5 Techniques to Spice Up Your Cover Songs

Hello! This article will give you a couple of fresh ideas that’ll help you make some steps towards becoming a much more interesting guitar player.

The general idea is that you can approach each one of the songs that you are about to play as a “free playground“, a clean slate, that you can take and change to fit the way that YOU want it to sound like.

This creative thinking can make playing songs a more fun, satisfying experience – and the people that you play for will also surely be a lot more excited to listen!

So don’t feel committed to how everything originally sounded like, because everybody had already heard that a bunch of times. Instead – take the freedom to give your listeners a more personal, special interpretation of the song. One that they did not hear before.

01. Changing the Vibe of a Song by Changing the GROOVE

(Rhythmic Feeling)

Rhythm is the main ingredient, the backbone, of every musical performance. By shuffling up the rhythm you can create a cool, unexpected version of a song.

In this way, we can (for example) turn a chill song into a funky song, take an “angry” rock n’ roll song and turn it into a relaxed tune, turn a modern pop song into a bossanova, etc.

The First Things to Know About Changing Grooves

  • More often than not – changing the rhythm also changes the entire vibe of the song. So try to adjust your playing (and your singing, if you sing) to it as well. For example, let’s check out the song “Free Fallin'”.

The original, by Tom Petty, is an 80’s rock n’ roll song with a lot of energies and a pretty strong rock n’ roll drum beat. However, the live cover by John Mayer is a mellow, fingerpicked, and slower version. Notice how the entire vibe in Mayer’s singing and playing is totally different (and way more mellow) from the one Tom Petty showed in his original performance, to fit “the new vibe”.

The Red Hot Chili Peppers – an entire career that’s built on a super-tight GROOVE

  • Using the list in the next page you can have a look at some famous artists who covered songs by other famous artists while changing the rhythm.
  • It’s not easy to come up with a lot of fresh “song rhythm” ideas straight out of your sleeve. That’s why I recommend checking out one of the two different “drum beats” apps below, which will help you by giving you dozens of rhythm & groove ideas which you can pick from. Try playing your favorite songs with the beats that you like. Drum Beats+, Loopz.

Examples of famous covers that changed the rhythm of the original song: link.

02. Arpeggio Picking

The Art of Chopping Down Chords to Individual Notes

Arpeggio picking is where instead of strumming full “up and down” strums – you chop down the chords to individual notes. Here’s a very famous example.

In my opinion, it is the most beautiful and useful way to spice-up any song that was previously played only with up and down strums.

The Foundational Things to Know About Arpeggio

  • Arpeggio divides into two main schools – playing with a pick, or playing with your fingers. (Also often called “fingerstyle arpeggio”) The pick has a sharper, more distinct sound, while the fingers provide for a more delicate sound and with increased options. (Such as plucking two or more strings at once, and others that I’ll explain more about below).
  • Remember that you can use arpeggio just in some parts of the song, while strumming the rest of it. Usually, it sounds better if you arpeggiate the more relaxed parts (intro, first verse, maybe first chorus) and strum the more upbeat parts.
  • The basic arpeggio pattern (B 3 2 1 2 3 – as in “Everybody Hurts“) is the first thing you’ll want to “get into your fingers”, both with a pick or with the fingers. Then, you can think of all the other patterns as modifications to this one.
  • There are many types of fingerstyle arpeggio playing. (and you will see many of them in the next page) The more of them that you’ll start getting into, the richer that your arpeggio playing will become in any situation.

Examples of famous “arpeggio songs” – See how famous guitarists used this technique:

First – arpeggio songs that were played with a pick.

“Arpeggio songs” that were played with the fingers. Including different styles of fingerstyle arpeggio that it’s great to know (in no particular order).

Remember that you can always play all of the songs listed in the “played with a pick” list above – with your fingers. They will simply sound more mellow.

03. DYNAMICS – Give Your Songs A Lot More DEPTH

by Building Them Up Gradually

A dynamic song-playing refers to how you control the relativity between the “performance energy” / “emotional power” that you use for each of the different parts of the song. The graphs below will explain it in a better way.

The First Things to Learn About Dynamic Song-Playing

  • This is a super relevant technique that can add a lot more impact and interest to almost all of the songs that you’re going to play on the guitar – if only you would adopt the way of looking at energy that I propose here.
  • Here’s a general example of a dynamics graph which will make your listeners enjoy the performance a lot more, and just be a lot more attentive.
  • And here’s what to avoid: A “flat” dynamics graph, where the whole song sounds the same.
  • When there’s a whole band playing a song, it’s a lot easier to notice the energy that’s built. For example, a typical instrumentalization is that in the first verse it might be just a guitar and vocals, but in the second verse, drums, bass, (or others) might be joining too.

However, when all you have for a performance is just one guitar, adding or detracting energy becomes trickier. A practical example of adding dynamics is if you start a song with a mellow, fingerpicked arpeggio pattern in the 1st verse – and then move to louder full strums in the chorus. To show that it’s actually the chorus…

Examples of songs where you can clearly hear the guitarist “following” the dynamics principles mentioned above: link.

04. Bass Walk-Ups & Walk-Downs

Add RICH Bass Transitions Between Chords!

Bass walk-ups and walk-downs are when you add a “transition bass note” In between two chords. (Examples below) It lets you add just the right amount of spice on top of some of your chord transitions – while emphasizing the bass notes.

This was the first “spice up” technique that I personally learned on the beginning of my guitar journeys. I remember how I was excited and proud when a friend of mine – who was playing guitar for several years already, asked me “what was it that you did there between the chords?

When trying to explain the technique to others – the easiest thing is always to simply send them to listen to Stand By Me. While it is actually played on a double bass, you can translate the same “musical ideas” to a guitar as well.

The First Things to Know About Bass Walk-Ups & Walk-Downs

Knowing the basics of music theory and scales will help here in the beginning, when you’re trying to figure out which notes you can “walk” on. (more about that in the video and here) However, you can easily also get away without it, since there are never more than two options of notes in between the chords that you’ll want to add a transition between.

Because of that, a little bit of trial and error will teach you the common transitions that work on all of the similar chord transitions in almost all of the songs.

For example, in 95% of the songs – the note that you can “Step” on when creating a bass walk-up or walk-down between a C and an Am chord is the B note – on the A string (5th string), 2nd fret.

  • Sometimes the bass walk-ups / walk-downs will be indicated in the chord chart of a song as “slash chords” (Like a C/B for example) – but most of the time, people who write chord charts do not include them, and only your ears will be able to tell you that a certain song uses them.

Examples of songs that use bass Walk-Ups and Walk-Downs. These will teach you all the common bass transitions that you’ll ever encounter: link.

When you learn a specific transition that you’ve already heard in a song (for example, a C into an Am with a “walk-down” on the B note) – it becomes a lot easier and more natural to also play it in other songs when you encounter the same chord transitions. (and let’s face it, the vast majority of songs are built from the same chord transitions, so every transition that you’ll learn will go a long way) Enjoy!

05. Adding Delightful Colors to Your Songs

by Adding 7th Chords (Instead of Some of the Basic Chords)

“I like using all those major 7th… 11th…, all those jazz chords, and throw them into pop songs. You don’t put too much of the sauce, you just put enough of it, so that it sounds a bit different than all the other records on the radio.”Source

Charlie Puth, songwriter of several top-10 Billboard hits, including “Attention“.

7th chords (mostly Major 7th such as Cmaj7, Minor 7th such as Cm7, and Dominant 7th – C7) are the first “chord extensions” / chord spices that most people get to use. Many people tend to just ignore them and play regular chords instead – but when you do that, you miss on some of the most beautiful sounds that your guitar can produce!

Today, we will look at many songs that are great “showcases” for the use of 7th chords, and also, we will learn how to add them ourselves – and substitute some of those “same-old” boring chords. Practically speaking. Let’s begin:

The First Things to Know About Substituting Regular Chotds with 7th Chords

The three most common types of 7th chords that you’ll encounter in popular music are:

  1. Major 7th chords – which are Major chords with a major 7th added note (a major 7th is a half-step below the root), so a Cmaj7 chord notes would be C-E-G-B.
  2. Dominant 7th chords. (Major chords with a dominant 7th added note – which is a whole-step below the root, and is also called a minor 7th in different situations), so a C7 (rarely notated Cdom7) chord notes would be C-E-G-Bb. Super common in blues. These chords have a more “open-ended” sound – which implies an “open question”.
  3. Minor 7th chords. (Minor 7th is also a whole-step below the root). So, in a Cm7 chord – the notes would be C-Eb-G-Bb.
  • Don’t be lazy, play those 7th chords that you see in the chord charts, don’t just opt for a basic chord instead of them! You will see how the result might be a subtle difference, but it will be a lot more pleasing to the ears. The 7th chords cheat sheet at the bottom of the section will help you get familiar with all of the common 7th chords that you’ll encounter – and more.
  • Oftentimes – you can convert regular chords that you encounter in a song – into 7th chords – to make the songs sound livelier. For common situations where it can sound great – see the following directions:

The pretty common rules-of-thumb to begin with (even though it’s more complicated that that) are that Minor chords can (very often) be replaced with Minor 7th chords, (like an Am that turns into an Am7) and Major chords can sometimes be replaced with Major 7th, (C > Cmaj7) – besides Major chords which function as the V (fifth) harmonic degree (like for example a G chord – in a song in the key of C, which often would change into a G7).

  • However – the main thing to pay attention to when substituting regular chords for 7th chords – is your ears – which will immediately tell you if this conversion works! This is because that sometimes, even if you “abide” by the rules, the specific melody in this specific part of the song, just might not work with a 7th chord because they might clash.
  • The general idea is simple – just like how Charlie Puth put it: “You don’t need too much of the sauce”. Even if you take any 4 chord song (Let’s say “Country Roads” – which goes G > D > Em > C) and turn just one chord out of it into a 7th chord – (G > D > Em7 > C) so it would already sound nicer – and will probably be more fun and interesting to play.
  • It’s cool if you sometimes “get into” the 7th note of the chord with a hammer-on! (Watch this cover of Just the Two of Us to see what I am talking about)

Songs that are great showcases of the sound of 7th chords: link.

Besides listening to these songs on YouTube, (while you can also follow along with the chord charts to know when your ears should “expect” the 7th chords) I also recommend playing the ones that you like – to get those 7th chords into your fingers and ears!

Songs and situations where it can sound great when you substitute regular chords into 7ths: link.

5 Points on How to Get the Most Out of this article:

  • Listen to the examples! (The song’s names are always clickable) There’s only a certain amount of understanding that you can get from reading about music. So make sure to also listen to a few of the examples of each technique that you’re curious about – to hear how different guitarists are using it.
  • Even more so, the fastest (and only) way to get these techniques into your actual, intuitive way of playing songs, is to learn how to play some of those songs and parts that already featured these techniques. Then – it’s going to feel natural to apply these techniques also into any other song.
  • To make it easier to learn – I always included links to chords and / or tabs, and you can also find song lessons on YouTube to assist your learning. (Also – I recommend trying to gradually rely more on your ears instead of tabs, besides, you can check out some great easy chord songs that are perfect for novices to learn and practice).
  • You don’t need to stop at one technique. Combining more than a single spice-up technique into one song-performance is usually a great idea.
  • Remember that we’re not trying to be “flashy” just for the sake of it – but many songs can indeed become a ton more fun to listen to when you do add some nice spice-up touches to them.

The bottom line is – always trust your ears when you’re trying to give a song your own interpretation. If your ears and your heart love what they’re hearing – keep doing it, it’s awesome!

Best wishes and enjoy your musical journeys!

About the author

KhaiTran

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