35. Playing Covers

 I once read somewhere that playing covers is for “little kids in garages”.  I can see the writer’s point.  However, the truth is there are cover bands that play for very enthusiastic crowds (especially the better “tribute” bands), while there are  countless other bands playing original music that almost no one wants to hear.

  We know that selling a familiar song to an audience  is relatively easy.  Some will avoid anything that feels derivative.  This can lead to frustration, and some unique but not very appealing music!

Developing an individual style is a beautiful thing, but no one gets good at playing, singing, and writing without emulating other musicians. So if you are just starting out, playing some covers is probably a really good idea. First, it gives you some insight into your own tastes! The songs you choose to play and sing reflect what you like the most, usually for more than one reason. Perhaps your singing style fits theirs. Maybe the song is not too challenging to play. Or it has a really powerful effect on you emotionally. Probably a combination… Later your considerations may change, but for now, even as an inexperienced performer, you likely have a very good idea of what you want to sound like. This is the easy part.

Now comes the challenge—repertoire.  The biggest problem I see in start-up cover musicians is not having enough well rehearsed material. This is true of original bands also, but at least they have the excuse of having to write the songs!  I suggest learning and memorizing as many songs as you can.

 After all, you are not going to get past the beginner/amateur level, whether you play our own songs or not, until you can show enough of yourself to get a band together, or play a set, even for a friends’ party or some such. Most people you know would be thrilled to come and see you play, but not 3 songs, unless it’s an open mic. And you can bet they don’t care one bit if you are playing covers or not.

So, how best to do it? First, unless you have developed a very strong musical memory already, you need charts—printed, accurate lyric sheets with the chords, exactly where they belong. Sometimes internet transcriptions will work, although, as I have said, they are often wrong and need revision. In the old days we had to write charts by hand or copy them from songbooks. Now I just grab the lyric sheet from an internet site, paste it into a blank document, and put the chords in myself. Whatever method you use, just do it. Often, the act of doing it will be enough to get it into your head, and you won’t even need the sheet. Always hold on to it though—forgetting comes easily!

Secondly, get something, anything, to record yourself on. It doesn’t have to be elaborate or expensive. What’s important is to have something you can chronicle yourself with, listen in the car, etc.  You will memorize and play the music well much sooner.

Finally, get out of the basement! When I was younger I made a nearly conscious decision to practice until I became “perfect “and worthy of being heard. It never happens! Beware of this trap. Even if you know you will obviously never be perfect, forget about waiting until you are “ready”. The part of being ready that comes from actually doing it, alone or with a band, in front of an audience–any audience– has no substitute.

©2012 Jim Greenfield