Reader’s Choice: Cover Tunes That Are Better Than The Originals

Jimi-Hendrix-All-Along-WatchtowerThe true test of covering someone elses’ song is making it your own. That’s no easy feat, and while there’s a tonne of cover versions of classic and contemporary tunes, only a few stand the test of time. Even more rare are the ones that eclipse the original. Recently we asked Seymour Duncan readers what their favorite “better than the original” cover songs were. A couple of mega-bands ended up on the list twice. The top choice, however pretty much epitomizes what “making a cover your own” should sound like:

“All Along The Watchtower” Jimi Hendrix’ cover of the Bob Dylan classic still sounds fantastic today, thanks to Jimi’s imaginative riffing and Eddie Kramer’s brilliant production. So good in fact, that Dylan has admitted he himself prefers Jimi’s cover.

“Turn The Page” Metallica’s version of this Bob Seger & The Silver Bullet Band relic is definitely a beefier rendition courtesy Hetfield and Hammett’s dual guitar assault. This tune was made even more haunting when accompanied by the gritty not-exactly-flattering video.

“You Really Got Me” Van Halen’s cover of the Kinks hit was the extra LARGE version of the song, as if it was given a gallon of musical steroids. Eddie Van Halen’s guitar tone is as massive as his playing is jaw-dropping. If you’d never heard a guitar sound like that before (and most hadn’t at the time) it’s startling, in a “what IS that” sense. Eddie’s guitar solo and the breakdown in the middle beats the original hands down (sorry Ray and Dave Davies). This has become its own classic.

“No Quarter” Tool’s atmospheric take on one of Led Zeppelin most well-known epics is a grand statement on its own. Adam Jones’ inventive playing amps up the riff a tad but never strays into full “metal” mode. The arrangement has a distinctly different urgency than the original, and its eery vibe makes you think something’s going to jump out of your speakers at any moment.

“Live and Let Die” Guns n’ Roses could do no wrong in the post Appetite for Destruction era and they had complete freedom to be  adventurous on the sprawling Use Your Illusion I & II. Among the standout cover songs on the effort is their take on the Paul McCartney James Bond theme “Live and Let Die.” As great as McCartney is, he didn’t have Slash…

“Sweet Dreams” Marilyn Manson took an already spooky-sounding 80s synth-pop song and cranked up the creep factor a thousandfold. The guitars are heavier, and Manson takes a completely different approach with the vocals. Annie Lennox certainly wasn’t screaming like that on the Eurythmics original. Manson’s version renders the song nearly unrecognizable, and yet still just familiar enough.

Little Wing” This signature Hendrix tune is hard to top, though many have tried. It’s been covered by other artists, but no other cover can come close to touching Stevie Ray Vaughan’s instrumental version of this gem. Alternately understated and ferocious, SRV’s tone and playing is epic, near perfection; one imagines Jimi would dig it.

“Hurt” Odd enough that country music legend Johnny Cash would decide to do an album of rock covers as his swan song release. But the result is unexpectedly stark and somehow more haunting. This was made even more so by Cash’s passing in 2003 shortly after this project was completed.

“Whiskey In the Jar” In their second slot on our readers’ list, Metallica payed homage to another legendary twin-guitar band: Thin Lizzy. As great as the original version is, Metallica’s rhythm tone and their re-arrangement’s overall heaviness is hard to argue with.

“Man Who Sold The World” This interesting take on a David Bowie tune was one of the standouts of Nirvana’s “Unplugged” set, and it was an introduction to the tune for a whole a new generation that missed the 70s.

“Diamonds and Rust” This was about as much as you could “heavy” up a tune in 1970 when Judas Priest unleashed this on the world. If no one told you outright, would you think this is a cover of a Joan Baez song? “Joan who?” you ask? Sixies folk songstress. “Folk?!?” Yes. Folk.

“Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” Guns N’ Roses second addition to this list is their take on the timeless Bob Dylan song was also from the Use Your Illusion sessions. The production is of course huge, and the guitars sound great. Let’s face it: much like poor Sir Paul before him, Dylan’s original version doesn’t have Slash on it. How could it compete?

“Holy Diver”  Covering a Dio tune doesn’t just take smoking guitar, the vocals had better be on point, too. Killswitch Engage’s answer: even bigger guitar sounds, with fills and a copious amount of artificial harmonic “pings” added. The vocals go from a semi-faithful interpretation to full-on guttural growls.  Having a video that Spinal Tap would approve of is also a nice touch.

“Bad Company”  How does one better this 70s rock radio standard? Five Finger Death Punch did just that on 2009′s War Is The Answer. Zoltan Bathory and Jason Hook’s answer to the original: more guitars instead of piano, and a serious dose of beefy crunch chords on the choruses. Not to mention they added an entirely new musical section for the guitar solo (again, making it their own). It works.

“Come Together” While not really “heavy”-ing it up so much, Aerosmith still made this Beatles tune their own via their dark interpretation of it. It’s a much grittier, dirtier, less atmospheric affair, and Tyler’s raspy vocals add a sense of urgency that doesn’t exist in the Beatles’ more good-timey original version.

And there you have it, Seymour Duncan readers’ Top Covers. In each case the interpreting artist added their own stamp to the original to give an old song new life. What song would you like to see a completely different take on, by what band?

Jay Hale

About Jay Hale

Jay Hale is a guitarist and guitar-builder located in Los Angeles who has also occasionally moonlighted as a guitar tech for bands like Quiet Riot.
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  • G665

    Nice article, some good ones in there, many I agree with, some I can see why you would choose them. One I can’t though is Aerosmith’s cover of “Come Together” even coming close to touching the Beatles’ original. They pretty much copied the guitar riffs note for note and I think the vocal interpretation sounds, well, just odd…

  • mrblur

    aerosmith’s come together stinks out loud and led zep covered joan baez better than jp.

  • Greg Gottsacker

    Axl Rose’s voice is reminiscent of somebody strangling a cat. How Guns and Roses made it to this list is a complete mystery. That they made it twice is unthinkable.

    • Martin de Andrade

      Says you, buddy. Millions of others think otherwise, but wait… there’s more… GNR isn’t here only because of All Rose’s slick cat scratchy voice (myself, I love it, I’m a cat fancier anyway), but because of the band! It’s the sound, home! Ever listened to Appetite for Destruction? It’s a rock n roll masterpiece. For GNR to have made it to the list twice is nothing unthinkable. It’s just right.

      • Aaron Ogle

        its best use is as a frisbee or a coaster for your drink

  • Shawn Riley

    That’s a pretty shit list probably made by teenagers.

  • Aaron Ogle

    this is absolutely bull, stupidest list I’ve ever seen, Bob Dylan’s version of All Along AND Knockin’ are both way better than the covers. Guns ‘N Roses Suck and while Jimi’s AATWT is phenomenal, nothing beats Dylan’s original of any of his songs

    • Martin de Andrade

      I beg to differ and I beg to differ. That’s for both songs, sir.

      • Aaron Ogle

        ok, well that’s fine, I respect you thinking that Jimi’s version of AATWT is better than Dylan’s, but no way GNR is better than Dylan, they suck, Axl rose sounds like a 7 year old girl being murdered

  • Jeffrey

    No friggin way SRV’s version was better than JIMI. But that Tool version of LZ was kick ass!

  • Matt Westberg

    Billy Squires rendition of”Stroke” definately better than the original I just cant remember the brothers name.

  • Summit Sayem

    how the fuck is killswitch’s cover of holy diver better than dio’s?

    • Filibusta Rhymes

      Absolutely agree

    • Weeble

      It isn’t

  • Alfredo Odriozola

    Since nobody has mentioned it, Thin Lizzy version of Whiskey in the Jar, which is a traditional song to start with, puts the over saturated buzz of Metallica to shame. Not to mention the voice of Phil Lynnot, compared to Hetfield’s.

  • Dean

    There is no such
    thing as a cover that is better than the original period. The original artist
    is the ONLY one who knows exactly how the song is supposed to be all the way
    down to the base concept. Other people doing covers of these songs is just karaoke.
    The fact a bunch of people on a web site think they are in some position to
    pass judgment on someone else’s art and have the audacity to insinuate that
    someone doing a copy of said art is in some way better is just wrong….. “hey
    man did you see that Johnson dude painted a way better version of the Mona Lisa”—–
    ridiculous

  • Danupran Kalayanamit
  • Weeble

    What about Manfred Mann’s version of Blinded by the Light, the Springsteen song?

  • Curbjaw

    Whiskey in the Jar is traditional Irish folk music, it’s not a Thin Lizzy song.

    The Dubliners and the Pogues, and Christy Moore are all exponentially better than either Thin Lizzy or Metallica.

  • https://www.facebook.com/PatrickShaneDurham?ref=hl Patrick Durham

    To the naysayers:yes, a cover can be better than the original. I’m sorry but “With a Little Help From My Friends” as done by Joe Cocker kicks the Beatles’ version in the rear.

  • http://rancortone.com/ Uncle Ralph

    No mention of my favorite cover artists: Joe Cocker can take a blatantly silly song (like “A Little Help From My Friends”) and turn it into a friggin’ hymn. And Robert Palmer’s redos of other people’s work gave the tunes a shot of steroids laced with adrenaline. Just sayin’ . . . A so-so song would get up and dance when he performed it.

  • http://rancortone.com/ Uncle Ralph

    Oh, and . . .

    Listen to Hendrix’s and Stevie Ray’s versions of “Little Wing” on studio headphones (I did). Hendrix’s playing had a fluidity that remains unrivaled.