50 Rock Songs That Every Cover Band Musician Should Know
One of the joys of playing music in a cover band is that you get to replicate some of the most popular songs in the history of music. Audiences throughout the world love these songs, which of course contributes to their longevity.
Not every band will play all of these songs, in fact some won't play any of them. I'm not suggesting that these songs should be your set list. But as a working musician I have played many gigs with bands that I had never rehearsed with or even met, and I've found in those cases that it was essential to at least know every track on this list.
So whether you're a solo player, a hired gun, or a member of a full band, take a look at this list of the most played, requested, and successful songs in rock history. Learn them so they are in your rock arsenal. You never know when you'll need to pull these off.
50. "What I Got" - Sublime
This was the Sublime's biggest radio hit and reached #1 on the Billboard Modern Rock tracks Chart in 1997, the year after singer Bradley Nowell's untimely death. This tune is always a crowd-pleaser and the simple two-chord structure lends the song well to extended medleys.
49. "Man in a Box" - Alice in Chains
One of the defining songs of the early '90s Seattle grunge era, "Man in a Box" makes a great late-night power track to get the diehards pumping their fists and buying shots.
48. "Basket Case" - Green Day
This is the song that exemplifies the spirit and mood of the mid-'90s rock culture. It was the biggest hit from Green Day's debut album Dookie and still feels fresh today.
47. "Me & Bobby McGee" - Janis Joplin
Pretty much every female singer that I've ever played with knows "Me & Bobby McGee." It's easy and fun and it showcases the vocalist's pipes. Also, every girl in the crowd wants to be on stage singing along.
46. "Highway to Hell" - AC/DC
Play this title track from the last AC/DC album featuring singer Bon Scott and guys will throw up the horns, chicks will head-bang, and everybody will sing the chorus. Always a winner.
45. "Talk Dirty to Me" - Poison
44. "Jump" - Van Halen
The year is 1984. Things didn't go as George Orwell envisioned. The greatest guitar player in rock started playing keyboards. Everyone knows this song and sings along. You must know it—and know it correctly.
43. "What I Like About You" - The Romantics
One-hit-wonder songs can work great for cover bands. "What I Like About You" is one of those songs. This tune is singable, dance-able, and works well in a medley with songs like "R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A." by John Mellencamp and "On the Darkside" by John Cafferty and the Beaver Brown Band.
42. "Jenny Jenny (867-5309)" - Tommy Tutone
This is one of those '80s songs that is both loved by 30- and 40-somethings and popular with the younger folks, especially the girls.
Pro Tip: Young, cute girls in club = more guys = more alcohol sales = good for your band.
41. "Wanted, Dead or Alive" - Bon Jovi
"Wanted, Dead or Alive" gets the whole crowd singing along.
"WAAAAANTED!" Need I say more?
Not every band will play all of these songs, in fact some won't play any of them. I'm not suggesting that these songs should be your set list. But as a working musician I have played many gigs with bands that I had never rehearsed with or even met, and I've found in those cases that it was essential to know every track on this list.
40. "Some Kind of Wonderful" - Grand Funk Railroad
This is the song you play when the guitar player breaks a string. So if you sing or play bass or drums, you need to be able to pull this one out.
39. "Can't Get Enough" - Bad Company
"Can't Get Enough" is good song for the first set. This rock radio classic holds up in the clubs and bars nearly 40 years after its release.
38. "All Right Now" - Free
Wait . . . what? Paul Rodgers again!? Yep. The hook is killer. It's got a great guitar solo. And the bass player even gets the spotlight for a moment. This song always goes over well.
37. "The Joker" - Steve Miller Band
A great tune for the mellow stoners in the room, "The Joker" is a timeless classic that often gets the crowd singing along.
36. "Honky Tonk Woman" - Rolling Stones
Everyone wants more cowbell! And this 1969 hit satiates every rock and SNL fan by leading into the song with Bessie's neck piece. A simple four-chord structure makes this one a no-brainer . . . and people love it.
35. "Any Way You Want It" - Journey
People will request Journey. It's part of the job. But if you're not ready to play that song, "Any Way You Want It" is an acceptable alternative.
Pro Tip: Nailing the opening harmony is a must.
34. "Hit Me With Your Best Shot" - Pat Benator
This was Benatar's biggest hit, back in 1980, and still remains popular with the party crowd. Even guys in bands have been known to get away with singing this tune, and it's a must if you have an '80s-music-lovin' audience.
33. "Here I Go Again" - Whitesnake
With another fantastic sing-along chorus for drunk people, "Here I Go Again" was a #1 hit for David Coverdale and Co. back in 1987 and still holds up as a hair-metal classic today.
32. "Superstition" - Stevie Wonder
While not technically a rock song (although it was covered brilliantly by Stevie Ray Vaughan), this 1972 Motown hit gets the crowd dancing and drinking and fits in well with the classic rock repertoire.
31. "Pour Some Sugar on Me" - Def Leppard
When girls ask to hear Def Leppard, they're talking about "Pour Some Sugar on Me." The 1987 Top 10 hit gets the ladies dancing—sometimes on the bar, sometimes on the stage. Know it. And even if you don't sing, you best be shouting "Hey!" into a mic.
30. "Magic Carpet Ride" - Steppenwolf
This was the band's second-biggest hit, surpassed only by "Born To Be Wild" (an obvious choice for the biker lot), and does well to loosen up the crowd. If they're not already dancing, a few folks should jump on the floor when you launch into this song.
29. "Old Time Rock & Roll" - Bob Seger
Putting the words "Rock and Roll" in your title seems to work well (they'll appear several more times in this list). Seger's late-'70s hit was made popular by the 1983 Tom Cruise flick Risky Business, and "Old Time Rock & Roll" still remains a rock-radio and party-crowd staple today.
28. "Keep Your Hands to Yourself" - Georgia Satellites
If there's a bachelorette party in the crowd, this is a great tune to get the girls dancing and singing. If you know the blues, then you'll have no problem playing this one.
27. "Life in the Fast Lane" - The Eagles
From the 1976 album Hotel California, "Life in the Fast Lane" peaked at #11 in Billboard and is well-known by pretty much everyone. It rocks from start to finish, and is a great upbeat song to include in your set.
26. "Enter Sandman" - Metallica
Although they have an extensive catalog of classic metal brilliance, this is the song that defines Metallica. When it was first released, I was happily flabbergasted to see people dance to a thrash band! What!? Over 20 years later . . . people still do. (You will also find this one on the list of the Top 50 90's Rock Songs for a Cover Band.)
25. "Long Train Runnin'" - Doobie Brothers
People will request "Long Train Runnin'."Because, "without love, where would you be now?"
24. "Rock and Roll All Night" - Kiss
Unless you're playing in a Kiss tribute band or you're really into Kiss, this is the only Kiss song that you'll ever need to know. It's a pretty reliable crowd-pleaser no matter what the gig.
23. "Crazy Train" - Ozzy Osbourne
Some of the songs on this list are the ones that define their band to the general public. "Crazy Train" is Ozzy's highest-charting hit, from back in 1981, and can still be heard on the radio, in movies, commercials, TV shows, and sports stadiums throughout the country. Everyone knows it, and everyone loves it.
22. "Your Love" - The Outfield
Why this song? Do you know why? 'Cause I don't. I mean . . . it's fun. It's sing-along-able. As soon as it starts, you start singing along. And every girl loves it. Okay . . . I'm seeing why now.
21. "Brick House" - The Commodores
In most bands I've ever played with, "Brick House" goes hand-in-hand with #9 on the list. Again, not really a rock song, yet extremely popular across several genres and a gimmie to get folks dancing. It's a also a tune that can be stretched out and jammed upon if the band needs to fill up some set time.
20. "Rock and Roll" - Led Zeppelin
This is basically a 12-bar blues tune, played with ferocity and fire. It's the mighty Zep's signature rock track from their fourth album and it ranks as one of VH1's Greatest Rock Songs of All Time.
Pro Tip for drummers: The song starts on the and of three.
19. "Pride & Joy" - Stevie Ray Vaughan
I've played "Pride & Joy" many times with many different bands and I doubt I've played it the same way twice. That's the blues for you, and this song epitomizes blues-rock for most casual music fans.
18. "Tush" - ZZ Top
MTV made ZZ Top a household name in the '80s with video hits such as "Sharp Dressed Man" and "Legs," but it's this 1975 single that gets the most play by cover bands. Just another 12-bar blues tune. So even if you don't think you know it, you do.
17. "I Want You to Want Me" - Cheap Trick
The 1979 version from Live At Budokan was the band's biggest selling single, reaching #7 on the Billboard Hot 100. Club-goers and party people all over the map are familiar with "I Want You to Want Me" and it usually gets a room pumped-up.
16. "Walk This Way" - Aerosmith
Way back before many of today's bar patrons were even born, Aerosmith put out a record called Toys In The Attic. Aside from this hit, "Walk This Way," the 1975 release also featured "Sweet Emotion" (another cover band favorite) and helped the band break into the mainstream. When Run-D.M.C. covered the track in the mid-'80s, the song crossed genres in a way that had never been seen before. To this day, it remains one of Aerosmith's most popular songs and is played by most cover bands at one time or another.
15. "I Love Rock and Roll" - Joan Jett & The Blackhearts
It used to cost 10¢ to play the jukebox . . . according to former Runaways' guitarist/singer/songwriter Joan Jett. Her version of "I Love Rock and Roll" is actually a cover itself (the original was written by the band Arrows in 1975) but was made insanely popular in the early '80s, largely due to MTV exposure.
14. "Roadhouse Blues" - The Doors
When there's a crowd, it's always good to get it involved in the music. Bands often encourage the folks in the room to join in on this song's line, "woke up this morning and got myself a beer!" Sometimes it takes some prodding, but 9 times out of 10, it works.
Pro Tip: Any song that encourages people to drink makes your employer happy.
13. "Mustang Sally"
It's difficult to say who has performed the quintessential version of "Mustang Sally," but the basic structure remains the same in each recording. This is another great sing-along for the crowd ("Ride Sally, ride!"). If you play a musical instrument, you have to know this one.
12. "Hard to Handle" - Black Crowes
This is another tune that was made popular as a cover. Written and recorded in 1968 by Otis Redding, the song enjoyed mainstream success in 1990 as the breakout hit single from the Crowes' debut album. I think I've played this song more than any other one in my career.
11. "You Shook Me All Night Long" - AC/DC
From the 1980 multi-platinum masterpiece Back In Black, "You Shook Me All Night Long" remains one of the band's biggest hits, and is performed by cover bands all over the world. It features one of the most iconic guitar solos in the history of rock, and boasts a chorus that people can't help themselves to sing along with.
There are no videos of with song audio and lyrics, so here they are:
She was a fast machine she kept her motor clean/She was the best damn woman that I ever seen
She had the sightless eyes telling me no lies/Knocking me out with those American thighs
Taking more than her share/Had me fighting for air
She told me to come but I was already there/Cause the walls start shaking
The earth was quaking/My mind was aching
And we were making it/And you shook me all night long
Yeah you shook me all night long
I’m working double time on the seduction line/She's one of a kind she's just mine all mine
Wanted no applause it's just another course/Made a meal outta me
And come back for more/Had to cool me down to take another round
Now I’m back in the ring to take another swing/Cause the walls were shaking the earth was quaking
My mind was aching/And we were making it
And you shook me all night long/Yeah you shook me all night long
Knocked me out I said you/Shook me all night long
You had me shaking and you/Shook me all night long
Yeah you shook me/When you took me
You really took me and you/Shook me all night long
You shook me all night long/Yeah, yeah, you shook me all night long
You really got me and you/Shook me all night long
Yeah you shook me/Yeah you shook me
All night long
10. "American Girl" - Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers
In 1976, Tom Petty released his debut album with the Heartbreakers, right before disco music exploded. The first single, "Breakdown," became a Top 40 hit soon after its release. The second single, released in 1977, didn't chart in the U.S., but alas has endured as Petty's most often played song in the cover band scene.
9. "Play That Funky Music" - Wild Cherry
When your band wants to get people up and dancing, "Play That Funky Music" is the tune that works every time. This one-and-only hit for Wild Cherry was released in 1976 and has sold over two and a half million copies in the U.S. alone. Pretty much every cover band (including wedding bands) will play this song at one time or another.
8. "Summer of '69" - Bryan Adams
The blue-eyed Canadian rocker has had over a dozen Top 40 hits over the last three decades. Although "Heaven" and "Everything I Do (I Do it for You)" were his best selling singles, they're much better suited for a wedding band or corporate event. "'69" reached #5 on Billboard's Top 100 singles chart in 1984, and remains his most requested and most-often played song by classic rock cover bands.
7. "Brown Eyed Girl" - Van Morrison
A lot of musicians will roll their eyes when a band leader suggests playing "Brown Eyed Girl," but the truth is that music fans both serious and casual will sing along, no matter where you are. "Moondance" works well for a more mellow gig, but this tune is the one you always want to have in your back pocket at a rock show.
6. "Sweet Caroline" - Neil Diamond
This is a great crossover tune, as it works well at clubs, parties, weddings, and pretty much any live cover band show. Diamond's 1969 ode to John F. Kennedy's then 11-year-old daughter has sold nearly two million digital copies in the Internet age, and is often requested and played by bands all over the world.
Pro Tip: Make sure the crowd sings along to the chorus.
5. "Jessie's Girl" - Rick Springfield
5. "Jessie's Girl" - Rick Springfield
"Jessie's Girl" won Springfield a Grammy and was an instant hit way back in 1981. Over thirty years later, it's still extremely popular for the party crowd, especially with girls. I've never played this song where there aren't people singing along.
4. "Livin' on a Prayer" - Bon Jovi
In 1986, New Jersey's second favorite son and his namesake band released a song that would never go away. "Prayer" is one of the most beloved hair-metal tunes that has been covered by hundreds, if not thousands, of live performance cover bands. Serious guitar players even include the talk box in their rig to help authentically replicate one of the greatest rock songs of all time.
3. "Sweet Child O' Mine" - Guns N' Roses
It's true that some of the greatest songs are born in the simplest moments. While Slash was goofing around with a guitar exercise, the rest of the band started jamming along. Enter singer Axl Rose's inspired lyrics while he was listening upstairs, and a classic rock song was born. If you've ever played at a club, you know that someone will inevitably request Guns, and "Sweet Child O' Mine" is the song that they want to hear.
2. "Sweet Home Alabama" - Lynyrd Skynyrd
Having played all over the country in hundreds of different bars and clubs, I can honestly say that this is the song I've heard covered the most. It's one that guitar players learn when they're just starting out, due to its easy three-chord structure, and it's one that every band knows how to play.
1. "Don't Stop Believin" - Journey
It's no wonder that "Don't Stop Believin" takes the top spot: It's the most downloaded song of the 20th century and the top-selling catalog track in iTunes history. "Don't Stop" has one of the best opening keyboard riffs in rock, and one of the most memorable, singable, and inspirational choruses in popular music. Anytime your band plays this song, you're guaranteed to have a captive and appreciative audience.
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© 2013 Steve Witschel