Crafting a Set List: Your First Step to a Great GigBy
Estimated reading time: 9 minutes
You’ve gotten THE gig, and you’re super excited. You’ve been rehearsing, but now you’ve kicked rehearsals up a notch or twelve. You’ve also come to the place that most musicians dread but every musician must deal with: You have to make a set list.
Some bands don’t bother with set lists, but they are important. Why? A bad set list can ruin a show. A good set list can take a decent band and make it sound like a good band. A great set list can reel a listener in, keep them with you for the entire show, and win you new fans.
There are many different things to consider when creating a set list, but we are going to focus on five key elements for creating and using your set list to its fullest potential. These five elements are:
- The Technical Stuff
- The “Feel” of the Song
- The Art of Spontaneity
Before we send you off into the world of set list creating, we should go over a few basic concepts.
- For the purposes of this article, a “set” is going to be 12 songs. Depending on your songs and what kind of set you are playing, this number will vary, and that’s okay. Once you’ve looked at the five key elements of creating a set list, and you know how much time you’ll have for your set, you can adjust your number accordingly.
- Generally, a good set is divided into three or four parts, with each part having its own peaks and valleys. Let’s call them “set-sections.” The number of set-sections you will have will depend on the length of your set, but even a two song set needs to have contrast within it.
- Not all sets will look the same. You may have a gig where it’s appropriate to play an album in its entirety. Or, you may have a gig where you only play covers. These rules are not one size fits all. Don’t be afraid to experiment and fit the set to the gig, whatever that may look like.
Now let’s look at what you can do to craft a great set list.
Purpose and Audience
When you create a set list, you need to determine the purpose of your set.
The first consideration is the setting or venue. A set for a coffeehouse will probably look different from what you would play at a wedding, and a wedding set list will look nothing like a set for a summer festival. The venue itself will help determine some of your decisions—a small stage with only enough room for two people might not be the best time to play a song that sounds best with your full band.
The second, and perhaps most important, consideration is the audience. At each of the places I mentioned above, the audience will react to you in very different ways. This is why you should create your set list with your audience in mind. They are, after all, the people who are (hopefully) paying to see you. If you are in a small room and people are paying attention, it might be all right to bust out the B-side from your second release that no one but your mom has heard. But, at a busy festival or in a crowded bar, you may want to play songs that are known attention-grabbers or fan favorites that have stood the test of time.
When you have a general idea of the audience you will be playing for, you have another factor to consider: How do you want the audience to respond? You are onstage and have a microphone to carry your voice across the murmur of the crowd. People will be listening to you, even if it’s only for a moment. There is some authority, however small it may be, that comes with your position. Do you want your audience to get up and have a good time? Great! Plan your set so they can get up and dance, and give them a couple slow songs to grab a drink. You want to raise awareness for your favorite cause? Use your music to put people in a frame of mind that will allow them listen to you when you talk about that charity. You can’t force people’s responses, but if you have a purpose for your set, you can help guide your audience in the direction you want them to go.
The Technical Stuff
Okay, so you’ve identified your setting, your audience, and your purpose. Now it’s time to get into the nitty gritty of creating your list. There are a few rules to keep in mind that deal with the details of your songs.
Though the average listener might not know what key you’re playing in, if you play too many songs in the same key consecutively, the audience will likely think everything sounded the same and lose interest—even if the songs have different tempos and a different feel. A good rule of thumb is to never play more than two songs in a row that are in the same key.