There is no need to replicate a song as a cover. Cover songs are a fun and entertaining learning tool for self-expression.
The first step to making a cover song your own is to learn to play or sing it as the original artist intended. Many of the musicians you adore spend months writing and designing the sound of the next single or album. Everything-the lyrics, melody, key, tempo and chord progression are chosen for a reason. This is how you can use successful songs to learn new riffs, skills and patterns.
Learning the song gives you a whole new understanding.
When I first heard Tom Petty sing Free Fallin’ as a child, I thought it was a cool song about finding freedom in the things you enjoy. It does seem so, at face value.
I read some lyric reviews and learned that the song was most likely written about guilt. It’s the story of a ‘bad boy’ that felt weighed down by a relationship with an admirably ‘good girl’ that loves him. Ignoring her and the subsequent guilt was his way of ‘free fallin” and leaving’ the reality of his relationship behind ‘for a while.’
It wasn’t until learning the song Petty’s way that I was able to truly feel the meaning. I was able to feel Petty’s admiration for his ‘good girl’, his need to get away from her and the subsequent guilt. I felt Petty’s desire to black out said guilt by ‘free fallin” into his own reality. It’s different from feeling the song sympathetically, vicariously or empathetically as a listener. As a singer/musician, you get to experience the perspective of the song and become the speaker of the story from the inside out.
Use that experience to express the song in your own way.
Once you find that magic place of understanding, in which you are the living breathing storyteller of a song, you can free your inner voice into the mold that is another artist’s idea. When you are the song, you then have the ability to add a vocal solo that really expresses the speaker’s state of being. You’ll know when to use fingerpicking, strumming or to use the guitar as percussion. Should you sing this line a little higher the second time you play the chorus? Should you add some breath to the bridge or make it climatic? As the speaker of the story, you’ll know.
Consider tailoring the song to your natural voice.
If you have a soft, angelic voice, there is no need to imitate a strong, raspy tone. Quite possibly, nobody wants to hear it. In much the same way you wouldn’t use an electric bass guitar in place of a flute in a symphony orchestra. Your voice is an instrument. You’ll be able to develop your own style by developing your voice and embracing it.
Would I sing in a heavy metal band if I really wanted to? Yes, and you should too! But, what I most enjoy is flaunting my simple voice for what it is, because that tends to work.
That said, you don’t know what you can do until you try. The violin as an instrument is known for its contribution to country, folk and classical music. It turns out, violin can sound pretty aggressive in prog rock.
Singing is very emotional. That’s why it’s easy to hear something and say, “that doesn’t sound like me, therefore I won’t be able to sing in that style”. That kind of skepticism actually makes it harder to succeed at new skills as a singer. Your voice is part of your body and your mind controls what it will or will not do. Loving the song you’re learning and thinking positively will help tremendously when exploring new singing styles.
So, the choice is up to you. It’s best to make this decision based on what’s best for the song. In what style will YOUR best expression of the song be sung in?
Do you have the range needed to sing this cover?
Sometimes singers fall in love with songs that suit their ranges terribly. Your vocal range describes how low and high you are able to sing. Sometimes you should tailor the song to your vocal range. Make the song an octave higher or lower when you know that your range is wide enough but not in the right place. For example, your range may be twenty-four notes (or two octaves) long for a song which has a lowest and highest note within twenty-four notes. But, your vocal range may still start above the lowest note in the song or end below the highest note in the song. In other words, even though your range is wide enough for the song, it may still be too low or too high. If this is the case, it’s usually okay to sing the song in a different octave. This is especially understandable if you are male covering a female artist or a female covering a male artist.
Other times, the right thing to do is keep exercising your voice until your range is wide enough to sing the song comfortably. In that case, you might simply not be able to perform the song. If you love the song, consider this a blessing in disguise. This is the perfect motivation for you to set a daily ritual designed to increase your vocal range.
I strongly believe in learning through play. We singers can sing higher or lower than we think we can if we really make ourselves vulnerable to a song we love and just try. After you do your vocal range exercises, try hitting those low or high notes. If your voice sounds weak in those areas, don’t worry. Just keep practicing.
Feel it out.
While performing or recording a cover with a completely altered melody or lyric is frowned upon, improvising covers is a fun, artistic way to express your appreciation of a song. Your audience wants to hear their favorite song, sure. But, what they really want is to hear YOU express that song from your heart in a way that suits your abilities, voice, range and personal flair. That’s what makes a cover artist so alluring. So pour your heart out, cover artist!