If you want a seminar on classic-rock guitar tone, it’s probably as close as your local watering hole, where the nightly entertainment is presented by cover and tribute bands simulating the experience of classic-rock bands performing live. To truly provide audiences with the vibe, thrills, and sense memories of grooving to Alice Cooper, Led Zeppelin, Van Halen, Journey, and other such heavies, the guitarists paying tribute to these iconic bands must weave their spells with spot-on tones, riffs, licks, and solos. Or do they?
In order to determine exactly how cover artists approach their “emulative endeavors,” I put out a Facebook call asking them to divulge tips, conceptual advice, and tone strategies. These men and women love stepping into the musical shoes of their heroes, and the depth of study they often undertake to do their jobs well and attract audience support is likely no less grueling that of original artists striving to develop unique and commercial voices. Here’s a compendium of their shared wisdom…
How precisely does the typical audience expect you to emulate the parts and tones on the hits you cover?
Martina “Chaos” Fasano (Eyes of Alice): For the most part, the audience wants to hear the songs they love played the way they remember them on the original, recorded versions. They’re not there to hear your heavy-metal djent version of “No More Mr. Nice Guy.” But I’ve found that if you play the songs close enough to the originals, people are happy. Very few audience members are going to get caught up in deciding whether or not your Marshall sounds like Slash’s, or if you are using the same phaser as Eddie Van Halen.
Richard Gee (Marinfidels): Playing all parts exactly isn’t important to our audience. More important is the energy that we bring to the songs. Of course, we play the signature licks correctly, and we make sure the tones don’t suck, but audiences want entertainment. Someone who plays parts perfectly, but with no emotion or attitude usually isn’t received well.
Bill Rupert (E53, Mis B’Havin, Tongue n’ Groove): As long as an audience knows what the song is, and it’s performed well, they’re typically very pleased. After all, there are so many variables after your amp’s speakers—such as audience noise—that make it nearly impossible to nail the original tones.
Mark Banning (The Unauthorized Rolling Stones): Guitar players expect more precision than most normal people, and, for many years, I tried to appease the critical guitarists in my audiences. Obviously, tone is very important to me, but, lately, I just try to get into the ballpark.
Adrian Conner (Belles Bent for Leather): If something sounds like sh*t, any audience is going to be disappointed. If there are many mistakes, folks will walk out and say negative stuff about the band. But, that said, the audience wants you to do well. They are on your side, and they want to be amazed. You should also remember that rock audiences want to see action and passion as opposed to perfect technique. Still, I never stop listening and trying to get better. I research the parts and practice to a metronome—Jennifer Batten gave me an excellent finger exercise that keeps me training all year long—because I need to work up to around 220bpm for a Belles Bent for Leather gig. I also need some distortion to execute pick squeals, pitch harmonics, and dive bombs, but I’m careful not to squash the f**k out of my tone with gain.
Desmonde Mulcahy (Rebel Rebel): We pay tribute to the music of David Bowie, and we respect what he intended with a given song. But Bowie changed arrangements all the time when performing his work live, so we feel free to explore other interpretations within our performances.
Brandon Cook (Appetite for Deception): My goal is to exactly replicate the feeling, tone, and performance of Slash, and I can’t allow myself to aim for anything less. Audiences don’t want my take—they’re paying to hear Slash.
Matt Blackett (2112, Red Rocker Experience): When I was in a Rush tribute band, I nailed Alex Lifeson’s rhythm stuff pretty well. For the solos, I got every iconic part, but on the fast, crazy stuff, I just had to do my own thing. I applied the “Point A to Point B” rule: If I started on the same note as him, and ended on the same note, I could take some liberties with the middle notes. What I learned from that gig was people love the tunes. They appreciate the other stuff, but it’s the melodies and arrangements that make them feel good. Nail the intro, give respect to the breakdown, crush the outro, and you win.
Can you get away with a less-than-accurate tone if the musical parts are spot on?
Richie Castellano (Blue Oyster Cult, Band Geek): Will it sound right if the tone is spot on and the part is wrong? The answer is obviously, “no.” Playing the part correctly while matching the feeling, nuance, and inflection of the original artist will go a very long way, even if the tone isn’t exact. Having the exact tone is the cherry on top.
Martina “Chaos” Fasano (Eyes of Alice): When we cover songs from the studio-layering-rich ’70s and ’80s, it’s impossible to replicate all of the little fills, overdubs, and nuances in live performance. It’s important to get as close as you can with the tone, and then make sure the most recognizable parts are spot on. Few people will notice that your overdriven tone has a bit more bite than the original, but everyone notices if you don’t play an intro riff correctly.
Rick Rabior (The Aspersions): I’m in a drums and acoustic-guitar duo, and, after nine years of gigging, we’ve found that singing songs in the original keys, and playing the same arrangements that the listeners remember, are more important that guitar tone.
Adrian Conner (Belles Bent for Leather): Judas Priest’s studio productions make it hard to emulate a specific tone for an entire show. Their early stuff is dry and more blues based, and, as the band progressed, the playing became much flashier and classically oriented. So, for us, as long as we are playing the right parts, the tone is secondary.
Antonio Marquez (ZEBOP!): The melodies and the feel are critical to having a song come off well, but I also try to emulate Carlos Santana’s tone as exactly as possible. That’s important to me, because I know there are diehard Santana fans out there that know the tones. They want to hear the sustain, and, as Carlos used to say, “the cry.”
How do you sneak your own personal style into the performances when your job is to emulate classic solos, riffs, and other parts?
Chris Masterjohn (5 South): That’s a challenge, but if the song is well known, and 700,000 other cover bands play it, you need to add your own style to keep it fresh and give the audience something new.
Brev Sullivan (Skin City Angels): I never think, “I’m just playing someone else’s song or solo.” I live it in real time with the audience, as if it’s being heard for the first time.
Juliana Tarter (Killer Queens): When I learn Brian May’s guitar solos, I try to decipher what sort of scale the notes belong to, and how they relate to the harmony. When I understand where he was coming from, I feel more comfortable branching out a bit from the note-for-note parts by throwing in some extra trills or vibrato, or a few extra notes in a shreddy run.
Antonio Marquez (ZEBOP!): It comes out naturally, because no one can play exactly the same. Of course, I approach the essential parts like a classical musician performing a part written by a great composer. I am Itzhak Perlman and Carlos is Beethoven.
Maury Brown (Shoot to Thrill): I play the role of Malcolm Young in an AC/DC tribute, and I don’t try to inject my personal style into the performances. It’s more about channeling every nuance of the band and trying to personify that.
Martina “Chaos” Fasano (Eyes of Alice): My personal additions usually come in the form of vibrato, bends, and little nuances. You don’t want the parts to sound robotic, so there’s a fine line between emulating the original performance and being yourself.
Bill Rupert (E53, Mis B’Havin, Tongue n’ Groove): I stick as close as possible to signature solos, but, for others, I may mix original parts with a bit of improv to put myself into the mix. Occasionally, I’ll completely improvise a solo if I feel the original was weak or unmemorable. This is obviously very subjective, but I think I have a pretty good feel for when and where I can get away with it. Interestingly, I typically get the most compliments for improvisation over nailing something note-for-note.
Dave Crimmen (Dave Crimmen Band): I never worry about me coming through the songs. No matter how close you get to the original recording, it’s still going to sound like you, because you’re the one playing it. I like to think that my spirit comes through their music.
Adrian Conner (Belles Bent for Leather): Nobody wants to hear my version of Judas Priest’s “Living After Midnight”—they want to hear the badass solo that made the song such a classic. It can be very difficult for me to decide when to use my own voice. Generally, I’ll do my own thing only if the part is super fast, or not iconic or melodic.
Mark Banning (The Unauthorized Rolling Stones): I’ve always studied the solos closely, but I usually improvise within the original performer’s style. I think. “How would this person play it live?” Audiences expect me to pay homage to the original solos, but still make them my own.
Richie Castellano (Blue Oyster Cult, Band Geek): You don’t want to be the guy who didn’t do his homework and decided to do his own thing on songs like “Bohemian Rhapsody,” “Hotel California,” or “More Than a Feeling.” Then again, there are songs where the original guitar player is jamming, and probably never plays the solo the same way twice. For parts like this, I’ll establish the key elements of the original solo, and then inject my own improv, while making sure that what I play stays within the context of the song. Here’s a funny example of what I mean about players who don’t stick to their original solos: I’ve been playing second guitar and keyboards in Blue Oyster Cult for the past 13 years, and, for my own gigs, I’ll occasionally cover “Burnin’ For You,” making sure to play the solo exactly like the original version. Buck Dharma [founding BOC guitarist] heard a recording of me doing the song, and told me, “You play that solo just like the record. I don’t even remember how that solo goes!”
Do audiences want to see you playing the exact same gear as the original artists?
Chris Masterjohn (5 South): We are there to entertain people, and most audiences could care less that you are playing a vintage-Strato-Marshall-Paul, or whatever. They just want to enjoy the music, and equipment is pretty much the last thing on their minds. I believe you can get about 90 percent of the tones you need with any guitar with humbuckers and a coil-tap, a two- or three-channel amp with a nice spread of clean and distorted modes, and wah, delay, and chorus pedals.
Juliana Tarter (Killer Queens): I play my Jackson SLX Soloist, but I think that by playing with different gear, it reminds the audience that we are musicians replicating a sound and style, yet we come from different backgrounds and have our own uniqueness.
Martina “Chaos” Fasano (Eyes of Alice): Alice Cooper fans enjoy seeing our stage show mimic Alice’s—which means the guillotine, electric chair, gallows, the works—and, as people tend to listen with their eyes, it helps to use the gear the original musicians played. If you’re really paying tribute to the entire experience, then the gear matching is a part of that experience. I had switched to Ibanez and Jackson guitars because of wrist issues, but, lucky for me, as [current Cooper guitarist] Nita Strauss plays Ibanez, it worked out that I am paying homage to her.
Dave Crimmen (Dave Crimmen Band): When you’re working bars you don’t have time for 47 different amps and 5,000 different guitars. You have to make compromises. I make sure the songs are in the same keys, same tempos, same arrangements, and with the same backup vocals. I don’t worry about the gear.
Brev Sullivan (Skin City Angels): Yes. But, as an ’80s arena-rock tribute, all the state-of-the-art gear and tiger-striped guitars are nothing without an energetic and smooth performance with in-tune vocal harmonies.
Antonio Marquez (ZEBOP!): In my experience, the audience wants it sound like the band, but the gear doesn’t have to look like the band’s.
Fred Di Santo (21 Gun Salute): I work at Godin guitars, so I use Godins, rather than Gretsches, to emulate Malcolm Young’s tone in my AC/DC tribute band. I keep my rhythm chops accurate to what Malcolm recorded, I never overplay, and I dial in as big a tone as possible, and I haven’t heard any complaints. That said, my bandmate who plays Angus uses Gibson SGs.
Bill Rupert (E53, Mis B’Havin, Tongue n’ Groove): For a cover band, absolutely not. For certain tribute acts on the other hand, I think the closer you recreate the entire experience, the better the reception will be. Audience scrutiny is much greater in that arena. For example, if I see a Queen tribute, I don’t want to see a guy in jeans and a t-shirt playing a Charvel.
Adrian Conner (Belles Bent for Leather): I don’t get the impression the audience cares what kind of guitar I’m playing.
Brandon Cook (Appetite for Deception): People didn’t actually say anything to me, but when I had an Epiphone, they looked at it more like a farce. Once I got a real VOS [Vintage Original Spec] Gibson Les Paul, people changed their view for sure, and the audience response become more ecstatic.
John Cruz (Black Rose): I’m in a Thin Lizzy tribute, and some people have given me a hard time for playing a Stratocaster for most of our set. But a Strat is who I am, and it works better for my ears and fingers. But people really don’t care as long as the show is good.
Maury Brown (Shoot to Thrill): Yes and no. Of course, an Angus Young couldn’t pull it off without an SG, but while I certainly couldn’t do my job as Malcolm with a Les Paul or a Strat, playing a Custom Shop Jet or a ’50s White Falcon isn’t required, either. There’s a balance between being having serviceable gear that meets the demands of the tones, yet provides the aesthetics and visual signature of the band you’re emulating.
Richard Gee (Marinfidels): Only gearheads care about that stuff.
EDDIE CURRENT ON YOUTUBE COVERS I MAKE NOTE-FOR-NOTE
recreations on YouTube, and I also play bass in a tribute band. No one has ever come up after a live show and complimented the similarity of my tone or my parts to the originals, but on YouTube, particularly with guitar parts, viewers are extremely picky. People watching videos want to see you play and sound exactly like the original, and they call you out if you miss something, or if the tone is a little off. On video, where people can focus on a single part and rewind, the stakes are higher. In order to get shares, thumbs-up, and glowing comments, the notes, the feel, and the sound all have to be there.
It may seem paradoxical, but it is possible to nail a tribute performance and still get your personal style and expression in there. One thing I try to do is exaggerate the original artist’s intent—or, at least, my interpretation of the artist’s intent. If the original sounds fiery and attacking, I try to make it even more so. If the part grooves strongly, I try to groove harder. So, it ends up being not a mechanical reproduction of the original performance, but instead a reproduction of how I hear it as a fan, emphasizing the aspects that appeal to me most.
If anything, I think people are more jazzed seeing someone sound like an artist without using the original gear—it’s encouraging, and it lets them know that music is about a lot more than gear.
Eddie Current—who “moonlights” as long-time Bass Player editor/proofer Karl Coryat—has more than 3,200 subscribers to his EddieCurrentCovers YouTube channel, with total views at more than 230,000. His gear includes an ’80s Ibanez Roadstar II, Line 6 POD, IK Multimedia Amplitude, and Pro Tools.