Making a great cover song doesn’t take a genius. Anyone who plays live should have a few in their repertoire. If you’re performing for public audiences without playing any cover songs at all, you’re missing out on a slam-dunk trade secret.
Everyone loves to hear music they recognize, regardless of who is playing it. You can make your audiences love you more simply by doing a song everybody knows in your own style.
But! it can be done wrong. Here are the three rules you should follow in playing or recording cover tunes.
Rule 1: Don’t cover music you can’t improve somehow
If you go out and just perform a Beatles song as closely to the original as you can, you’re going to disappoint your audience. You aren’t the Beatles. Why would you do that to yourself?
Pick a song pretty much everyone knows, something flawed, something you can do in a new way everyone is going to appreciate.
Protip: there are lots of one-hit-wonders who weren’t very good but made a song everyone loves. Those singles are often pretty easy to improve on. People will think you’re really hip for remembering that one song they haven’t heard in years.
Rule 2: Perform the song in your own style
If you’re a hip-hop band, do a hip-hop rendition of Michael Jackson’s “Bad.”
If you’re a country band, do a country/western rendition of Michael Jackson’s “Bad.”
If you’re a metal band, do a heavy metal rendition of Michael Jackson’s “Bad.”
(Except, you know, it doesn’t have to be Michael Jackson’s “Bad”).
If you think people don’t frickin’ love to hear familiar songs played in totally different styles, you’ve got another think coming.
How many people in the audience have forgotten that time Rob Zombie played the theme from 1960s TV, “The Munsters?” None of them. Or when Green Day recorded the theme for the movie version of “The Simpsons?” Exactly zero. People love that stuff, and admit it, so do you.
Rule 3: Don’t introduce the song when you play it live
Introducing your songs before you play them is pretty tacky most of the time, anyhow, but it really stinks when the song is something everyone knows already.
What’s more fun? The vocalist goes to the mic and says, “You guys might remember this one from a show back in the nineties called ‘Friends,'” or, nobody says anything and you just break into the song. A few seconds later people start murmuring to one another. Now there’s a ripple of applause and everybody’s smiling at the stage. Seriously, how is that even a debate?
Don’t announce it. Just play it and have fun.
BONUS Rule: Maximum two covers per set
Play your music. That’s what you’re here for.
The covers are just a sneaky way to get people paying attention.