7 Tips for Starting a Cover Band

How To Have Fun and Make Money Playing Popular Music

“Why would anyone want to play in a cover band?” The answer is simple: It’s a ton of fun, it generally pays better than not playing at all, and it’s a great way to make new fans, friends and even to see how your original material stands up to the classic crowd faves. Plus, consider this: If you’ve been playing music for years, but still can’t pull out the guitar fireside at a bbq and play some CCR or Beatles, your friends and family are eventually going to stop considering you a musician. Meanwhile, Dave from accounting is going to hack away at G,C and D all night singing “Every Rose Has It’s Thorn” and you’ll be stuck at the sidelines explaining to your grandma why you’re still working on your debut EP after four years with nothing to show for it. Or...

Maybe just finished playing a 25 minute set at a local concert hall to 13 of your friends and family who all paid $10 to see your band play 6 original songs using someone else’s drums and amplifiers, singing into the communal, slimy microphone in-between a half-dozen other bands who range from college jazz bands to rappers and the mandatory extreme metal bands. No one is dancing, no one is really drinking, no one is single (the girlfriends are looking bored too)... no one is getting paid, except the promoter and the venue. The “winner” of the “band-battle” just won a free photoshoot and five hours recording time at the local studio (ie: free sample). After weeks of practice and a ton of lifting equipment, new strings, new drumskins, haircuts, new shoes, you’ve just busted your nut for what feels like nothing.

Good thing the whole shindig is over early enough to go and grab a couple drinks at a nearby pub and moan about how the music industry is dead/dying/lame and no one understands real music when they hear it. So you pop into the first little local you see and the place is buzzing! Women are dancing, guys are cheering, the bartender is pouring multiple rounds of shots and the music is... live... alive! The sweaty trio in the corner of the pub is playing some top 40 tune on acoustic guitars and the place is loving it. You think to yourself, “No fair! I can do that! I’m just busy writing the next Dark Side of The Moon!” 

If you’re like me, you’d rather be sweatin’ to the oldies, playing the cover songs at the Irish pub, rather than exhausting myself (and my morale) playing some shady “battle of the bands”. I’ve been doing it for years now, and I love it! Don’t get me wrong, I still identify as a songwriter, I still play original sets at proper concerts, but when it comes to fun and money... I proudly play cover songs! 

Here are 7 tips for getting started with your cover band:

  1. How many players? I recommend starting as an acoustic duo. Having a friend play with you is very helpful because you can cover more ground. Have your partner sing half the songs and harmonize for each other. Rotate on lead and rhythm duties, keep each other motivated and polished. Plus, when networking you cover twice the ground. Keep in mind, if you’re going with a full band, there’s a lot more work involved and a lot less places to play. Many bars and pubs do not have full bands play because of space constraints and noise issues. Acoustic acts are more flexible (and less gear, personality conflicts, headaches, etc.). Solo is a good option, though it requires more discipline and it’s harder to sonically fill the space. It is often preferable though, because you keep all the money and you don’t have to count on anybody else.
  2. Have at least three 45 minute sets of popular songs good to go. Any less and you won’t be asked back. When choosing what songs to play, keep it simple and a stick to popular classic rock and pop songs. Songs that everyone know the words to. The goal here is not to show everyone how artistic and eclectic your taste in music is, it is to make sure everyone is having a great time, get people dancing and singing along. Maybe when you’re at home you like playing Camper Van Beethoven or Perfect Circle, but when you’re being paid by a pub to keep people drinking, you better know how to play Sweet Home Alabama, Summer of ’69 and some contemporary stuff, like Zac Brown Band or Adele. My band, The Clearing has a lot of success taking popular dance songs (What Is Love? by Haddaway always kills it), and turning them into acoustic, Celtic-style singalongs.
  3. Get the right equipment. If you play guitar, pick up a good, working acoustic guitar with a pick up. I personally recommend something not too expensive with the tuner and volume knob built right in (no one wants to hear you tune, and having the tuner right there is very, very handy... especially when it’s noisy and you’ve had a couple shots). I play a Yamaha APX500. I have had less issues with this guitar than some of my friends have had with guitars ten times the price. Plus, bars get crazy (trust me), so bringing your vintage Gibson acoustic is not advisable. If you don’t have a tuner in your guitar, get a Boss tuning pedal (every musician needs one anyways). If you’re playing through an amp, keep it small... do not bring your Mesa Triple Rectifier and 412 cab to the corner bar, save it for Madison Square Gardens. Auxiliary percussion is always a brilliant idea: Bring some shakers, cowbell, tambourines and hand them out when the crowd gets going. They’ll be talking about it for the rest of the week. Another useful tool I use is an iPad and iPad holder for my cheat sheets (lyrics and chords for when I need them). Set your iPad to reverse colors under Settings < Accessibility, and you’ll have a black background with white letters, which is more subtle in the dark and easier to read.
  4. Bring backup! Have extra guitar strings, cables, batteries, sticks, skins! Do it! Duh. It wouldn’t kill you to bring a backup guitar too, even if you keep it in your car/van.
  5. Have clear expectations with the venue before you confirm. Communicate every aspect of the night: Start time? End time? Payment? How much free drinks/food? Cover charge? Will they do a Facebook event/posters/promo, or are you expected to do it? Do they have a PA system, or are you expected to bring it? Will they do sound, or you? Do they have mic stands, cables, lights. Find out as much info as possible, without being a nag and annoying the management.
  6. Be courteous to the staff and guests. This sounds obvious, but you’d be surprised how many self-righteous, prima-donnas out there are pushy and unpleasant to their hosts. Remember, you’re being hired to contribute to their business... be grateful for the work, be polite to everyone you deal with, sing happy birthday if you have to, take requests if you’re able, smile, encourage people to have fun and party. You’ll have more fun and be asked back. Additionally, do not get drunk! Have a couple pints if you like, but getting drunk is thoroughly unpro. Also, very important: Don’t forget to tip! Maybe they’ve comped your whole tab, throw the bartender some cash at the end of the night (20% of whatever your full bill would have been if you were paying full price). They’ll remember it.
  7. Don’t forget to give out business cards, and to get people’s email addresses for your growing mailing list! If you’re not doing this, you’re not maximizing your effort. Talk about your website, sell your CDs, tag people in Instagram, take videos for your promo package to book more gigs. It’s all part of the ongoing fan experience. Down the road, if you have 5,000 email addresses to promote your shows and sell CDs, it’s more likely to that you’ll get to advance your career to a level where you can put cover gigs behind you. Though you probably won’t because they’re so much fun!

Note to readers: I have only just scratched the surface with some free tips. If you have any further questions, input, advice or praise, please feel free to post your comments below and I'll do my best to respond. Cheers!


The Perfect Bar Guitar for Cover Gigs

Smaller body, durable, looks great, in-body tuner/EQ and very affordable.

My favourite "working" guitar for bar gigs. Stays in tune, has a built-in tuner, it's a smaller body and looks sharp. Sounds great too, with built-in volume and visual EQ.

iKlip for your iPad

Stop flipping beer-stained pages in a binder ASAP.

IK Multimedia iKlip Music Stand for iPad 1/2
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(price as of Jun 8, 2015)
Handy as hell. Great for looking up songs on the fly.

Cover Band Secret Weapon

Look up new songs on-the-fly! Sign up fans, take photos, do it all!

Handy as hell. Great for looking up songs on the fly. Add a mailing list sign-up app and make some new friends between sets. Take photos and video for site content - the perfect cover gig accessory.