigging circuits are completely different where I live, so chances are I won't be playing to that crowd once I start playing original stuff live again. Plus I don't find covers bands to be that much of a communal experience, the joy of playing original stuff is that you got to hang out with 2 or 3 other bands and just chill out with them, which is great because I live so far away from any sort of music scene that playing in a band like that was a pretty good excuse to go out and support the local scene as I can't frequently make the trips in any other form.
    Every band should start with some covers to get to know each other musically and learn its capabilities. Then you can start composing after knowing what your band will be able to play or not.
    Being a musician who is just starting a band(in, literally, 2 weeks), I plan on collaborating with them on covers. After we have an understanding of each other, we'll start writing originals and replacing covers with them. The ratio im going by, once we have enough originals, is 1-2 covers: 5-6 originals. Any help on my plan will be greatly appreciated!
    Sure thing. If you want to be an originals band, spend your time writing originals and not learning covers. It'll take a while to get a giggable set up but you'll be all the better for it later. If you play covers in your set, the audience will only remember you as the band that played Sweet Child of Mine. It doesn't help you.
    For me I learn the most when I do covers. I have a terrible time getting my ideas out of my head. By playing my hero's music I get to know how they make the sounds I like and how they string their songs in a way I would like to hear my own. So young bands, do a cover or two for your setlist. Something that compliments your own writing style (don't you dare take credit for the song you are covering) to jam and have fun with the crowd. Then just keep writing new songs. Always. Write down every damn lick or drum idea that enters your head and write a song on it. You will never get better if you don't practice writing songs.
    ORIGINAL. That how you form yourself. Every band needs something unique about them, and that is achieved with originality and exercising your creative mind.
    I'm going to start this by saying that music is an art. Not a physical manifestation of expression, but an aural language we communicate. Does an artist see a painting and decide to copy it? No. They might feel inspired by it, or even continue or embelish it, but they wouldn't make copies. So for bands, originals are the works of the aural artform. I started playing in bands three years after I learned my instruments, and only played in original based bands. Sure you do some covers to help build a fanbase, but don't make a career off of someone else's art. That's when you lose the meaning of the art, become a jobber, and your 50 trying to re-live the early days because you could never grasp the meaning to begin with. I played in a Beatles cover band and made shit. There's no fun, and no skill and I'm 22. So ****ing play orignals so music doesn't die or furthur evolve into this amalgram of synths, kareoke singers, and violent poetry. Anyone offended knows I'm right
    What about classical musicians?
    Good one. To me, I feel that classical music is an important genre to give culture and perspective to the masses. However, I think it really is more of a tool and guidline for ensembles and school bands to learn and instrument and to have a reason to keep violins and horns in exsistence. I do have a deep respect for the classicaly trained, but I'm sure that this article doesn't concern them
    Perhaps aiming to be purely a cover band isn't the greatest merit but comparing all music to the painting analogy can have flaws. The majority of music history has consisted of songs passed from generations and given a strong cultural or communal sense. The idea of everything having to 100% original is very modern, even the jazz times had a lot of sharing. Playing covers is probably more comparable to sharing story/folk tale, either to new ears or to people who just want to hear it again. Not gonna pretend like I know shit about painting so I don't know why that remained more isolationist.
    Correct. Music gained promanence and became synonomis with religion for more then half of its exsistence. They took basic hymns and gave masses a more direct involvment. During the baroque period was when "originals" really became a standard practice. By that time almost all music was familial, and was passed down for generations, until notations were standardized. I don't disapprove of learning or playing covers when you are learning an instrument. But when you finally join a band, hopefully everyone knows enough to start writing originals. And yeah, feel free to have a few to start gigging, but they are placeholders for your songs. I get the whole story telling feel, but that was because the radio hadn't been invented or didin't have a national broadcast at the time. So you are right. It is a modern mentality, because music and musicians (should) have evolved passed it.
    its hard to start out as one and then wind up dying as the other, but then agian, anything is possible depending how hard the band pushes, personally when i see a band playing covers and only covers they are my jukebox and ill never take them as seriously as i could if they did their own songs, but thats the problem, finding a good ratio to start with so people dont label you a cover band or a real band. i use covers for surprises, think of them as a card up your sleeve. but musics all opinion and different things work for different people
    If you already have a lot of experience originals are ok, if not covers. Believe it or not people are really critical in this society. What you write can haunt you for the rest of your life even if your just messing around.
    Is it just me, or is the musical equivalent of the Nature / Nurture debate? Do covers because they make you feel good, but show your inexperience, but also show your passion for that style and/or band/artist. Do originals because they make you feel good, but show your inexperience, but also show your passion for that style and what you hope to one day becoming your craft.
    I just recently joined my first band, and after a few months of playing together we ave 6 instrumental originals to record and releasing a single with vocals in 2 months. For me I couldn't do covers after having this experience, it would just piss me off that in the time I am learning someone else's song I could be writing my own. I only know how to play maybe 4 or 5 songs that aren't my own. Once you learn how to write music your way it becomes so easy and second nature, and all the sudden you have an album full of original songs you created with others.
    If you're planning on doing originals, then you should be doing that. A LOT. You should be writing all the damn time, because you're going to write a buttload of bad songs before you write great songs. Songwriting is a skill just like playing the guitar and singing. That being said, there's nothing wrong with playing a few covers. Lots of bands do it, but you'll notice that the bands that make fantastic/memorable covers are the ones that make it their own, so I would recommend you do the same. Don't play covers note-for-note unless you want to be a cover/tribute band. Everyone knows All Along the Watchtower by Hendrix, House of the Rising Sun by The Animals, and Twist And Shout by The Beatles, but I'd be surprised and a little skeptical of anyone claiming to have heard Dream Theater's covers of Pink Floyd...
    70/30 covers/originals. Perfect your craft, if the material is in demand, people will ask for it.
    I think it really depends on where you live too, where i live a new band has to start as a cover band or you won't get any gigs and then over time put your originals in the set but i think learning some covers is a good idea so you get a sense of song structure but definitely create originals as well
    Are you talking about Sydney? If so that's not true - I get gigs in my original band in Sydney and we have never been a cover band.
    I don't know to be honest, I've just started a band and we're doing covers so far… mainly because we're all still in school and we're just messing about and only one person's any good at writing.
    First start with cover songs so that everyone is able to play with each other a song perfectly but don't play concerts (unless you are a coverband) and after you are able to play good enough together write own stuff.
    At first you start playing covers.With the time you earn experience and create your own style adapting some things of other musicians.Many bands started this way. (Black Sabbath for example)
    I think that it should be a nice combination of both. If you start out doing strictly covers you made find the band you are working with isn't that great at producing originals.