Putting a great set of your songs together takes more consideration than picking tunes out of a hat. There’s an art to crafting a good set list, and here are 13 points to consider when preparing your next set of songs for your big live show.
Your set list should not be a one-size-fits-all deal
Your ideal set at an outdoor music festival might be completely different than what you’d play at a local coffeehouse. Assuming you have enough songs to vary your set from one show to the next, the particular gig you’re playing should factor into your planning in terms of song selection and order. Play to the room, the event, and the crowd. Polishing off older tunes, trying something new, or learning specific cover tunes is something you might consider for each show you play.
Wherever the gig, it’s never a bad idea to come out swinging. An up-tempo, engaging song is probably a good choice as an introduction to your act. Of course, not every act is about up-tempo, big songs. Perhaps a better suggestion is to open with a song that’s an engaging introduction to you and your band, one that’s a proven winner among your fans, and a tune you think will make a stranger sit up and take notice. This is your opportunity to convince someone to stay in the room to check you out, so hit them with something to draw them in.
It’s also a good idea to open with something you are very comfortable with. A brand new composition or your trickiest arrangement is probably not a great opener. You need to acclimate to the sound on stage, the nuances of that evening’s mix, the crowd, and your adrenaline level, so don’t pick your most challenging tune to start the show. Play in your comfort zone and warm up to the night’s performance.
Consider your vocalist(s)
Just as you should vary your selection in terms of tempo and tunings (see below), keep your vocalist in mind when creating a set order. If there are two or three songs that demand a stretch in range, you might not want to open with those, and don’t stack those tunes together. Pick song sequences that will alternately stretch the vocalist and play into his or her ultra-comfort zone to help preserve the vocal chords and to add variety to the set. Same goes for guitar solos and other solo instruments. If you have three or four tunes that feature guitar pyrotechnics, space them out so it’s not a barrage of solos at one point in the set.
Split the set into segments
Things vary a lot depending on the type of music and length of the sets you’ll be playing, but if 12 songs is an average set, think of the tunes in three or four song clusters. Try to find movement in those segments, from slower to faster tempos (or fast to slow), or group similar themes or moods together. Each of these segments should then flow into one another in some sort of logical fashion to create a complete set that takes the band and the audience on a journey.
Vary the tempo
Just like with pacing for an album, a good set will usually have a push and pull to it, with peaks and valleys. Front-loading your set with all your fastest, most aggressive songs will make for a raucous start, but you may find yourself – and your audience – getting tired out, not to mention you’re left with a second half full of slower tunes. Thinking of your larger set as groups of mini-sets (see point #4) is one way to keep things from getting unbalanced.
Combine songs with alternate tunings – to a degree
If you have a handful of songs in “D” tuning, or in alternate tunings, it helps the flow to group these songs together to save your set from multiple re-tunings. At the same time, if you have five songs in a “D” tuning, playing all of them back-to-back will suck some of the life out of the latter tunes in the group, and it’s probably not the best presentation to your audience. Be sensible about combining similar tunings to maximize efficiency on stage without beating a sound to death.
Avoid playing songs with similar structures back to back
Songs with similar instrumental arrangements, similar song structures (verse/chorus/verse/chorus/bridge/chorus/outro), or performed in the same key should typically not follow one another. Piling these songs on top of each other will highlight the elements that are similar, and will not turn the players or your audience on. Target those songs and make an effort to space them out throughout your set.
Determine which songs can flow into one another
The flow of a set speaks volumes for the professionalism of your act and will significantly impact the enjoyment of your live performance. Great performances separated by awkward silences or constant tuning will result in an underwhelming presentation. Find ways to make the set flow. Pick tunes that can blend together without a break, and work those into one another. They may not always be obvious partners – “We Will Rock You” and “We Are The Champions” by Queen come to mind. It’s hard not to hear those songs as a dynamic duo, but would you have thought to pair them up?
Figure out which songs you want to connect in a live setting, and then practice those transitions so they become second nature. It’s also a good idea, whenever possible, to practice your set in order before the gig, complete with these blended outro/intros and highlighting specific spots where you want to verbally address the audience (de-tuning/re-tuning segments are a great time for that).
You don’t necessarily need to save your biggest baddest song for the end, but just like the opener, your closing number is an important song in your set. You want to close with something that makes an impression and that’ll have the place buzzing when you’re finished. Something that’s in your comfort zone and is a favorite of the band is also a good choice.
Have something left in the tank
While you’re probably not playing the mega-dome to crowds expecting an encore, it’s always good to have a few more tunes in the tank in case there is a need for extending your set, or if the crowd simply won’t take no for an answer. This is where a choice cover song can be a welcome addition to your repertoire, and an unexpected goodie for proven and new fans.
Write your set list out
Sure, there are bands who can totally wing it and free-form a show, but until you’re channeling Jack White or Bob Dylan, you’re going to be better off writing out (in large, legible print) set lists for the band to refer to. There aren’t many better ways to kill your professional appeal than constant huddling to pick the next tune, or having your singer repeatedly asking “What’s the next song?” into the microphone.
After all that work defining, practicing, and writing out your ideal set, be amenable to changes. Maybe you’ve gauged the mood of the crowd and they’re not ready for your eight minute ballad, or you’ve just got the “five minutes!” cue from the soundman and you have to cut some tunes. What if the second guitarist breaks a string, or you’ve got to extend the set and want to keep your closing numbers intact? There are many reasons why you might have to make some on-the-fly changes to your set order, and the band (and the soundman and lighting guy, if applicable) need to be able to roll with the punches.
Learn from your past
If you’ve been doing this for any amount of time, you’ll know that what you think your most awesome, killer tunes are aren’t always the ones the crowd goes gaga over. Start paying close attention to what songs are eliciting reactions from your crowds, and factor that into your future set arrangements.
I bet I missed some obvious points. Got something to add?
Andre Calilhanna is a musician and writer, and has spent many nights onstage playing drums, guitar, and fronting various acts over the past 20 years. His band Hijack just released a new EP, and you can be sure the tracks are in the optimal order. They did spend some time debating it.
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