Set Lists

By David A. Barber
Author of Gigging, Everything You Need to Know About Playing Gigs (Except How to Play Your Axe)

Obviously, we can’t tell you exactly which songs to play or in what order, because this article is intended for any band of any genre. It all depends, of course, on what kind of band you are. Tribute bands know exactly what songs to play. Cover bands have to decide what genre or era of music to play and may want to tailor that to specific venues or audiences.  But what about bands playing original music?  Here again, it depends on the genre.  Does your original music have a heavy dance groove, like 1970s disco?  Or is it more contemplative fare that encourages an audience to sit there and listen, like The Fray.
Are you playing only originals, or do you want to incorporate a few selected covers.
Are you playing in a biker bar? or a coffee shop? or a theater?
Does your music cross genres?
Do your fans already know your music or are you a relatively new band still trying to win people over?
There are obviously a lot of variables, so we will try to guide you through them so you can put together a killer setlist.

If you are playing in a biker bar or a neighborhood pub, you will probably go over best if you play music people are familiar with.  This is also true for weddings, corporate gigs, and many street fairs and festivals. That means covers, and the more danceable they are, the more the crowd will like you.  In this case, you should play 50-100% covers, with originals sandwiched between compatible cover songs.  If you play all covers, like a typical blues/rock cover band might, you’ll probably be a big hit.

If you are playing in a coffee shop, you will want to play mostly acoustic, so as not to overwhelm the audience.  Hopefully, you aren’t a punk or metal band.

There are different theories on the best kind of set and it will, of course, depend on the audience and genre.  In many cases, you will want to play an attention grabber, one of your best tunes, right off the bat.  If you are playing first or right after a band that wasn’t so great, it’s important to get the attention of the crowd as soon as possible.

In all cases, you will want to heed the old show-biz saying: Always leave them wanting more. Save your very best number for the end of the set.  This one should be so great that all your fans scream for an encore.  Hopefully, you have at least one song that people just love every time you play it. You need one to end your set with. Make sure you’ve saved a couple more good ones for that encore.

If your repertoire is reasonably diverse, you should be able to grab them and get them dancing right away, or during the first few tunes, then slow it down a little, speed it up, slow it down and then hit them really hard at the end.  Hopefully, your fans will leave feeling like they had an experience, not just a few beers.

You want to avoid playing all your best stuff right off the bat and then end with a blah.  People may remember they liked you at first, but then they will forget the rest of your set and walk away with a disappointing impression of your band.  They’re gonna remember the way they felt at the end of your set.

If your music is such that all the songs have the same or similar tempo/time signature, and some genres are like that, your best bet is to grab them and hold on tight as long as you can make it last.  If you want to take your show up to another level consider including songs that have different tempos.  Most people appreciate a little calming down after a few fast songs.  Or a little pepping up after a few slower numbers.  Try experimenting with your originals by simply speeding them up or slowing them down 10-20 bpm (beats per minute), to see what difference it can make.  Do it live and then ask your fans what they thought after the show.  Sometimes things that may seem stupid in rehearsal have unexpectedly good/bad results when tried on stage.

Make sure you know how long it will take you to play your set, including the encore and between-song banter.  Make sure you know how long they are giving you to play your set. If you are playing in a situation where there are bands playing after you and/or there are other time constraints, include your encore into your set time planning.  It’s great to leave them begging for more, but, if you don’t have time for that encore, then your set was too long.

If you need/want to introduce each song beforehand, you will need time for that.  If your guitar player must tune-up/swap out guitars between each number, plan for that.  One rule of thumb is to plan for your set to end a few minutes early.  Then, if people want that encore, you have time for it.  Or if things get delayed a few minutes, you will still be in good shape.

Do not plan on playing a 30-minute encore at every gig. If the sound guy says you have time for one more, he means one more of about the same length as the other songs you’ve been playing.  If your tunes are all about 5 min, but you insist on doing a 20-minute jam when you only have 5 min. left in your set, you will risk pissing off the sound guy (always a bad idea), the club manager, the staff, and any bands that have to play after you.

Should you play covers or not?
Every original band struggles with this question.  Our answer in most cases is: Yes.  You should do at least a few covers, especially if you are a new band.  Once people have become familiar with your original music, you may be able to drop the covers from your set.  Pay attention to the big successful national touring acts.  Most of them do play select covers.  Many have released entire albums of covers.  That said, we have also heard bands whose original music is so good that they didn’t need to play covers, and other bands who’s original music sounded so much like it could have been covers that they didn’t need to play true covers. (but they did anyway)

One observation that we have made is that people don’t dance to music they are not familiar with.  If people start dancing right away when you play your originals, you may not need covers.  Most bands, though, need to play something that people have heard before, many times, in order to get their attention and bring them out onto the dance floor.  Of course, if yours is not the kind of music anyone will dance to, this point should be ignored.  You may become highly successful if your fans yawn all the way to iTunes and buy all your music.

When selecting covers, choose music popular in your genre that is complementary to or at least compatible with your originals.  Start with the bands who have influenced you and then move into music that you love.  Chances are, these songs will work.  However, don’t be afraid to cover stuff completely out of your genre.  We know a popular alt-country band that covers Neil Diamond and Ozzy Osbourne.  They just play them in country style.  Just be careful, it’s easier to ruin a popular song than it is to make it your own.

One sure-fire way to grab a crowd’s attention is to play a tune that has a very different tempo.  Bands that play songs all in the same time signature, no matter the genre, commonly get tiring after 20-30 minutes.  You need to incorporate some diversity into your sets.

pizza box set list

Tailor your set to the crowd.

Is the crowd mostly over 40?  Play some oldies.  If they are mostly under 25 play something new. If they are bikers, play “Born to Be Wild”  If they are soccer moms play sappy love songs.
Bottom Line: play what they want to hear.  If you don’t know what they want to hear, just ask them.  Every crowd has someone who will shout out some requests.  If you don’t know that song, play whatever you have that’s as close to that as you can.  If you’re playing all originals, go ahead and tease them by asking what they want to hear anyway.  If it gets them involved in the show that’s a good sign.  Hopefully, they won’t just get pissed off at you because you don’t know any of their requests.

First, you need to know what kind of material you have.  It doesn’t matter if they are covers or originals or a mixture of both. If everything is all the same tempo, it may not matter what order you play it in.  Most bands… Most successful bands, that is, have material that is fast and slow or relatively so, depending on the genre.

Second, guess what the crowd will be like. It may be obvious from the venue, but it also may not be.  Be prepared to change things up midway through the show, if needed.

Next, set the pace:
You may wish to start out slow and then gradually speed things up over the course of a set or you may want to start out strong and then slow things down and build them back up at the end of the set.

Play your heart out.

Finally, take note of the audience’s reaction.  If they love you, great!  You’ve got a good set if they start out loving you, but then they all leave during one particular song, you know you goofed up.  It can take a lot of gigs to get it right.  So don’t get discouraged.  Keep at it until you get it figured out.