Playing cover songs is a great way to learn your instrument and help you grow your
own style of playing. While there is no substitute for writing, playing, and recording your own songs, listening to and picking out what other musicians wrote is rewarding in its own way.
The challenge of figuring out just what the musical instrument guitar, bassist, drummer, etc. are doing makes you explore ways of playing your instrument that you may never have thought of. Or it allows you to learn a different way of approaching rhythm, structure or phrasing that may never have occurred to you. And then whenever you write your own music, that knowledge will enhance your own creativity and
style, without necessarily stealing the other songwriter’s ideas.
I have a friend who’s a very competent songwriter. He says he’s never played cover
songs-that all he’s ever played is original music. He’s a good musician but I can’t help
feel he would be much better if he ever had to stretch his abilities and learn songs by
other bands. I think it would open his eyes to new ways to approach his guitar and songwriting that he
never dreamed of.
I mean, I prefer playing my own stuff too but learning covers has helped me with my own
writing and playing enormously. And it can be fun and rewarding to learn and play a song
you love. It can even be enlightening to learn a song you don’t like. For instance, I had to
learn “Walk on By” by Burt Bacharach. I was never fond of the song. It wasn’t until I had
to learn it and play it with a band that I really appreciated the structure and brilliance
of Bacharach’s craftmanship. I now have an understanding of why other songwriters are in
such awe of Burt Bacharach’s abilities in creating pop songs.
Over this past weekend I watched “Some Kind of Monster,” the movie about Metallica. It
shows their approach to creating music, which, although similar to most other bands
approaches, still gave me a new way of thinking of how to write songs. Everything from
their riffing on guitars to begin and turning the riff into a song, to the technicality of reading the computer readout of the snare drum and discovering that it was out of time in one part of the song.
My current band, psychotronics, is in the style of a free form jazz band (think Miles Davis,
coltrane) but rocks and is essentially a rock band. My writing for psychotronics involves
creating riffs and we jam on them. Not structured songs, with some exceptions, but
improvisational playing in the jazz style. Not even as structured as most of the jam bands
I’ve heard. But I’m also starting a cover band to play weddings and anwhere else we can
gig. I know that my playing is improving and my writing is growing because I have to learn
a wide variety of songs I never would have known.
So listen closely and learn what other musicians are doing in their songs. What approach do
they take to playing their instruments? You’ll find your ability to play and create will
grow rapidly by the exercise of learning covers.