Tips for Covering a Song

Guest Written by Catherine GuitarWitch and also published on Guitarwitch.ca.

Hi! My name is Catherine and I am the Guitar Witch, featured here on Switching Style’s blog for your viewing pleasure.  Wanting to sound like our favourite musicians is usually what draws us to play an instrument in the first place.  While I personally, don’t do a lot of covers, there are a few songs that I am drawn to play again and again, and that to me at least, are timeless.  

One of these songs is “About A Girl” by Nirvana, off of their first album, Bleach. It is simple and beautiful, and there is an affection and a longing in the lyrics that is endlessly charming and warm. You can hear the original here and me covering it here.

How can you record a cover that kicks ass, maintains a connection to the original, and allows you to express yourself as an individual? 

  1.  Pick something you love: So many people I see on YouTube are covering the flavour of the week, the new single, whatever is popular to get views. That’s all well and good if that’s your primary aim as a musician. For me, the “goal” of musicianship is about art and expressing a feeling, connecting to something bigger than ourselves, and as a way that us mere mortals can commune with the bigger energies of humanity, the divine, the universe, whatever you want to call it. So for me, I tend to go to old classics, to the songs that made me want to pick up a guitar in the first place, or things that touch my soul. If it can make you cry, that’s the one you should pick!  
  2. Pick something in your vocal range or change the key: Guitarists (and other stringed instruments) can change the key of a song super easily using a capo. For pianists, it’s a bit trickier. There are videos and online calculators and music writing programs that can help transpose things to a new key for you if you are struggling with this. The music should be in a comfortable range so that you are not struggling to hit high notes or low notes.   
  3. Learn the song so well you could play it in your sleep: Doesn’t matter whether you pick out a great tab or sheet music or learn it by ear but play it enough times that it becomes second nature. That means it should flow easily and feel comfortable in your hands and your mind – you shouldn’t be straining to play or sing it. Because we will be recording it, the better you learn it now the fewer mistakes you’ll make during the recording process.   
  4. Add your own spin: You might do this naturally while you’re learning it, and all the better! Your voice might be quite different from the original singer, or you prefer to play an acoustic or a piano and the original might be an electric guitar. Most people don’t listen to a cover to hear an absolute replica unless they are going to see a cover band, people want to hear YOUR take on it. So feel free to play around with different tones and textures, different vocal styles, and different timings and rhythms.  
  5. Focus on the vocals: The vocals are often what draws people into a song, (especially one that makes you feel the need to cover it!). Vocals are usually what scares me the most about performing. I feel like a very competent guitarist, but there is something about singing that is so vulnerable, so naked, it’s like someone seeing inside of your body, inside of your diary. Even as a voice teacher, it’s taken me a lot of deep work to be comfortable with sharing my voice publicly. If it is something that you struggle with, I recommend trying some therapy, journaling, meditating, or various other techniques to help you become comfortable with yourself.

    Also taking some voice lessons and practicing good vocal hygiene, breathing techniques and the like have helped me feel confident knowing that I’m doing what I can to be a good singer. That practice and attention helps me know that the discomfort I’m feeling about performing is psychological, and not because I really, truly “suck” (almost NO ONE truly sucks – it almost always comes down to practice and confidence).   
  6. Perform it or Record it: This is always the hardest part for me because it’s hard for me to feel like things are “ready” to be released. This often causes me to either work way too hard on something and spend too much time on it, or to call something “live” or “improvised” and not take enough time on it at all. Try to strike your own balance of finding a good sound, using good quality equipment to record with, and also releasing things or performing them when they are “ripe”.  

    For my cover of “About a Girl”, I went with a low-medium effort approach. This is what I would recommend for most pieces that you don’t plan on releasing professionally. Take a few takes until something works, but don’t drive yourself crazy. I decided to record through a room mic for my amp and a condenser for my vocals.

    I usually record guitar through an Axe-Fx but wanted the warmth of my little 1×12 Crate. I recorded into my DAW and took video separately, and combined them later. I didn’t do any editing of the audio itself, just cut off the ends and added some basic plugins, such as EQ and reverb. You can play around with this more or less depending on what your goals are. I didn’t add in any drums or bass but kept it as a simple guitar and vocal set up.  
  7. Accept it: Lastly, learn to accept, even love what you make, even if it “isn’t as good” as the original, even if there are imperfections, even if your voice breaks or you can’t get your recording to sound “right”. Doing things and making mistakes and learning from them is ALWAYS better than letting fear of mistakes prevent you from doing anything at all.

    Music is meant to be enjoyed, shared, and to express emotion. If you can achieve those things, it has been worthwhile. 

And so those are my recommendations for covering a song! I hope that you found this interesting, enlightening, and maybe even helpful.

I am also a music teacher and do creativity-related mental and physical health consultations:  Pricing and to Book Directly, Simbi, Facebook. If you liked this article, you can visit me at my home blog here: www.guitarwitch.ca.

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