If you want to sing out, sing out! How to cover songs successfully

by Sorcha Chisholm

If you want to sing out, sing out! How to cover songs successfully by Sorcha ChisholmThe photo above is me outside the Koninklijk Theatre where Tori Amos played Amsterdam in September 2017. I was lucky enough to get last minute tickets the very day before I was scheduled to fly home after my European tour. Needless to say, it was all very auspicious and I recently started to think about how many songs I can play of hers, and how by playing them they’ve become a part of me. She also has a special approach to doing covers. I have also interpreted many songs by other artists in the meantime and I’m also keen to try my hand at a few that intimidate me! Here is some background and a few tips for nailing that cover song.

To Cover or not to Cover?

That is the question… There are people out there who can’t stand performing or hearing covers, perhaps because it can really change our perception of the song as it was done originally, and the singular memories that may be attached to that particular tune. A cover song can either be a whole new enhancement on the original or a dastardly affair that makes everyone cringe.

I’m of the mind that mimicry is not always a bad thing when trying to learn a new medium. People steal shamelessly from each other as it is, and the music industry is particularly fraught with copyright infringement stories, crimping of riffs, outright sampling and covering songs in a completely new style.

When you’re 15 and unsure of whether you really do have a gift or not, copying one’s favourite singers is kinda par for the course.

Play it by Ear

Learning by ear is an organic way to learn music. Most musicians hail from this school or  from the traditional theory based school. I hail from the former with only rudimentary training in the latter. The “play it by ear” method is good because it trains the ear not only the tone and nuance of a song, but also the beat, tempo, chord and  song structure. It also helps when playing with others and jamming out.

Knowing how to read music is definitely a skill to possess but I haven’t really used it so much in my career.

Learning chords is essential if you want to learn how to cover songs. U2 made a huge career for themselves by playing songs with only 2-3 chords in them! In fact one of the first songs I recall covering was for my Year 10 Music class.

All I Want is You

Mr Cassidy was the leather jacket wearing, cool cat, I’m-really-loving-working-in-this-all-girl-catholic-school kinda guy and all the girls fawned over him. He gave us an assignment to cover a song and about 5 other girls and I chose U2’s “All I Want is You”.

I began to tentatively play the piano and sing. It was hella nervewracking to perform in front of the rest of the class but I think we all did really well considering!

So once my cherry was popped there was no going back. I wanted to learn more songs. So yes I sat at the piano at home and drove my poor sister mad playing Tori non stop.


Fortunately other artists started to peak my interest as I listened to different radio stations. I was also taking up the guitar thanks to my stepdad who was playing it for himself and collecting print outs of chords and lyric sheets.

We jammed together on classic rock songs from bands like Pink Floyd, The Eagles, Santana, Led Zeppelin, The Doors and The Rolling Stones, just to name a few. Little by little I started to get more confidence playing them on my own.

The frequent parties my mum and stepdad hosted inevitably saw the “Yammy” (Yamaha) guitar being pulled out and a singalong ensuing. It was great fun and I realised this was what I wanted to do for reals.

Be a Cover Song Hero

Here are a couple of tips for upping your cover song game:

  1. Listen Listen Listen. Hum the melody, tap out the beat and listen for changes in the structure of the song.
  2. Ensure you have the correct chords and that they are in the best key for your vocal range. (There are a ton of sites online such as E-chords, Ultimate Guitar and AZ Chords. Some of these sites can transpose the key for you.)
  3. Engage with the story behind the song and the way the singer is telling it. Is it relatable to your own life in some way?
  4. Jam along with the track.
  5. Add nuance to the song and take liberties with it eg. add a different intro/outro, extend the bridge in case you’re playing with others who might like a solo section, alter the lyrics to be humourous etc.
  6. Don’t mimic the original. MAKE IT YOUR OWN. This will give it a dynamic feel and the audience are more likely to enjoy it when you get around to performing it.

I hope these pointers help you on your way to being a Cover Song Hero! Have fun!

PS. Here’s a video of yours truly covering the Cat Stevens song “If You Want to Sing Out.”

Artist’s Note
Guitar, Piano, Vocals
Sorcha Chisholm, Tori Amos, U2, cat stevens, if you want to sing out sing out, cover song

Sorcha Chisholm

Sorcha Chisholm, Category: Artist, Albums: Hymns for Her, Singles: Lost and Found, Chrysalis, Radiodaze, Top Tracks: The Flower and the Bee, Light in the Darkness, Kiss of the Spiderwoman, The Fool, Give It up to the Goddess, Biography: Sorcha is a songsmith, poet and musical explorer.

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