Building the Perfect Set List

November 2, 2010{ 13 Comments }

Is there a perfect formula for building a set list? Should you always start out with high-enery songs to capture the attention of the crowd, and then move toward the slower less-danceable numbers? Should you end your set with a bang or a whimper?

Our friends over at posted an article about how the setlists of 7 famous bands were analyzed and plotted along a graph (the Energy/Danceability index) to see how successful acts pace their performances. See the article and some of the fun graphs HERE.

But we want to hear from you.

What is your decision-making process when you design a set list?

Do you give them all you’ve got or leave them wanting more?

Do you play cover songs or originals or a mixture?

Do you always play the same set or tailor it to the vibe of the room?

Do you do medleys? Ambient transitions between songs? Extended guitar solos?

Do you address the audience with pre-planned stage banter or take it totally off-the-cuff?

Do you consider the arc of your performance as far as volume, energy, and groove are concerned?

Do you space out songs in similar keys, modes, or tonalities?

We want to know what you’re doing and why. Feel free to comment in the section below.

-Chris R. at CD Baby

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(photo of Steve Lynch of the band Can’t Hang, used with Steve’s kind permission. Check out Can’t Hang HERE.)

  • What we used to do was wait 30 min before the show and just write a random set list. Now we got a basic set list that we follow. We tweak it depending on the gig/audience/time allotted.

    Right now, I arranged our set so that the songs ascend in key signature. In other words, first song is in A, second is in B, third C, next in D, then E, then F, and so forth. But on the last two songs, we use wider intervals to create a accelerated climax feel.

    We play mostly originals, but we always end with "Rockin in the Freeworld" because it's a good song for the audience to chant as we close. If we do any covers, it's gotta be a well known song, otherwise we might as well be doing our own stuff.

    Sometimes we get in the groove and just start jamming. There are alot of parts in our songs that are very open to jamming/extend guitar soloing. Sometimes during a jam, our singer will start singing other songs that fit in the tempo (like Zeppelin would do with old blues songs). Sometimes it feels right, cause it's all about creating moments with the audience.

    All stage banter is usually what ever comes out of our singers mouth, cause he just has that kind of likable frontman personality.

  • seems like every band does it differently, but we're all about the spontaneous energy. we build a skeleton of a set list – guide points if you will – and then the rest depends on the audience. as for stage banter, off the cuff is the way to go. i see way too many bands with rehearsed patter that just comes off sounding amateur and condescending.

    energy wise, i like to think of it as a rollercoaster. if you start fast and keep going you're going to burn out your audience. so we try to balance it out – start strong for a few songs, take it down a notch as a breather, and then ramp it back up. rinse, wash, repeat.

  • A REALLY interesting question.

    I used to think variety was the key, and I needed to break up the set with cover / original / cover / original ….

    slow / fast / medium / fast …

    Guitar / mandolin / guitar …

    to keep the audience interested

    but now I feel that the set has to flow, almost like each individual song flows from beginning to end. And the previous sets could feel clunky and disjointed.

    So we've found a set that seems to work, and kept to it. (Making small changes to suit the venue / audience / our mood) It also helps because we get to practise the transitions between songs.

    It'll be really interesting to hear other's thoughts on this : )

  • The first song in a our set list is something that is for us. Something to settle us into the groove, adjust sounds and get comfortable.

    We play originals and covers, half and half, and about twelve songs per 45 minute set.

    Each song must be in a different key than the previous song and tempo needs to change. We play a bunch of shuffles so tempo and key changes are needed to differentiate the songs. We also go from major to minor mode songs, jazzy to country.

    Chatter is unplanned, but planned in that we are going to talk about something between songs. We like to talk to the crowd and share stories of how the songs were written and some history.

    Extended solos and jams depend entirely on the crowd. If the song is bombing, we play it once through. If the crowd is enthusiastic and dancing we circle around a few times.

    We usually pre-plan a three set list with a set of extras that can be thrown in as needed for a three hour show.

    le Hook

  • Great article, its a very important aspect that new bands tend to overlook, or are not even aware of. I am an instrumental rock guitarist, and I approach my set list on a comfort-fun-energy way. For example, my first song would be some upbeat happy number that the band is most comfortable in – right now it's Crush of Love by Joe Satriani. Then when everyone's warmed up we continue with this type of medium energy good feeling songs, add a blues tune. In the middle I add something slower paced, with more expression, maybe one of my original guitar ballads or may be Satch's Always with Me, With You. After that section I start bringing the energy level up again and build it to a fever pitch with my tracks or covers. Right now i am ending the set with an instrumental rendition of Beat It by MJ. This one always gets the crowd romping.

    As an instrumental act right in the middle of several normal bands, I pay attention to the fact that the audience does not get bored. So I try to throw in 1-2 groovy blues tunes and play covers that cross over well to the non-guitar focused audience. Its basically about giving them a great time for 30 mins. Contrary to expectations, I don't do extended solos 😀

    Ashique M. Fahim

  • House of Cards

    I also used to have a random list of the songs I like to play live. But that doesn't work out anymore.

    I developed a list of all my songs and put them all in different categories. So I have songs that introduce me to the audience(what I talk about, how do I sound like, etc) , I have songs that give my show a feeling of how far my music goes (in my case, how it varies so much and, sometimes, how it can become experimentalist) and then I have the "conclusions".

    Conclusions are supposed to send the following message to your fans: "this was the best show you've ever seen in your hometown/venue/life". So you just have to find which songs are which and build your setlist. Since I'm not a big artist I mostly play small sets of 40-45 minutes, so that people don't get bored.

  • We have the same set for each performance. We may pullout a song or two depending on the venue, but we still use the same line up. We start with an upbeat first two songs and bring in 2-3 more serious note songs, leave with a band ripping number that will get them to their feet – a song that has an earworm effect…we know they'll hear it the next morning when they first wake up and go put on the cd (again) that they bought from us the night before.

  • Daniel

    We have always put a lot of thought in our setlists. It always been important to us because the times we haven't we've been a train wreck. We usually break our set up into 2 or 3 mini sets (3-4 songs). Those songs are usually in the same key or a complimentary key or are in the same playing style or otherwise compliment each other. The songs either go straight into another or have a transition written to go between. The idea though is to never stop til the mini set is done.

    In between the mini sets we have subject matter we always talk about. This gives the guitars a chance to tune, drummer a chance to catch his breath, and the singer a chance to grab some water. We don't have a script but we pretty much say the same thing each time and we split the banter up between a couple members so it's not all on the singer's shoulders. We mainly do this so we know we've covered all that needs to be said (merch, shows, CD, website).

    One thing we've learned from some locals (not to mention the the Greek god of touring, Tour:Smart's Martin Atkins) is that you should NEVER play the same set in the same place twice… ever! Always change something up. I go to a lot of local shows with some regular artists that play pretty frequently and I sometimes find myself purposefully avoiding them because once you've seen their set once you've seen their set 1000 times. So obnoxious! It's so easy to change it up. So do it!

  • I admire Chris Brown! His music is like nothing I have ever heard!

  • Hello! I will usually build the set list depending on who my intended audience is. I don't play songs about death when I sing at a retirement center… I do mix cover songs with my own music. I come in with some stage banter, jokes, or comments about the songs, but I always try to relate to the audience off the cuff. I try to mix up songs with the same keys or tone or topic. I also try to mix up songs based on the vocal range required. I also have 2 or 3 songs beyond my time limit in case I can tell from their reactions the audience isn't into a certain type.

  • Great advice. Thanks for sharing.

  • Last Minute Musicians

    Thanks for the post! We gave our thoughts on writing a great set list in our article “How to Write a set list”