Last night at rehearsal, the newest group I’m with started working on a new tune. We decided to do The Beatles’ tune “Taxman” but wanted to come up with our own version that presented a different take on it. We’d talked about Stevie Ray Vaughn’s version, as well as shooting our own recorded ideas back and forth through the modern marvel known as the internet before actually meeting up for rehearsal and working out an entirely different take. What we eventually went with was copping the feel of another tune from the same era but a different group, mashing it together over a fairly simple I IV V blues progression, while essentially maintaining the melody line pretty close to intact. Voila, we had our own version of a “cover” tune that we’re pretty pleased with and that really works within the stylistic palette the band is attempting to focus on, a funky blues-rock combination.
Working with covers is the meat and potatoes of most bar band combos, as well as wedding bands and various other local professional groups. All too often if you want to make money playing on the local circuit these tunes are what is needed for repertoire in order to get the gigs and build a following. It has also come to be a major source of contention between musicians, dividing them into two primary camps and spawning endless debates over originals vs. covers. Many of the cover bands do their best to make a product that is as close to the original version of the chosen piece of music as possible, becoming essentially live juke boxes that copy solos and approach the music in pretty much the same manner as a traditional classical musician does. A smaller number of the bands deal with covers but deal with them as standards, in the same manner that jazz musicians have for decades. Yes, it’s a cover but they make it their own through their own solos and small deviations from the recorded versions. Then there are the covers that border on originals, which might seem like an odd thing to say.
Often the groups or individuals who break down and rebuild covers are also heavily vested in their own originals. They straddle the original vs. cover band divide by doing some altered covers, some originals and maybe some close to straight covers. These folks love their craft/art, and don’t sneer at the concept of getting paid at the end of the night for their work; they expect to be paid. They also tend to step outside of the debate between the integrity of doing either or. Interestingly enough, if we really dig in and take a look at what bands that “made it” have done, we’ll often see that they got their start working with covers, then gradually came up with their own material to work with. There are even many high profile folks out there who have recorded hit records using other peoples’ materials, either as is or creating their own version, as the Atlanta Rhythm Section did with “Spooky.”
Personally I really enjoy the process of rebuilding a cover, particularly in a collaborative situation such as last night’s, and last night’s was a true collaborative effort the whole way around. The guitarist kicked out an idea early in the week. I’m playing bass in the band, but sent out my own recorded idea on guitar. The drummer tossed out a suggestion at rehearsal, which really kicked us into a solid direction in terms of a feel that was different from the guitarist’s and mine. No egos got in the way; we simply ran with it, creating the progression quickly along with guitar and bass parts. The melody just synced right in with it all. We spent close to two hours on the process, locking things in and getting it squared in our memories as well as doing some on the fly recordings to help keep the concept intact. All in all, it was a very satisfying creative experience for all four of us before we went on to work on a few closer to the original version covers.
Making music should always be a creative venture, regardless of the format, genre or process. Whether you’re writing your own pieces, performing ones created by others or revamping an existing arrangement, there is always going to be a creative spark present, and when that spark is missing the music dies. Sometimes the creativity rests in the presentation of a pre-existing line, the interpretation of the feel, phrasing, or purely emotional content. Other times it is creating the actual line itself, writing the piece, and making it make sense to the listener as well as the musician. Regardless of the approach you choose to take, remember to do more than just play the notes.