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 By Jason Wilford 

Learning songs from other artists is a great way to learn how to play music. It allows us to learn the techniques and styles of different musicians, and figure out how we can sound good by mimicking what others have done. 

But what happens when we don’t want to simply just copy other people anymore? How can you make a song sound like it’s your own rather than just playing a piece note-for-note as other artists have played it? 

Today I’m going to share some ideas with you on how to put your own spin on the songs you learn so that they can begin taking on a new life. 

1. Change the rhythm or feel of the song 

This might seem like a simple idea, but can sometimes be harder than you think. Change up the strumming pattern, switch from swing feel to straight feel, make the rhythm more/less busy, or change the time signature. Doing changes like this can actually make the song feel completely different, so you may want to start subtly and work with it from there. Check out Frank Sinatra’s version of Fly Me To The Moon; it was originally written in 3/4, but I personally feel that his 4/4 version resonates with me much better. 

2. Switch the key of the song 

Switching the key is definitely something that you want to keep in mind, especially if singing is involved. Every singer is different, and will feel comfortable in a certain range. Changing the key can help accommodate a singers voice, but it can also do much more than that. The key of a song can control the intensity of a piece, and make it feel more/less energetic. Sometimes moving a song something as little as a half step (one fret) up or down can have a tremendous effect on how intense it feels. Many songs will modulate the ending to go up one or two semi-tones to make it stand out, so just think of the change that this could bring to a full song if done in a thoughtful way. As with anything else, experimenting to see where the songs sounds best to you is recommended. 

3. Alter some notes in the original melody 

Make a song your own by changing some of the notes from the original melody. You don’t need to do the if you’re completely happy with the original melody, but if you feel more comfortable singing an extra note here and there, or if you like to change a few notes as you go, don’t feel bad about doing it. One thing to ask yourself: is the change I’m making altering the song in a positive or negative way? If you think it sounds better, then go for it! But only change things if you think it’s improving the original song. Many singers change at least a few notes when they cover a song. 

4. Re-harmonize the melody by using different chords 

A really cool way to change the feel of a song is to change the chords that stand behind the melody. You don’t need to change that many chords; in fact, sometimes even just changing one chord can have a drastic difference. Check out A Perfect Circle’s version of Imagine below (originally by John Lennon). See how much darker their version feels? The most notable thing they did was to change the first chord from a major chord to it’s relative minor, while also changing the relative key of the song up by 3 semi-tones. (although they also use quite a few other things that I have on this list here.) 

5. Change the tempo of the song 

Changing the tempo can affect the feel in many ways. Sometimes a song will sound much different just by slowing it down or speeding it up, so play with the tempo and see what you come up with. If it doesn’t make the song sound better to you, then don’t change it. But if you that changing the temps alters the song in a positive way, go for it! 

6. Play the song in a new style or genre 

Don’t feel like you need to play a song the exact way it was played in the original. Changing the style (genre) is a simple way to make a song feel like a completely new piece. If the song is originally a country song, you can switch it to rock or reggae and make it come alive as something new. The key here is to stick to a genre that you like, and that you feels speaks to your own style. Check out Rage Against The Machine covering Afrika Bambaataa’s original song Renegades of Funk. Hear how much a style change can effect how the song comes across? 

7. Create a new arrangement for the song 

Changing the arrangement involves switching the order of each section of the song (verse, chorus, bridge etc). Sometimes a song sounds great the way it was originally written, but other times can benefit from being re-arranged. For example, if the song is too long, you can cut some parts out. If you want something unexpected for the listener, add in an extended solo section. There are many things you can do here, so be creative and see what you can come up with! 

Now that you’ve learned some ways to help you take a song and make it your own, can you think of some songs that use some (or all) of these ideas that change it from the original? 

About the Author:

 Jason Wilford is a musician and teaches beginner guitar lessons in Mississauga.