In the summer of 1987, Metallica’s Garage Days EP of covers was enormous fun. It was a trip to hear what the band took from the songs they chose, and how it formed their sound. Veteran rock journalist Jon Sutherland once recalled Metallica getting off stage after playing The Misfits' “Last Caress,” and James Hetfield yelling, “Damn, I wish I wrote that song!,” which is ultimately what playing covers is all about - "Why do I love this so much, and how can I create something like it?" Covers are the foundation you build on, and the crucial step in finding yourself and creating your own sound. After playing enough of your favorite music, eventually you keep what you dig about it and create your own.
The first single The Rolling Stones ever released was “Come On” by Chuck Berry, and as Keef points out, “Our first records were all covers, ‘Come on,’ ‘Poison Ivy,’ ‘Not Fade Away.’ We were just playing American music to English people...we were very happy as interpreters of the music that we loved.”
“I’ve learned everything I know off of records,” Richards wrote in his autobiography, Life. “Being able to replay something immediately without all that terrible stricture of written music...being able to hear recorded music freed up loads of musicians that couldn’t necessarily afford to learn to read or write music, like me.”
When Metallica first started gigging around L.A., their live set had three originals and seven covers, and no one in L.A. was the wiser. As Ulrich told writer David Fricke, “We started life as a cover band. It was just, ‘Let’s do something fun. Here are these records we sit around and listen to, here are the records that get us off. It would be fun to play some of this music.’”
Where a lot of bands make the mistake of copying a band too closely (Kingdom Come anyone?), Metallica were clever to copy the feel and the essence of a song and how it was designed, etc. Part of “Seek and Destroy” was structured like Diamond Head’s song “Dead Reckoning,” and the feel of “One” was inspired by Venom’s “Buried Alive.”
Metallica often struck people as a cross between their two biggest influences - Diamond Head and Motorhead, and as Hetfield told Fricke, “We put the two ‘heads together, and came up with something unique.” But as the drummer in a band once told me, even if you want your music to be a cross between Favorite Band A plus Favorite Band B, it’s still probably not going to turn out how you want it to.
As Living Colour guitarist Vernon Reid mentioned in a Guitar Player interview, when learning from other guitarists “the only things you should be learning from these players are the things that are going to resonate in your own life.” And it’s how you interpret or hear something that will go a long way in creating your own style.
Of course, a lot of sixties bands took the blues way off into the stratosphere and created their own sound out of it. Just listen back to Led Zeppelin and The Jeff Beck Group covering the old blues tune “You Shook Me.” Both versions came out at about the same time, and neither version sounds remotely alike.
As Jimmy Page told Guitar World, “I always tried to bring something fresh to anything that I used. I always made sure to come up with some variation. In fact, I think in most cases you would never know what the original source could be...Robert was supposed to change the lyrics, and he didn’t always do that – which is what brought on most of our grief. They couldn’t get us on the guitar parts or the music, but they nailed us on the lyrics. We did, however, take some liberties, I must say [laughs].”
Van Halen first started as a cover band, because back then you had to play Top 40 to get started on the club scene before you moved up to bigger places playing originals. But Ed was such an unorthodox player, even if they played disco tunes (which they did in fact play), it still sounded like Van Halen doing them.
As guitarist Nuno Bettencourt told Guitar World, “In my day, we used to sit down with a record to learn a lick, and because we couldn’t see what the guitar player was doing, we would learn to play the lick in our own unique way. This slowly helped us develop our own identity as players. Today, we so much instructional material and advent of YouTube, players place far too much importance on copying their favorite players exactly rather than finding their own way of interpreting things.”
Post-grunge, there were tons of tribute bands all over L.A. for people on the hair band scene wanting to relive their glory days, and there were tons of players from GIT that could do anything note for note...but it still didn’t sound right because they didn’t capture the feel and nuances of their favorite music. A lot of times it’s the little things that makes your favorite music amazing.
As guitarist Lance Taber, who also played on the Guitar Hero games, says, “Nothing cries poser faster than phonetically, playing most of the notes right, but you haven't paid attention to maybe the sound or the pickup combination or the amp/guitar combination. You would be ridden out of the guitar town on a rail.”
“I find that sometimes these guitarists who are very schooled and very exacting in their playing are not as hard to recreate as the ones that are just winging it, the ones that are maybe even a little sloppy and just are totally shooting from the hip,” says guitarist Nick Gallant, who also played on Guitar Hero. “It can be very, very difficult to recreate someone's spontaneous behavior.”
Some musicians will tell you a good artist borrows, a great artist steals, which I think was a saying stolen from Picasso. And if you steal uniquely enough, as history has proven, it can help you create some amazing music of your own.