Playing without a set list can be fun, especially if you’re performing for an already adoring crowd that knows and loves your material. But if you’re trying to build a following or make an impression, having a set list is essential. A set list is the road map that will always help you through uncharted territory regardless of distractions like nagging club owners, snobby sound engineers or crowds that only care about the headliner.
Here are 10 suggestions for composing a great set list:
• Vary keys: Songs in the same key should be spaced apart by other tunes. At the very least, put no more than two songs in the same key next to one another. Otherwise audiences can feel a sonic lull, even if they’re not quite sure what’s causing it. Of course, there are exceptions. If your bass player breathes fire or you come out in the audience and walk on tabletops, that should suffice to keep the masses engaged during a spate of same-key songs.
• Vary tempos: This is a no brainer. If you play a bunch of slow songs together in a bar, the energy level in the room is going to taper off and people will stop paying attention and start talking. Loudly. At the same time, unless you’re in a punk or thrash metal band a lot of fast numbers strung together can be mind numbing and can turn a crowd off. A blend allows listeners to appreciate your music and do some socializing as well, which is part of the club and bar experience. If you’ve gotten to the point where you’re headlining theaters and better, you can do anything you please and your fan base will probably be happy. Hero worship goes a long way to improve tolerance. And consider putting fast or slow songs at points along the set that will alter the mood of the performance. Audiences like to be taken to different emotional and aural spaces during a show.
• Slot the rave-ups right: Don’t waste your big rave-up guitar extravaganza songs. You might want to open with a big bang, but important tunes that reach the boiling point and are designed to dazzle do their job best toward the middle and end of sets. They are good for providing a mid-point opportunity for the audience to refocus on your performance if they are getting restless, or leave to ’em wanting more.
• Blend originals and covers: Performing original music is what separates artists from bar bands. Period. No exceptions. If you want to be a bar band and play the likes of “Sweet Home Chicago” or “Smells Like Teen Spirit” all night long, that’s your business, but the truth is that no matter how happy you make club owners and audiences, you’re a human juke box and your career has a low ceiling. That said, unless you’re a highly known entity tossing one or two cover songs into a 45-minute to one-hour set – especially if you’ve created your own arrangement that respects the original version while displaying your own brand — is good. It throws the audience a bone and might make them more likely to welcome your own compositions.
• Play new songs: Work up and perform new songs as a matter of routine. If you gig regularly, don’t go two months without introducing a new song — original or cover — into your repertoire. This keeps things fresh for you and your regular fans.
• Take risks: This is part of fearlessness — a quality that audiences do recognize and appreciate. Try to make your solos different night-to-night. If you’re really daring, leave sections open in your arrangements for improvisation. Experiment with different lyrics to gauge their impact. Step off the stage or drop to your knees for a solo to focus the audience. There are countless ways to be fearless when you perform and other artists recognize and appreciate that quality, too.
• Talk up: The era of the shoegazer is over, even if — thankfully — My Bloody Valentine is touring again. Speak to the audience in a clever, civil, intelligent and respectful manner. This humanizes performers and gives audiences some perspective on where you are coming from. It’s also just plain respectful to talk to the people who are paying to see you.
• Just start: Don’t worry about the opening song. The great Les Paul would always advise performers to just let the first tune go by and then try to create an impact. Paul’s instinct, honed by years as a sideman and star, dictated that during the first song the audience is checking out how you are dressed, what you look like, how the stage appears and other things not directly connected to the music. So let one go by before you start really showing off the goods.
• Time it right: If you’re playing a 45-minute set with some solos and conversation with the audience, whether it be song intros or an anecdote or two, don’t write a set list longer than nine songs. There are exceptions, of course, for punk and other styles where terse writing rules, but generally speaking five minute blocks of time for each song performed tends to average out nicely.
• Showcase strengths: Choose songs that put the best aspects of your band or music to the fore. If you’ve got a great vocalist, make his or her most dramatic songs features at the middle or end of the set. Ditto for killer guitar solos or amazing improvisational passages. And never dumb down what you do to please an audience or club owner. Second guessing yourself always undermines your game and leaves you feeling miserable.