Choosing the Right Cover Tunes

We receive lots of questions about doing cover tunes. Since many of you have them in your set, either entirely or a few, let's talk about this!

We got an email from Barry, who spelled out his dilemma; "I am in a constant battle with my band-mates over the subject of cover songs. As a primarily original band, we usually play about 3 covers out of a 13 song set. The argument is over which covers to play. They believe strongly that the purpose of playing a cover is to give the audience something that they are familiar with, and so my band refuses to learn any songs that they don't perceive as being widely known. I, on the other hand, believe that a good, but unknown cover song is still worth playing, as long as you can make a connection with the audience. I don't feel that the people who support local original music really care about hearing familiar music in the first place. So what is your take? What is the proper role of covers in an original band, and should original bands be concerned about whether the audience will be familiar with the covers?"

The first question I would ask Barry is, What is the purpose of doing the 3 covers? Is it to fill time because you don't quite have enough originals? Or, is it because your band can play the songs really well? Or, as the band says, to give the audience something familiar?

For starters, you need to know your audience. Do they KNOW you will be playing originals or are they coming expecting to 'dance to the hits'? If you ARE playing gigs where the audience knows they will be hearing original music, and you need some covers to fill the time slot, I think it's okay to play obscure covers – IF they are great songs and you can do them justice. However, if you're NEW to an audience, it's always good to play a familiar cover. You never lose with that.

More importantly here, you need to choose songs, based on the moments they create. Let's say for example, that your keyboard player can also play a mean flute. If you've got an older crowd, finding a great Jethro Tull song may be just the ticket to blow the spit out…whether it's Locomotive Breath or a more obscure album cut. This tune would fit into either your 'musical moment' (because of the flute solo) or your 'different moment' if it's the only flute song in your set.

Or, let's say you don't have a 'fun' moment in your set. Look for a cover that's 'up' and easy to have the audience sing along to. It will be a lot easier to get the crowd to sing along if it's already a familiar song to them, BUT, you can always teach them if it's a song they don't know.So, a couple things to think about when doing covers;

  • Play covers that create a moment
  • Know your audience's expectation to help you determine if you need familiar songs.
  • Choose songs you can play really well and don't be afraid to put your own spin on the arrangement.
One thing I LOVE doing, is to sneak a cover into the middle of an original. For example, just this week I was working on a song called Up Again, where the lyrics were motivating you to keep going even when you feel knocked down. The message AND the feel of the song 'I Get Knocked Down' by Chumbawamba happened to work perfectly with it! The artist slips easily into the chorus and then smoothly back into his original song. A fun surprise for the audience.

Let me know if you have any issues with your cover sets…would love to help!