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Thread: Cover band song selection

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    Cover band song selection

    This topic comes up from time to time amongst musicians. Here's my strategy. How about you guys?

    Unless you’re only into completely unpopular music you should be able to find songs that are fun to play and that people will enjoy having you play. Certain songs will almost universally work – Brown Eyed Girl, 867-5309, Don’t Stop Believin’, Summer of ’69, etc. But there’s like a gazillion great tunes out there that are seldom played that still get people dancing and drinking. Set order is everything - I’ve played tons of songs that would get crickets early in the night that never failed to get a great reaction late at night.

    I have 4 basic rules for song selection:

    1. You better have fun playing the songs. So never play a song that your singer hates – always let the singer veto anything. Nothing kills the vibe live more than a singer that doesn’t want to sing a song. And never play a song that more than 40% of the band hates – it will have the same vibe killing effect. Close to 100% of the listening public in a bar will never notice if you play a solo note for note, nail all the multi-part harmonies, push/pull the beat too much, etc. but they will absolutely notice if the band is having a good time.
    2. Never play songs that are obscure unless they are immediately immersive – familiar changes, great melody/hook, killer vocal, etc. For example, Soulshine by Warren Haynes – most people have never heard it but if you have a singer that can handle it then it always kills. A good counter example is Maria by Blondie – I know for a fact that nobody wants to hear this no matter how well you do it.
    3. It’s always good to play AC/DC and Stevie Wonder tunes.
    4. I will never play Sweet Home Alabama again unless it’s a dying wish, someone gives me a large bag filled with money, or I’m asked to join Lynyrd Skynyrd. Also, that Kid Rock song, Werewolves of London, and any other variation of a V-IV-I tune with that groove are all subject to the same restrictions.
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    408 Sig Club President Twinfan's Avatar
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    Good advice there! We also run the "singer veto" rule...

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    Quote Originally Posted by hippietim View Post
    I will never play Sweet Home Alabama again unless it’s a dying wish, someone gives me a large bag filled with money, or I’m asked to join Lynyrd Skynyrd. Also, that Kid Rock song, Werewolves of London, and any other variation of a V-IV-I tune with that groove are all subject to the same restrictions.
    Great advice, thanks for sharing!

    I have to ask though, was there an incident with Sweet Home Alabama? The way you worded it ("will never play....again") seemed to allude to a previous bad-experience. Details?
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    Quote Originally Posted by Blackbird View Post
    Great advice, thanks for sharing!

    I have to ask though, was there an incident with Sweet Home Alabama? The way you worded it ("will never play....again") seemed to allude to a previous bad-experience. Details?
    I hate the song. Always have. Love Skynyrd though.
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  5. #5
    This is great advice, Tim. My new band and I are putting together our set list right now and this is really good stuff.

    Oh, and I hate Sweet Home Alabama, too. So there's that!
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    I'll add a few..... based on the lay of the land locally. Maybe different elsewhere, as I suspect that things vary with geography.....

    1. Unless you're sure that the crowd is almost entirely older than 50, play more music from the 90s onward. People want to hear the music that they went to high school and college with. That means more Green Day or Three Doors Down than Led Zepplin or ZZ Top for most of the more popular bars and clubs around here. You might even find that "Bad Girlfriend" or "Rockstar" are actual fun to play and sing.

    2. Themed medleys work very well to keep people on the dance floor, either by artist or time period. And it gives you a chance to throw in parts of a quirky or fun song without having to devote entire song slot to it (you'd be surprised how something like snippets from "Uncle Albert" goes over in the middle of a Paul McCartney medley.)

    3. Play some of the Country Rock (or whatever one calls the stuff) that has come out within the last couple of years. Girls of almost any age will be able to sing along to most of what Zach Brown has put out lately. And the entire female bar population gets up to dance to "Save a Horse".

    4. Only do songs that you can sing well. Deep down, we all want to belt out an AC/DC tune or Van Halen. Very few of us (me included) actually do AC/DC or David Lee Roth well. The audience will almost always be able to tell you if a song was sung well, and no matter how well you play "shook me all night long", if the vocals are off, people will notice.

    5. Unless your following is very large, change up the set lists a bunch. We draw mostly from friends, friends of friends, co-workers and their friends, and slowly, increasingly, from the general bar-going population that has heard us before and may make a point to try to catch us if they see we're playing. To keep them in the bar, they need to hear songs that they didn't hear from you last time. Not an entirely new set list with no overlap, but at least 30 percent different.

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    Angry Southern Gentleman Hopeful Sinner's Avatar
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    The worst/best example of the singer not digging the tune in my opinion was any time Sammy Hagar sang a Roth tune live...

  8. #8
    As tired as "Sweet Home" is, we still do it because it never fails to get a good response no matter where we are.

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    Quote Originally Posted by aristotle View Post
    Themed medleys work very well to keep people on the dance floor, either by artist or time period. And it gives you a chance to throw in parts of a quirky or fun song without having to devote entire song slot to it (you'd be surprised how something like snippets from "Uncle Albert" goes over in the middle of a Paul McCartney medley.)
    You just pointed out that I forgot one of the most important rules of all: no medleys. I hate them. I cringe when I see bands do them. Nothing good can come from mixing and matching song parts. A smooth and quick transition to another song is great but medleys are awful. The only thing worse than a medley is a mashup.

    Playing great dance tunes back to back keeps people on the dance floor just as well and you don't have to something as treacherous as a medley or mashup.

    Not that I have an opinion on the matter.
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    Senior Member geese_com's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by phillybri View Post
    This is great advice, Tim. My new band and I are putting together our set list right now and this is really good stuff.

    Oh, and I hate Sweet Home Alabama, too. So there's that!
    I must be the odd one out, but I enjoy playing Sweet Home Alabama. Throw some of the Pridge & Glory/Zakk Wylde version in there and it isn't too boring.

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    Senior Member sergiodeblanc's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by hippietim View Post
    You just pointed out that I forgot one of the most important rules of all: no medleys. I hate them. I cringe when I see bands do them. Nothing good can come from mixing and matching song parts. A smooth and quick transition to another song is great but medleys are awful. The only thing worse than a medley is a mashup.

    Playing great dance tunes back to back keeps people on the dance floor just as well and you don't have to something as treacherous as a medley or mashup.

    Not that I have an opinion on the matter.
    Never met a medley I liked.

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    Quote Originally Posted by hippietim View Post
    You just pointed out that I forgot one of the most important rules of all: no medleys. I hate them. I cringe when I see bands do them. Nothing good can come from mixing and matching song parts. A smooth and quick transition to another song is great but medleys are awful. The only thing worse than a medley is a mashup.

    Playing great dance tunes back to back keeps people on the dance floor just as well and you don't have to something as treacherous as a medley or mashup.

    Not that I have an opinion on the matter.
    Ha! Leave it to me to plop the proverbial mess on the floor! Can't speak to the cringe factor, but gotta say that they tend to be popular 'round these parts to the point that the crowd gets pissed sometimes when they're expecting them and we leave 'em out. No accounting for taste I guess (mine that is, not yours of course....)

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    I'm lucky in that I play in two very different cover bands.
    We are all a bit older, around 45 and tend to play in bars/pubs/private functions that cater to that demographic.

    We play "Goin' Home" sometime toward the end of the night. Have trimmed it down to about five minutes. Seems to always go over well.
    Quite often we will play some "country lite" such as "Cadillac Ranch", "Guitars, Cadillacs ..." or "Copperhead Road" with success.

    It's important to have enough songs to be able to rotate them in and out of your set lists as appropriate.
    Biggest secret imo is to have fun and enjoy yourself. also keep in mind the audience's perspective.

    Pet peeve ... venues that don't have a stage. Really awkward to have to play on the same level as the audience when dancing, generally about six inches away from them.

  14. #14
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    I come from the tribute band mentality (was in a very successful Eagles tribute for 4 years) and so I tend to be a bit anal about getting everything right. The band I'm in now plays parties, events, BBQs, etc. Not doing the bar/club/pub thing. Just not my calling, lol.

    I absolutely agree on the singer thing. I also never pick songs that are out of my singers range OR that he would strain with... As much as I'd love to do AC/DC or GnR, it just isn't happening with our singer and that's fine. But I don't even bother trying to get him to sing them. I know that seems obvious, but I think picking songs that the singer is comfortable with and can really sound good in are really important IMO.

    I also pick songs that are hits - I love hit songs, much more than the obscurities most of the time. I love the overplayed stuff - I'm one of those weird guys that if I LIKE a song, I can listen to it again and again and never tire of it. I love hits and classic rock staples. I also do a fair amount of 90s country and some modern country or country rock in my set as the singer really likes that stuff. Stuff like Dwight Yoakam, Eric Church, etc. I like it because I can rock it up and still play the song exact as most modern country is very rock tinged to say the least.

    As far as Lynyrd Skynyrd, I love SHA - it's Free Bird I'm tired of. I think Free Bird is a good song, but I'd much rather hear Alabama if I had to pick between the two. About the only thing I like about FB is the great Allen Collins solo on the end. Otherwise it's just too damn long. But Sweet Home Alabama, Gimme Three Steps, What's Your Name, etc always are crowd pleasers.

    I've always not been a big improv guy and I am one who loves studio recordings and feel that the way a song was cut on the record is the masterpiece to follow, so I'm a note-for-note guy. Plenty of people get by fine without doing that, and I realize that but if I can't do what I want to do, then I don't enjoy it myself. So I stay 95+% like the original and make sure that every classic solo or fill or riff is played verbatim. I love bands that play their famous solos live and not just play something in the same key. I've seen Aerosmith and I LOVE Joe Perry to death, but it drives me batty that he doesn't play the solos in Walk This Way like you hear on the record that are one of my top 5 favorite guitar solos. That's one of the things I love about my personal favorite band, the Eagles. They always sounded tight and they always played their known guitar parts like people have come to know and love them. If it's not a signature guitar part, then sure a little improv in the same context is fine (ex: a Chuck Berry esque solo on record would be best suited with a Chuck Berry esque solo live). But songs with memorable lyrical guitar parts I always love reproducing.

    I decided long ago I'm no songwriter. My thing is either the tribute/cover band thing, or playing guitar for someone and playing already recorded material. My niche is to play songs the way they were recorded and still put my heart and soul into it without sounding too clinical. Writing guitar parts or songs just isn't my bag. I have mucho respect for those studio guys but that's not my thing at all.

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