From the March/April 2023 issue of Acoustic Guitar | By Jeffrey Pepper Rodgers
Songwriters often have a pretty fraught relationship with cover songs. On the one hand, you may feel justifiably proud of flying the flag of original music and developing your own body of work rather than focusing on covers. On the other hand, there’s the sense that, in many gig situations, covers are exactly what you must deliver—and that if you do play your own songs, you risk losing your audience’s attention and maybe the gig, too.
So do you stick to your guns and your own songs—or cave and just deliver the hits everyone can sing along with? As a lifelong songwriter who also performs other artists’ music, particularly in an acoustic Grateful Dead project called Dead to the Core, I personally believe that the choice doesn’t have to be so stark. There’s a healthier way to look at covers: as a creative vehicle that can actually enhance rather than compete with your songwriting.
Here are seven tips on how to develop a repertoire of covers that feel like your own.
1. Cover Songs You Love
This seems obvious but bears repeating: Focus on covers that light you up—songs that you play for kicks, that pay tribute to your heroes, that you wish you’d written. If you’re playing a cover only because it’s popular and you feel obligated, your performance is bound to be flat. Songs you love, by contrast, will energize you—and your show.
2. Pick Songs You Want to Learn From
Use the process of working up covers as an opportunity to deepen your knowledge of songcraft. What exactly is the chord change that makes you swoon, and how does it function in the song’s key? How does the chorus melody contrast with the verse? Where do the rhymes fall? Studying a song in this detailed way will help you not only create a strong cover but spark ideas to apply in other contexts.
So much of my ongoing education as a songwriter has come through picking apart classic songs to perform. While learning Paul Simon’s “Still Crazy After All These Years,” for instance, I recall marveling over the sly modulations in the bridge and final verse—and then trying out similar changes in my own songs.
3. Approach Covers Through Your Style
In an interview from the October 2011 issue of AG, Richard Thompson described studying other types of music to feed your songwriting. “It’s kind of stealing, but it’s not really stealing,” he told me. “It’s important to have your own style, first of all. Once you have your own style, you can import other things into it, and it starts to sound like you.”
This is a great way to think about a cover, too: as importing someone else’s song into your style. Playing a cover shouldn’t feel like dressing up as another artist; it should be a chance to share another facet of who you are. For an example, look no further than Thompson’s own rocking cover of Britney Spears’ “Oops!… I Did it Again,” in which he sounds unmistakably like RT.
4. Don’t Feel You Have to Play it Like the Record
Trying to recreate the sound of a classic track is fun and educational, no doubt. But for the kind of covers you can perform alongside your own songs, take a more flexible approach. Be open to changing the key to suit your voice. Experiment with the tempo, groove, or arrangement—or even change the genre completely—in search of the right fit for the way you play.
Specifically on guitar, don’t be limited by the original track. You may find a fresh approach to the song in a different capo position, tuning, or picking style. I’ve arranged the Grateful Dead’s “Cassidy” and Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here” (transcribed in the July/August 2021 issue) in DADGAD, for instance, and the tuning really unlocked those songs for me.
5. Take Ideas from Other Instruments
One of my favorite aspects of arranging a cover is adapting parts that are not played on guitar. Try incorporating lines from bass, keyboard, strings, horns, and other instruments. The process is bound to liven up your cover and stretch you on guitar.
A few years ago, I challenged myself to find a way to bring George Harrison’s “Within You Without You” to life on guitar, incorporating something like the tambura drone and the melodic lines of the bowed dilruba. In my arrangement (see AG February 2018), I discovered an alternate tuning/partial capo setup that I’ve continued to explore. That cover was a real guitar breakthrough for me.
6. Get Close To It, Then Get Away From It
When you’re initially working on a cover, figure out as many details of the original as you can. To truly internalize the song, use your own ears rather than relying on transcriptions/tab. But then, after you’ve gleaned all you can, put aside the original track, and let your cover evolve in your own hands and voice. You may depart from the original in some respects, but your cover will take on more of your own style—and be more akin to your original repertoire.
7. Take Inspiration for Your Own Writing
Got a cover with a bluesy groove that audiences love, one with a big chorus that’s a great sing-along, or a harmony-rich ballad that never fails to connect? Aim to write songs with the qualities you admire in covers. In other words, use what you learn from others’ songs as an impetus to write.
You might even go further and directly tip your hat to covers in your songs. My recent release “Hippie Hair (for the First Time),” for instance, is loaded with references to music I grew up on, from the Dead to The Band, Eric Clapton, David Crosby, Doobie Brothers, Peter Frampton, and more. The song is a hoot to play live, as audiences recognize the sources while responding to my hook and story line.
At The Gig
If you mix originals and covers in a show at a more casual venue, the conventional wisdom is that you’ll lose the audience’s attention with originals and gain it back with covers. But I have not found that necessarily to be the case.
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A straight-up cover of a song that everyone’s heard umpteen times may, in fact, make people tune right out. A creative cover, on the other hand, may reel them in, delivering just the right blend of familiarity and surprise. And the best of those covers will truly feel like your own—infused with your artistic personality just like your originals.
Great Covers Uncovered
When artists take a creative approach to a cover and put their own stylistic stamp on it, sometimes they wind up with a signature song. For inspiration, consider these examples: all the performers have deep catalogs of originals yet made an enduring personal statement with a cover. Listen to our playlist “Creative Covers” on Spotify.
- Jimi Hendrix, “All Along the Watchtower” (Bob Dylan)
- Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young, “Woodstock” (Joni Mitchell)
- Judas Priest, “Diamonds and Rust” (Joan Baez)
- Jeff Buckley, “Hallelujah” (Leonard Cohen)
- José Feliciano, “Light My Fire” (Doors)
- James Taylor, “You’ve Got a Friend” (Carole King)
- Cowboy Junkies, “Sweet Jane” (Velvet Underground/Lou Reed)
- Toots and the Maytals, “Take Me Home, Country Roads” (John Denver)
- They Might Be Giants, “Istanbul, Not Constantinople” (Four Lads)
- Cassandra Wilson, “Harvest Moon” (Neil Young)
- Red Hot Chili Peppers, “Higher Ground” (Stevie Wonder)
- Rod Stewart, “Downtown Train” (Tom Waits)
- Lucinda Williams, “Can’t Let Go” (Randy Weeks)
- Darius Rucker, “Wagon Wheel” (Old Crow Medicine Show/Bob Dylan)
- Arlo Guthrie, “City of New Orleans” (Steve Goodman)
- Shawn Colvin, “Crazy” (Gnarls Barkley)
This article originally appeared in the March/April 2023 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.