This is always certainly a dilemma for me, as I tend to like songs and music of all genres. The key is to find a piece of music that works best for your own “voice” on the instrument, as well as your own regular voice, should you be singing! The funny thing is that even though I am known for what most people would call “interpretations” of songs I love, such as my versions of “When a Man Loves a Woman” or “I Can’t Stop Loving You”, I really don’t feel that I am an interpreter, rather, I feel that these songs are being processed by me, and this is how the original song I heard comes through me, in more of a “translation” as opposed to an “interpretation.” Sure, there are times one really wants to take a true departure from how a song was originally done, and totally make it “their own”, such as an artist like Ry Cooder, who has a great knack for that ability. Just witness his versions of songs such as “Little Sister”, or “Smack Dab in the Middle” and you’ll see what I mean. It’s as it he totally changes the melody, even the chord changes, and also plays them in a different genre.
On the other hand, I am trying to “capture” the original emotional content of the piece the way it first hit me years ago. This is true of many very emotional songs I do, usually strong ballad-like tunes, such as the afore-mentioned “When a Man Loves a Woman” and “I Can’t Stop Loving You”, as well as pieces like “Ain’t No Sunshine”, “Unchained Melody”, “Ballad of a Thin Man” and even “A Whiter Shade of Pale.” These are all, to me, extremely evocative pieces of music that make incredible instrumentals. It’s as if the played note can say far more than the sung word. The word “locks you in” on a certain meaning, where the notes speak right to the heart, and can mean far beyond what words can convey!
Again, it’s rally up to you, but it’s great to experiment with what you can do with songs you love. I feel it’s very important to give the proper respect to the original version, or the original artist as well. For example, a few years back, I was asked to play 2 songs by Jimi Hendrix as a tribute to him for 2 different Hendrix-tribute cds….I ended up being the only one did them as instrumentals, which really surprised me. I mean, after all, we all were guitarists on these recordings, paying tribute to him as a guitarist, not as a singer, yet everyone else was also singing! Who wants to hear a bunch of mediocre singers trying to sing Hendrix songs?! I simply went for the guitar approach, honoring his style, as well as adding my own flair to “Villanova Junction” and ‘Wind Cries Mary.” Keep searching for the right material, and be sure to have some fun with it; you’ll never know what “gem” you may come across that’ll be just right for you!