Although I've never counted, I can guess with confidence that I've learned and played well over a thousand cover songs in my career.
I have a specific system that has developed over time that has proven effective for me in maintaining a career as a professional musician.
Master the fundamentals below and you'll be able to succeed in every gigging situation.
1. Learn the song correctly
Most of the time when you're playing covers, you'll be playing popular songs. People in the crowd will expect to hear certain signature parts including guitar solos, melodic riffs, rhythmic patterns, and especially lyrics.
It's imperative that you, the cover band musician, learn the song the correct way in the beginning. There will be a time when you can embellish in certain areas - but to establish a foundation, you want to learn the song the way it was originally recorded first - before putting your own stamp on it.
2. Respect the original artist
There's a reason that certain songs have had longevity and remain popular for cover bands and musicians to perform, as well as audiences to request. More often than not, you'll be playing a song that was a big hit for an artist or band, and the time and care that was put into creating the original recording deserves to be respected.
When I'm playing on stage, I'll sometimes picture myself playing with the band that made the song famous, and strive to perform it as well as I would if I were in that situation, even if I'm only playing in a small club. The listener will hear (and see) the difference, and you'll find yourself getting compliments more often and building a loyal fan base of your own.
3. Learn the lyrics
Even if you're not the singer, and you have no backup or harmony vocals, it's a good idea to learn the words. This will help you in remembering your own parts, as well as with communicating with the rest of the band at rehearsal. It's a easy way to map out the song in your head, and will prove extremely helpful in many performance situations.
"...nobody else plays exactly like you"
4. Watch a video of the original artist performing the song live
Most artists will put a little bit of a spin or twist on a song that has attained success when they perform it live. In fact, some songs have gained even more popularity from a live recording.
Watching videos of the song can give you good ideas for how to approach a tricky part, or give you an idea for the best way to start or end it.
In addition to the original artists, it's a good idea to check out videos of other musicians covering a song for the same reasons as above, as well as a decent barometer for what would be expected of you.
5. Practice it unaccompanied with a metronome
Having good timing is essential when playing in a band, even if you're not the drummer. If you can lock in the groove when playing any song by yourself, you'll be leaps and bounds above other musicians that don't make it a practice while playing in a band.
Timing is important for every instrument, including vocals. Get yourself in sync with the tempo, and it will pay off handsomely for your own musical growth.
6. Practice even more
There is a quote that I happen to love: "Amateurs practice until they get it right, professionals practice until they can't get it wrong."
When I'm learning a song and I come to a challenging part, I'll play it over and over again until I got it. Then I go back to the beginning of the song and play it all the way through. If I make a mistake, I start over again. I'll do this until I have been able to play the song all the way through with no mistakes.
Then I play it again. And again. And again.
I'll keep playing it until I'm sick of it.
Then I play it again.
By the time I play it with a band, I know the song cold, and feel the utmost confidence in my ability to play the song right, which enables me to be comfortable on stage.
7. Record yourself
While practicing a song, a good idea it to capture a recording of the entire song either playing by yourself, or along with the original recording. There are free and/or inexpensive apps that you can download to your smart phone for audio recording purposes.
If you want to be able to scrutinize your own playing even further, you can just as easily make a video for your eyes only. There are almost always ways you'll discover that you can improve by listening and/or watching back and offering yourself an honest critique.
Learn the song the way it was originally recorded first - before putting your own stamp on it.
8. Make it your own
I talked quite a bit in a previous article about how it's very important to play a song correctly. I think it's also equally important to inject your own style and personality into your chosen instrument.
It's almost unavoidable to improvise certain parts simply due to the nature of playing in a live situation, and the fact that you are you, and nobody else plays exactly like you.
Allow that to be a part of your experience, while still honoring the emotional expression of the original track.
9. Know how to transpose
If you play in a band for even a short length of time, or if you've played with numerous musicians, you've likely had to play a song in a different key than the original. The further you get into your career, the more this will occur. Many times it will happen on stage with no warning, and you have to pull it off on the spot.
If you don't read sheet music (or even if you do), you should be able to play songs in any key. Once you've learned a song where you can play it with comfort, test yourself to see if you can play it in a different key without making a mistake. Once you master this skill, you'll be prepared for anything.
10. Play it like it's the first time every time
I'll often play the same club several nights in a row with the same band playing the same songs, but every night is still very different.
A big reason for this is the mutual respect shared by myself and my band mates. Another reason is that we all genuinely love to play.
That level of comradery and comfort lends itself well to being able to focus on the enjoyment of playing. There's always someone new listening; someone who doesn't know your name or anything about you. So for them, it's the first time.
Enjoy that shared experience, and watch it elevate your playing beyond anything you would have imagined.
Victor L. on February 12, 2018:
Thanks! Great tips. You have helped me to regain confidence in re-playing songs.
DWD Drums on August 10, 2017:
These are great tips, almost all of which I'm already doing. The only thing I would add is, if you're a young person, take the time to learn how to read and write music. One of the biggest challenges I have learning new songs is not having as much time as I would like to do so. If I could write out the parts I'm hearing and read them, it would greatly reduce the time it takes to learn and commit the parts to memory, especially the more tricky parts. Think of it the same way you would about trying to memorize a poem. You would listen to the poem over and over until you remembered all the lines. You would more than likely listen to a line and write it down. Then the next line and so on. Then you would go back and read what you wrote until you memorized it.
As for Evil Rev's comment below; I understand what he's saying and I don't disagree, BUT...not all of us are trying to do the same thing. Some of us just enjoy getting together with our band to play the songs we love. The fact that anyone else might be amused is just a bonus. Sometimes my band will take a part of a song and do something a little different with it. This is more for us than them, but it keeps it interesting.
Evil Rev on June 11, 2017:
This advice is great if your goal in your musical life is to amuse anonymous alcoholics & provide nothing more than a backdrop for drinking & mating rituals. However, if you're an artist, "play it your way"...
David Milberg on January 06, 2017:
I love music and couldn't agree more with these tips. Excellent job.