Guns N’ Roses’ 10 Rarest Cover Songs
Guns N' Roses know their way around a killer cover song.
That should be obvious to anybody who's ever listened to the Use Your Illusion albums, which spawned massive hits and concert staples in their versions of Wings' "Live and Let Die" and Bob Dylan's "Knockin' on Heaven's Door." Or anybody who's ever seen GNR in concert, where they've packed their sets over the years with classics by AC/DC, the Who, the Misfits, Soundgarden and Velvet Revolver. Then, of course, there's the entire covers album they made in 1993, "The Spaghetti Incident?"
But Guns N' Roses' covers catalog goes way deeper than that. Since their earliest days, they've honored their rock 'n' roll forebears like the Rolling Stones, Queen and Aerosmith, both on record and in concert. Some of these early covers appeared on live albums and reissues in later years, while others endure only through primitive YouTube footage that serves as a time capsule to the late-'80s Sunset Strip scene, when Guns were the hottest ticket in town.
Original: Elvis Presley
The tumultuous Appetite for Destruction sessions included a stint at Sound City Studios in 1986 with Nazareth guitarist Manny Charlton helming the board. These sessions yielded dozens of demos, B-sides and covers, which were released in 2018 on the Appetite for Destruction deluxe reissue. One of the highlights was the band's raucous cover of Elvis Presley's classic "Heartbreak Hotel." The cover begins faithfully, with Slash laying down sensuous guitar leads over a languid waltz, but it quickly revs into a punky onslaught of light-speed solos and Axl Rose's alley-cat screeches. The singer also tosses a well-placed "fuckin'" into the chorus, a move that would have sent pearl-clutching parents to their graves if the King had done it in 1956.
"Honky Tonk Women"
Original: The Rolling Stones
The final shows of Guns N' Roses' two-and-a-half-year Use Your Illusion Tour, aka the Skin N' Bones Tour, were freewheeling affairs that featured, among other things, high-profile guests jamming with them onstage and occasionally delivering pizza in the nude. The band's May 30, 1993, show at the Milton Keynes National Bowl in England was rhythm-guitarist nirvana, as Ron Wood, Gilby Clarke and Izzy Stradlin (who filled in for Clarke on a handful of shows after Clarke broke his wrist) all joined the band for a swaggering, loose-limbed rendition of the Rolling Stones' "Honky Tonk Women." (Hanoi Rocks frontman Michael Monroe shared vocal duties with Rose, too, for good measure.) "We're gonna try singing a song that even Ronnie doesn't know," Rose said wryly. Without missing a beat, Wood put his arm around Rose's shoulder, cigarette in hand, and chirped, "None of us know it!"
Original: Black Sabbath
"It's Alright," the plaintive piano ballad written and sung by Black Sabbath drummer Bill Ward, was an anomaly when it appeared on the band's seventh album, Technical Ecstasy, sounding more like a Queen or Elton John outtake than anything from the doom-metal pioneers' catalog. That made it a perfect fit for Rose, who played the song as an intro to "November Rain" during the band's back-to-back Buenos Aires shows in December 1992. The music seemed to pour out of Rose as he sat hunched over the piano, eyes closed, fingers gliding across the keys. It was a startlingly tender and intimate moment on a tour defined by personal excess and musical bombast. It was memorialized on Guns N' Roses' Live Era '87–'93, released in 1999.
"Jumpin' Jack Flash"
Original: The Rolling Stones
Another outtake from the 1986 Sound City sessions, Guns' souped-up "Jumpin' Jack Flash" cover pays homage to their heroes while updating the Stones' blues-rock tumult for a new generation. Rose is all swagger and sass with his "sha-na-na-na-na-na-now, honey!" ad-libs, while Steven Adler's drums threaten to crash and burn under Slash's white-knuckle solos. Grainy live footage from 1986 shows GNR whipping the packed Troubadour crowd into a sweaty frenzy with "Jumpin' Jack Flash," a testament to their primal ferocity onstage and a rock 'n' roll pedigree that went much deeper than most of their Sunset Strip peers. The group also cut a ramshackle acoustic version of "Jumpin' Jack Flash" at Sound City, which would have sounded right at home on Side 2 of Lies.
"Piece of Me"
Original: Skid Row
Before Guns N' Roses took Skid Row on the road during the Use Your Illusion Tour and embarked on a calamitous co-headlining stadium trek with Metallica, all three bands shared the stage at the Hollywood Palladium in December 1990 for an anniversary party celebrating RIP magazine. The makeshift supergroup, charmingly titled the GAK — featuring Rose, Slash, Duff McKagan, Sebastian Bach, James Hetfield, Kirk Hammett and Lars Ulrich — plowed through a six-song set featuring music from all three bands and a sizzling rendition of Nazareth's "Hair of the Dog." Rose took lead vocals on a furious rendition of Skid Row's "Piece of Me," unleashing his sandpapery howl and shimmying across the stage with a look of steely determination. The GAK may have been a one-off, but the GN'R frontman was still out for blood.
"Salt of the Earth"
Original: The Rolling Stones
Two months after Guns N’ Roses spent four nights opening for the Rolling Stones at the L.A. Coliseum in October 1989 (during which Rose gave his notorious onstage ultimatum to his bandmates to stop dancing with “Mr. Goddamn Brownstone”), Rose and Stradlin joined the band onstage during their pay-per-view Atlantic City show to perform Beggars Banquet deep cut "Salt of the Earth." Despite all the drama preceding the show — Rose was nearly a no-show once again — the joint performance was electrifying. Rose did his signature serpentine dance as he traded lines with Mick Jagger (even cracking a smile in the process!), while Stradlin struck an insouciant pose alongside his heroes Keith Richards and Ron Wood. Rose’s god complex was already threatening to tear apart GNR, but for five transfixing minutes all the behind-the-scenes turmoil melted away.
"Tie Your Mother Down"
"This is a song that I listened to for years and never felt right with the sound of my voice singing it," Axl Rose declared before welcoming Queen's Brian May onstage at Wembley Stadium in June 1992. That didn't inhibit the frontman from leading Guns N' Roses through a live-wire rendition of one of Queens' most metallic singles, "Tie Your Mother Down." Contrary to Rose's belief, his raspy roar fit the song like a glove, while Slash and May delivered a guitar-shredding clinic, trading off volcanic solos. Bounding across the stage in white high-tops and drainpipe jeans, May gave his 15-year juniors a run for their money and reminded fans that his monolithic riffs were a crucial component of Queen's stadium-rock supremacy.
"Train Kept A-Rollin'"
Original: Tiny Bradshaw (popularized by Aerosmith)
Fans who attended Guns N' Roses' Paris show in June 1992 got a surprise for the ages when the band welcomed Aerosmith's Steven Tyler and Joe Perry to the stage for two songs during the encore. The rockers ripped through an incendiary version of "Mama Kin," which GNR previously covered on Lies, but the real highlight was a breathless cover of "Train Kept A-Rollin'," with Slash and Perry trading fretboard-melting solos. Tyler also kept pace with the hyperkinetic Rose, strutting across the stage with his scarf-adorned mic stand and letting rip his trademark falsetto shriek. Aerosmith's sleazy '70s albums helped birth GNR, and in Paris, the revitalized teachers proved they could still effortlessly keep up with their disciples.
"We Will Rock You"
You thought Guns were gonna let May off the stage without playing this one? At the same Wembley 1992 concert where they performed "Tie Your Mother Down," Rose strutted and kicked across the stage as he belted out Queen's a cappella super-hit. But as May broke into his heroic outro solo, they threw fans a curveball, launching into a high-speed, full-band version of the song that once again allowed May and Slash to rip blazing, call-and-response solos. It's one of the most engaging facelifts Guns have ever given to a classic-rock staple, and it's a shame they never worked it into their regular sets.
"Whole Lotta Rosie"
Guns N' Roses were putting a ferocious spin on this AC/DC single as early as 1985. They performed it several times over the next two years, including a red-hot rendition at London's Marquee Club in 1987, which they included on their Appetite for Destruction deluxe reissue. It would prove portentous for lifelong Bon Scott disciple Axl Rose, who performed the song with AC/DC when he filled in for Brian Johnson on several of their 2016 tour dates. Angus Young repaid the favor by barreling through "Whole Lotta Rosie" with GNR at their much-ballyhooed Coachella reunion that same year. Guns continued to include the song in their reunion set lists through 2018.