Every musician has that song, album, or entire discography that got them to play in the first place. For me, it was the first couple tracks on Romantic Warrior, the best and most ridiculous Return to Forever album, featuring Lenny White massacring it on the kit. Seriously, how could a blend of Chick Corea, Al Di Meola, Stanley Clarke, and White be anything less than enlighteningly interstellar? A weird album to receive for Hanukkah at age twelve, sure, but that’s how it goes sometimes.
Initial music inspirations, though, are not nearly as important as the first songs you learned to actually play. Covers got you to where you are today, and any musician who frowns on performing covers is denying themselves the weird rapture of playing established, catchy tunes. Musicians who’ve made it have the luxury of playing their own stuff, but the rest of the struggling music populace would do well to find enjoyment in playing covers for certain audiences. Wedding bands make good dough, and the tunes necessary for such performances are simple enough, the charm being in the execution.
I was wary of crowd-pleasing covers at first, being really into post rock, prog rock, and jazz fusion as a teenager (explains a lot). But sitting behind the kit and rocking to a made-for-frat-house-drunks version of “Five Years” by Bowie swayed me. And now, I’m in a rock cover band that does Creedence, Beatles, and Franz Ferdinand tunes, and couldn’t be more satisfied with the experience.
Playing covers is a great way to test your skills as a musician, both in terms of precision and ability to explore already written material. A hard-hitting punk drummer, for instance, can learn immeasurable restraint and groove by playing a Michael Jackson tune, or even some Beyonce. Or, if you are a shredding guitarist, try playing an old Motown song; everything becomes about gelling with the other musicians involved. Cover tunes can be a great way to initially read other musicians, and find what makes a group of yours tick.
My advice for any musician is to find either guilty pleasure songs, new pop tunes, or a few oldies to learn (better if with a group). But also, you never know when you’ll have to bust out a Black Eyed Peas, Black Crowes, or Black Keys song. Basically, finding the covers that are paradoxical to who you believe you are as a musician, and learning the hell out of them, will make you a better musician overall, and get you out of your one or two comfort genres.
The truth is that certain mainstream songs–the ones you’ll inevitably play for cash when original material’s not making you bank–are extremely popular for a reason, despite their apparent lack of quality compared to some unique and creative indie tracks. An incredibly well known song will always have a good hook, and excellently orchestrated instrumentation (note, I didn’t say well-written, but instead well-engineered to be memorable and easy to dig for three minutes). No matter how much you dislike it musically/intellectually, there’s a part of you that likes to dance to that one Miley Cyrus song.
The same principle goes for playing. A simple, beautiful hook may be easy to write in theory, but you have to put detail into tunes to make them actually great, then perform the bejesus out of them to get a mass of people to respond. Playing those crowd-pleasing covers, from varying tunes like “September,” to “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” to even “Get Lucky,” will make you more comfortable busting out material that’s not your own, and with a group no less, and add something to the songs you in turn churn out. Don’t agree? Try playing any Bruno Mars song and get back to me.
And now, a comprehensive little list of covers you should play with your band:
Green Day’s “Basketcase,” because it’s buckets of fun.
One Republic’s “Counting Stars,” because it’s kinda difficult to get that sound out of your garage.
Red Hot Chili Pepper’ “Californication,” because you were planning to do it anyway.
Miley Cyrus’ “Wrecking Ball,” but only as a death metal version. Trust me on this.
Jackson Five’s “I Want You Back,” because you’ll discover your funk and then some.
Steppenwolf’s “Born To Be Wild,” because your face needs rocking the hell off.
Queens of the Stone Age’s “No One Knows,” because oh my god the drumming.