One of the tricky things about covering other people’s songs is making The Decision: do you aim for faithfulness to the original, or do you aim for a new interpretation? Sometimes, context dictates the choice: if you’re playing in a cover band, rocking some party or street dance or whatever, faithfulness is sometimes to be preferred; the crowd didn’t come to hear you, they came to hear some fun tunes that they like, so the closer you are to the original the better. If you’re in a tribute band or playing a show with a specific theme, then it becomes especially important to stick to the theme, and fidelity to the original arrangement is best. If you’re billing yourself as a ska-Beatles act, of course, you need to do ska arrangements of Beatles tunes, which means that exact copies won’t do. If you’re representing for the original singer/songwriter gang, you might well prefer an original arrangement of your own, since you won’t have either the interest or the resources required to reproduce the song precisely. If you’re a stickler for originality and resent doing covers in the first place, you’ll want to mess those things up as much as possible.
No matter what you choose, though, you need some way into the song to make it live — even close reproductions have to be made your own, somehow, or they won’t sound good.
A while back, my bandmate Josh and I (with whom I create and play originals) decided it would be fun to try covering an entire album and making it ours. We wanted an album on which all or most of the songs would be highly recognizeable, and we wanted them to be songs that we actually liked. We ended up with Zeppelin IV, because I’m not the only or (the most) crazy/ambitious person on Team Laura & Josh. Also: Zep, man. We love us some Led Zeppelin.
We divided up the songs, each of us taking responsibility for coming up with an arrangement idea for the set we’d been given. Josh did really, really pretty stuff with “Going to California” and “When the Levee Breaks,” and he was clever with “Misty Mountain Hop.” We both agreed to wuss out on “Stairway to Heaven” — when we performed it, we just did that famous line and made a joke of it. I left “Battle of Evermore” more or less as-is (it was an excuse to learn a mandolin part); we changed the key to make it easier for Josh to sing, and we altered the timing a little. Josh figured out a cool way to do “Black Dog” when I got stumped, and I never could seem to do it right. I had some fun with “Rock and Roll” (for which I’ll have to create a slideshow so I can post it sometime) and with the impossible task of “Four Sticks.”
“Four Sticks” is a hard song to play for a newbie with an acoustic tenor guitar, although I can sort of do it the original way. It’s a fabulous percussion event, but we weren’t going to be using any percussion. Our goal was to make these songs sound like us, too, not Zep. I had to find a way to do it without the drums or the riff that still worked. I tried working from tab of the original, I tried reproducing the rhythms in the guitar parts, and I finally just decided that wasn’t going to work. Instead, I took what I gathered were the chords of the original riff (that “duh duh DUH duh” thing) and cut the whole business right in half, breaking up the chords in what I thought was kind of an interesting way.
Thank the gods for Josh! He makes some pretty damn fine guitar things happen in that long break (replacing the big ol’ keyboard/strings break). It turned out to be kind of an interesting, gritty little tune to sing, and a lot of fun, too. This is one of the many cases in which I had to make a virtue of necessity — I didn’t have the skills to do much, so my limitations as a guitarist resulted, I think, in a pretty novel solution to covering a tough ol’ tune. It is certainly completely different from the original (perhaps not in a great way, but we liked it). Your mileage, as they say, may vary.