And I agree. Up to a point, anyway. Why not be a bit creative and new? Very few songs are so sacrosanct that they can’t lend themselves to interpretation. Best of all, you may find that embellishments spur the creative process and can be downright fun! Here are some examples and suggestions.
First of all, a bit of a qualifier: I firmly believe that finished product should bear at least some resemblance to the original. That is – the listener should not have to work so hard in their listening that they have no idea what the song is.
A year or so ago I stumbled upon an arrangement of the Van Morrison classic “Crazy Love” done by a Canadian singer/songwriter named Harry Manx. He changed the song pretty substantially by slowing it down and playing slide guitar with only minimal backup of very subtle bass and drums. To me, the emotional impact of the song was really ramped up and that’s not a dis of Van’s original. I learned it (albeit on a straight acoustic, not slide) and it fits my playing and singing perfectly and I almost always get compliments from listeners when I play it. It’s not complex or challenging but the beauty of the song itself stands, a perfect example of how to “make a song your own” and still stay true to the original.
Recently I came up with my own arrangement of the old blues classic, “How Long Blues.” I first heard that song played by Hot Tuna many years ago and replicated their arrangement for as long as I’ve been playing it. But I had been fooling around with a more New Orleans/piano type blues chord sequence and suddenly it occurred to me that it would be perfect for this song. Instead of staying on the I chord (E7) for two full measures I now play one measure of E7 followed by one measure of G#7. Then, instead of sticking on the following IV chord (A7) for two full measures I play one measure of A7 (fifth position) followed by a measure of F#7. Then I stick to the final four measures of one measure E7, one measure B7, half measure E7, half measure A7, half measure E7, half measure B7. If the spirit moves me and I want to “sweeten” it up a bit I will occasionally substitute a straight E Major (or E6) for the E7, and A Major for the A7.
This was fun and sounded good so I thought – what the heck, how about a bridge that is substantially different than the verse chords? I came up with something that incorporates a C#m (relative minor of the I chord) and an Edim7 with a little six-note lick at the end, then returning to the last four measures of the original verse chords. It works and I think it sounds pretty darn cool and for the casual listener who’s not steeped in the I-IV-V blues format (and may find it boring) there is a lot more “meat on the bones.” Is it blues, really? Hell, I don’t know. Nor do I care. All I know is it’s recharged my interest in this old blues chestnut.
How can you add some interest to songs you know without being too radical? There are many ways but here are a few that work.
Change the key. This is really all you’re doing when you use a capo, but why not transpose the song with new chord voicings entirely? This may or may not work depending upon the complexity and ease of playing the chords but in the process you may discover little things like bass lines that were impossible to play in the original key.
Chord substitutions. In jazz there is an unwritten rule that you should never stay on ANY chord more than two beats, even if the original song calls for a longer amount of time on a chord. Different inversions or “voicings” of a chord work even in songs that are not jazz. Learn at least the triads of all the primary Major and minor chords all the way up the neck, then try to use one or more of them beyond a chord is meant to be played for long time. Sometimes you can juice up the original chords by using slightly more complex versions. I like to substitute things like Major 6, Major 9 and 6/9’s for straight major chords if I think they sound appropriate. With minors I frequently substitute a min7 for the straight minor, or even a min7+9 sometimes. Let your ear guide you on any substitutions you try. I’ll bet you discover some cool stuff!
Tempo changes. This is a bit dangerous as you are now entering the realm of the rhythmic connection between the listener and player. Some songs are just expected to be played at a certain speed and a jarring diversion can have a negative result. It’s been my experience that a song that is pretty fast lends itself to being slowed down a bit, much more than the opposite. But it’s worth a try. My advice if you’re going to try a tempo change is to practice it with a metronome because you will most likely find that your musical brain just wants to hear the original tempo. And before long you find yourself returning to that!
Creative intros and outros. Don’t be too long with these but remember that just like the verse and chorus of the original song there is nowhere that it says the intro and outro have to be exactly like what you hear in the original. It can be something as simple at a single-note quote of the melody, or a harmonized piece of the melody. In jazz, intros are often the changes of the bridge or chorus rather than the chord sequence of a verse. This can be done with any type of music and can sound really interesting.
These are just a few ideas. I’m sure you can come up with some of your own. Just keep an open mind. It’s easy to slip into the same-old, same-old way of playing songs. We’re all guilty of that! If you find yourself getting bored with what you’re playing, though – try to look at those tried and true songs from a fresh perspective. The result will be interesting and satisfying, promise!
Peace & good music,