A Recipe For Arranging/Learning Impressive Cover Songs
Publish Date2016-01-19

For The Sake Of The Song

Cover songs are a great tool. They are great to mix into a live set. They also provide a medium to practice arrangement without the pressures associated with arranging/performing original work.

Since I began playing guitar I have use covers as a learning tool. The tool still serves me well. I enjoy playing and arranging covers, and I constantly learn from the practice.

In December 2015, I executed a rigorous cover song project called Dylcember (check it out here). The premise was to record and post 31 Bob Dylan Cover Songs in the month (one track per day). Even with my strong knowledge of Bob Dylan's song catalog, arranging and recording a cover per day was ambitious. Especially having a 3 hour commute to a full time job, and family to spend time with during the holiday season. This challenge was tough, but I successfully completed it.

The rapid pace strained my abilities to their max. I was fatigued and working with no time or energy to spare. Yet, I still had a desire to produce something I was proud of. Through this dedication, strain, and repetition my skills evolved.

I came up with this framework for writing covers. Targeted consistency prepares the creative mind with minimal strain. Not only is it the methodology quick, but it produces high quality covers. It is very efficient.

Lets get to it!

The Easiest Way To Learn A Cover

Here are the steps I followed each night:

  1. Arrangement: Learn The Chord Changes
  2. Arrangement: Learn Some Lyrics From Each Section
  3. Arrangement: Learn Some Of The Melody Notes
  4. Arrangement: Take A Break
  5. Arrangement: Find Your Key
  6. Arrangement: Find Your Chords / Strum Pattern
  7. Delivery: Learn All The Lyrics
  8. Delivery: Discover Your Delivery
  9. Delivery: Capture The Performance For Future Reference

The next sections provide some advice/explanation for each step.

Learn The Chord Changes

The goal here is to play along with the song without written instruction. Pull up chords online, or learn them by ear. If there are multiple sections, learn them all.

Learn Lyrics One Of Each Section

I can accomplish this in tandem with learning chords most of the time. The main reason for this step is to allow you to step away from the computer. It is also a general distraction to fuss over the lyrics while arranging. You have to learn them anyway, so just get started now.

Learn Some Of The Melody Notes

I prefer to let my brain find the key for me. To do this, you first need to know a few notes in the original melody.

Find a spot in the song, the beginning or a strong part and figure out the notes on guitar in the original key. Don't go crazy, just learn a few reference notes.

Take A Break

Get the song out of your head. Its important for the next step.

Find Your Key

A little later start singing that part acapella, and then grab your guitar. Find the note you are singing on guitar, and adjust your capo to match the chords of that part. You should know the relationship because you found the melody note earlier.

Find Your Chords / Strum Pattern

This is a very important yet often neglected part. Find the chords that sound the best. Just because you found the key by moving the capo up 3 frets does not mean you should play it that way.

Maybe this song sounds better with no capo, but instead a D voicing in standard tuning, maybe its cool in open D, maybe its nice with the capo on 2 with the C shape. Try them all out, and try stumming patterns/tempo/rhythems with them all as well. This is the artistic part of the arrangement right here. Make it you, make it new, make it interesting.

I have discovered many awesome chord voicings from this part of the process. Nothing crazy, here are a few I have never encountered before:

  A D E
E 0 5 0
B 5 7 0
G 6 7 9
D 7 0 9
A 0 x 7
E x x 0

Learn All The Lyrics

This is self explanatory. I usually memorize each verse in isolation repeating a part 4x without mistakes, then adding a new line. Then do that verse and the one before it 4x without mistakes.

You cannot deliver effectively without memorizing the lyrics. Take the time to do it.

Discover Your Delivery

Now you know all the words, and the way you want to play the song. Find words you want to savor, and practice their delivery. You are pretty much done. Although a song is never learned, delivery can always improve.

Record It For Future Reference

Even if you do not play in releasing a recording or a video, make sure you get one for your own reference. Also I recommend noting the instrumentation because you may forget it later. To kill two birds with one stone, I usually PhotoBooth the performance with the guitar in frame.