Learning the Song – Part 2: Comparing and Contrasting Multiple Versions of a Tune

Welcome to Part 2 of “Learning the Song.” If you checked out the first part of this series, you’ll be familiar with some of the essential elements of learning a song, such as the key, the chord progressions, the form, and so on.

Learning “the song” is a great exercise in ear training, adapting theory rules and being prepared for bandstand experiences, but remember that there’s always more to learn. While there are definitive recordings of many tunes, it’s not uncommon for multiple artists to have a hit with the same song. An artist’s interpretation adds a new dimension… it adapts the “words and music” and reflects style and creativity.

From the bass player’s perspective, listening to different interpretations of a song can add a lot to your “internalization” of the song and will further broaden your repertoire.

Some may pose the question: why should I learn multiple versions of a tune if I’m certain that a band is only going to play the version by ______?

Initially, you may want to learn just one version, especially if you’re learning the song specifically for a gig and you’re under the gun time-wise. However, nothing bad can come from learning another way to play a song.

Here are a couple of great reasons for why you should go the extra mile when learning a tune. Also, since many bands play the same songs, it’s important to get used to comparing and contrasting different artists’ approaches.

  1. See how well you have “internalized” a song. Try listening to a different artist’s version of a tune and see if you can play along without picking apart the bass line note for note. You’ll immediately learn how well you have internalized the song by how well you can follow it. Are you familiar enough with the chord progression so that you can play along with the song, even if it’s a little bit different? Then listen to the little differences that separate one version from another such as the groove, tempo, key, chord substitutions, or specific arrangements.
    • Example: “Love The One You’re With.” Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young versus The Isley Brothers. It’s definitely the same song, but the versions are reflective of both groups’ distinctive voice. If you know how to play one, you’ll have a good handle on “the song” and can focus on the stylistic differences between the two.
  2. Learn from different bass players’ approaches to a song, especially if the song is interpreted in a unique way. Or, if the same bass player recorded two different versions of a song, listen to how different the bass lines may be. This will help you gain greater knowledge of the essential elements of the song and can give you a new perspective that will influence how you approach playing the line. It’s also interesting to listen to a live recording of a song versus the studio recording… you may hear the bass player branch out in a live setting more than on the record.
    • Example: “The Weight.” Performed by The Band, Aretha Franklin, The Staple Singers, Joan Osborne, etc. It’s got a simple chord progression and the bass players on the different records each bring a unique thing to the table.
    • Example: “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.” Diana Ross versus Marvin Gaye/Tammi Terrell. James Jamerson played on both versions and they couldn’t be more different. Listen to how unique the bass lines are on the two records. They are both distinctly “Jamerson,” but his adaptation of the bass line in accordance with the arrangement truly separate one version from another.
  3. Be aware of the specific version of a tune that you’re supposed to know. Some bandleaders will play a song exactly like the record… but which one? Certain artists completely reinterpret songs, thereby turning them into something that sounds like an entirely different song. At times, you can get by (assuming you know the chord progression well), but if the tune has a very specific bass part, one that defines the arrangement, you’ll be given the dirty look if you’re unfamiliar with that version.
    • Example: “With A Little Help From My Friends.” The Beatles versus Joe Cocker. The two songs both have specific and well-defined bass parts, but they are very different. This is a great song to compare and contrast, especially when it comes to the overall feel of the song, the tone of the instrument, musical dynamics, and artistic style.
    • Example: “Some Kind of Wonderful.” Grand Funk Railroad versus Joss Stone. There’s a huge difference between the two… both are completely driven by the bass groove but the grooves are on totally different planets. If you’re in a band with a female singer and they want to add a twist by performing the Joss Stone version, you’d better check it out before assuming that it’s the same as GFR’s.
  4. Practice your transposition skills and familiarity with the neck. Sometimes, bands will record the same song, with a similar arrangement, but in different keys. Learn both versions so that you challenge yourself to think around the neck a bit more. This will help you get more comfortable with key transposition and it will further engrain the chord progression of the song. You’ll be able to break away from thinking the “3rd fret to the 5th fret” and, with a little bit of basic theory, think the “IV chord to the V chord.” Also, since many people transpose the song to better fit the singer, you’ll already have experience doing it in the safety of your practice space. Then, when the singer is on the bandstand and says, “let’s take this down a half step,” you’ll be prepared to say “no problem.”
    • Example: “Fire.” Bruce Springsteen versus the Pointer Sisters (note: this is definitely not the same “Fire” by Jimi Hendrix). “The Boss’s” version is in G, while the Pointer Sisters also had a hit with it in Db. It’s the same tune, with the same groove, but in two completely different places on the neck. You can rely heavily on open strings in the Springsteen version, while there are essentially no open notes in the Pointer Sisters’.
  5. Learn how to adapt to “hybrid” versions of a tune. Many bandleaders end up fusing elements of other artists’ approaches, so if you’re familiar with multiple versions of a tune, you may be able to recognize the different influences. You may also be able to hint at the originals by quoting specific bass riffs.

Aside from expanding your repertoire and learning stylistic elements from the different bass lines, this is a great exercise to do, simply because it will expose you to new music. Also, if you’re a gigging musician and you happen to play some of the same tunes with different bands, this is a good way to prepare yourself for memorizing different versions. You’ll get used to making mental notes about what makes each version unique and the bandleader will appreciate your attention to their arrangement.

So, let’s hear some listening/learning suggestions! Name a “well covered” tune and the artists so that we can look it up! Share in the comments.

Ryan Madora is a professional bass player and educator living in Nashville, TN. In addition to touring and playing sessions, she fronts an original music project, The Interludes and teaches private lessons. Visit her website to learn more about her music or to inquire about lessons.

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  1. I’m only 3 weeks in to my bass lessons so I apologize for the “newb” question. Where can I go to find songs in a specific chord progression that I can play along with? For instance, I’ve learned 12 bar blues in G Major — now I’m doing web searches to find tunes I can practice with. Lots of sites provide tabs but I can’t seem to find one that lets me search for something so specific. Thanks

    • Glad to have you here Suzanne, and please don’t apologize for the “newb” question. I’m sending this one on to @[703026160:2048:Damian Erskine], for his “Ask Damian” column. I’m sure Damian will have some great advice on that, and it’ll most likely be posted in the next week or two. Keep doing what you’re doing! The world needs more bass players.