Make a Great Cover Tune: Six Dos and Don’ts

How to make a great cover tune depends on the aim of the artist, but we can point out some simple dos and don’ts to aid the DIY musician of the 21st century. Let’s get to it.

How to make a great cover tune:

DO: Make a great cover tune by changing its genre

By far the easiest way to please an audience with a cover tune is by taking it out of its original music category and rendering it in another one.

Is it a country song? Play it metal. Is it a metal song? Rap it. Is it a rap song? Write it for blues. Look what Johnny Cash did to “Hurt” by Nine Inch Nails. Unstoppable.

Everyone loves to hear an old favorite in a whole new way.

DON’T: Cover songs you can’t improve on in any appreciable way

Too many artists cover songs just because they love them.

An “homage” to one of your favorites is OK as a one-off at a live performance, but don’t make people sit through your five-minute treatment of “Hey, Jude” by the Beatles on your next EP.

You’re not going to make it better. You’re just going to make your audience wish they were listening to the Beatles.

DO: Make a great cover tune by changing its tempo

The next best thing to playing a song in a different genre is playing it uptempo or downtempo from its original time signature.

The mood of some songs can be entirely reversed this way, especially if the lyrics are highly symbolic rather than overt. Imagine “House of the Rising Sun” as a polka number. That could happen, ha ha.  Imagine the upbeat “Christmas at Ground Zero” by Weird Al Yankovic as a crawling gothic dirge.

But you don’t need to totally upend the song. Much goodness can be derived from just a little added pep or solemnity.

DON’T: Cover songs by playing as close to the original as you’re able

It’s a common misunderstanding among independent musicians that one goal of the cover tune is to prove to your audience that you can do it, too.

You can’t. You cannot do what another artist did the way they did it.

And even if you could, doing something someone has already done is pointless. It is not a goal of the cover tune.

Cover music to do it your way, or don’t do it at all.

(Unless you’re getting paid as a cover band at a bar or nightclub. That’s different.)

DO: Make a great cover tune by simplifying it

You know what nobody has the huevos to do onstage, anymore? Nobody gives the singer a song to sing a cappella while the group takes five. If you’ve got a front person with a fantastic set of pipes, give them three minutes approx. 75% into your set to belt out an amazing rendition of a popular song.

You wanna see a crowd pay utter attention? You give them a brave vocalist singing their heart out for the audience with no backing. That’s entertainment.

Barring this (because, let’s face it, a good singer is worth their weight in gold) consider covering a track acoustic, or clean-channel only, or without percussion.

Maybe you can play it using only piano. Or accompanied only by harmonica.

The point is, simplifying a great song can make a marvelous cover tune. Try it.

DON’T: Add a bunch of extra effects, instruments, and choir vocals to a good song and expect it to be better

The opposite of the above, many well-meaning creative musicians overthink songs by adding and adding and adding elements. The idea here seems akin to the American Christmas tree concept: chuck glitter, gold, lights and tinsel onto the poor evergreen until you can’t see any needles at all.

The problem with trying this in music is that every recorded take adds tiny little imperfections to the overall result (unless you’re godlike musicians, in which case you wouldn’t be reading this).

In the end, you get sonic soup. The hapless engineer has to bury tons of takes in the mix “to give a general impression of the sound” (but really because these tracks can’t be saved and I don’t think they’re worth going back to record again).

The result is a mishmash that sounds somewhere between an orchestra of players with the flu and a Pro Tools 12 installation possessed by the devil.

Follow the KISS rule. Keep It Simple…


That’s it for this week’s DIY MondoBlog! Stay tuned for next week’s episode for more tips, tricks, and general indie music blather. And HAPPY HOLIDAYS from all of us to all of you!