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Composing a Set List

An outline by Joel Mabus

I.        Set and Setting

A.     Concert? Festival? Open Mike? Opening Act? House Concert? Special Event? Do you have recordings to sell?

B.      Are you the whole show, or are you part of a bigger entertainment?  Are you playing second fiddle to food & drink? Are people there to see YOU or somebody else?

C.      Are you new here?  Or is this a return engagement? Should you repeat songs from last time?

II.      How long is your time on stage?

A.     Most entertainers try for an “arc” in mood or tone.  In a very short set (3 songs) this means very big decisions in choice of material. In a very long set (60-90 minutes) you could have several “arcs.”

B.      Be very careful not to wear out your welcome. In a festival setting or as an opening act, sometimes a strong 15 minutes is more effective than 40 minutes.

C.      Be brutally honest about timing your set. If you are allotted only 15 minutes, don’t say “Oh, the average song is 3 minutes – I’ll do five songs”  Applause takes time – introductions take time – tuning takes time.  And some of your songs may not be “average” length. Get to know how much time each song takes to introduce and perform.  If you really need to pack a wallop in a short time, rehearse the whole set with a clock and allow time for applause!

III.    One set? Two? Three or more?

A.     If you are to fill a large amount of time, you may be given the choice of set length and breaks.  In a concert setting you may choose to do longer sets; in a talkative bar you might want to do shorter, frequent sets. Or your first set might be sung to diners, your last to drinkers.  Give it some thought before you decide where to place your songs.

B.      The promoter may dictate the terms of set length vs. break time.  Learn to communicate with the “boss” if you think you have a better way to apportion time.

IV.    Starters

A.     Have a good strong opening song.  Something that says “Here I am – here’s what I can do.” It doesn’t necessarily need to be your “best” song, but it should be one of your best “opening songs.”

B.      Is the audience ready for your first song? In a bar or coffee-shop you may have to grab their attention before they listen to lyrics.  In a concert, you can make a subtle lyrical statement or dramatic entrance and be taken seriously. At an outdoor festival you may have to fight the elements just to be heard.  The first song is important, no matter what the setting, but there are sometimes when you need to set a mood first, before your “best” song can be heard.

C.      Has there been a sound check?  Will the first song be the song check “on the fly?”

V.     Flow

A.     Avoid monotony. From one song to the next there need to be changes.  Tempo – style – key – subject matter – instrumentation – mood. Change at least one or two of these variables with each song.  Change is good! BUT you could deliberately make one of these elements stay the same to make a thread connecting two songs.  For example, follow a boogie woogie train song in “E” with a sensitive country song in “G” about the passing of era of locomotives.

B.      Abrupt changes in mood can be exciting – or jarring.  A roller coaster of “funny-sad-funny-sad-funny-sad” is not desirable to most people. But “playful-funny-wistful-sad- profound-hopeful-funny-rousing” makes for an interesting set.

C.      If you have a particular song you’d like to perform in a show, think about the kind of song that should come before it – and after it! Give your best material the best “cushion” you can.

VI.   Finishers

A.     Having a good closing song is even more important than a good opener.  The last impression you make is probably the strongest – especially in situations where you are not “the main event.”

B.      In composing a set list, you may want to decide first what your last song will be, then your first song, then the “middle” songs you really want to do. Then fill in the rest as time permits.

C.      Always have an encore song ready.  But don’t rely on getting the chance to do it!

VII. Writing it down

A.     Don’t let the audience see you reading your set list! The illusion to maintain is that you always know what comes next and it flows from you spontaneously.  If it is a short set, memorize it! Or put a copy in VERY BIG BOLD PRINT on the floor and maybe another on the “water table” and only glance at it as you do your business. Taping a list of songs to your guitar and spending the evening squinting and looking down while you decide what’s next is not good “show biz!”

B.      Winging it.  If you work solo, or if you work as the “leader” with “sidemen” who are very well rehearsed, you might get away with making up the set as you go.  With some practice, this can be a good option, especially if spontaneity is in your character, or if the gig is a “low pressure” situation.  Still, knowing what the beginning, ending, and featured songs are is still critical.  In a band with no particular leader, however, winging it can be a fatal mistake. There is nothing more boring than watching four or five people hemming and hawing about what to do next. And then making a poor choice!

C.      Keeping track.  If you play to the same audience with some frequency, you may want to consider keeping track of your set lists, so as not to repeat yourself too often. Some people on tour will do the same set every night to a new audience. Next tour, they use a new set list.  If you are playing the same bar every Tuesday, you will need a different strategy.

© Joel Mabus 2001