How To Craft The Perfect Set List
Being a great looking, well dressed (or at least appropriately dressed for your band’s image), well rehearsed band is very important, but you have to have a good show, too. One of the biggest elements of a good show is the set list.
You can’t just throw songs on a sheet and call it a set list, you have to think about how you want to guide your fans through the night. You’ve got to set the emotional tone for the night. Here’s how to do it:
I know you’ve been to concerts and shows where the band came out swinging. They throw a solid hit as the first song. Why do they do this? This is the point of the night that the energy is at it’s highest.
The crowd’s adrenaline is maxed; they’ve been waiting all day for this show and they cannot wait for the show to start. You don’t want to disappoint them with a song they’ve never heard before. You have to grab that energy from the crowd with something they will know and love.
You don’t want to play your best song, biggest hit first. Play something that you know is popular and high energy. Something up-tempo always works well here.
You want to leave a lasting impression when you wrap up your show. The last song of the night will usually be the biggest crowd pleaser you play. The big acts will usually make this the biggest hit they’ve had.
Crowds remember two things; how the show opened and how it ended. Unless they are waiting for a certain song and you play it in the middle of the night, the middle part gets kinda blurry. Save your best for last.
One Set Show
So, let’s say you’re playing only one set for the night. I like to structure the energy of the set like a “W”. What I mean by this is that I open with a strong song or two. Then I reduce the energy for a couple songs, then bring the energy back up for the middle of the set. Then I bring the energy back down a bit until the last three or four songs, then build the energy up and end with the song everyone’s been waiting for.
One of the bands I’m currently in always ends with the same song. This has become kind of our signature song. When we don’t play it, people boo. You know you have great fans when they get disappointed that you don’t play a song you’re known for.
3 set night:
Most of the gigs I play are comprised of 3 sets, usually lasting 45 minutes to 1 hour each with a break in between sets. Depending on how much banter the singer does between songs, this is typically 12-15 songs per set.
Doing three sets takes a bit more planning (and stamina) than a single set show. You’re crowd will typically know how to adjust to three sets if they’ve seen you perform before. Even so, you have to guide them through the long night with your sets so they don’t burn out too soon.
Here is how I typically structure a long night:
1st set The first set is the warmup set. You still want to open strong because the energy will still be high. In this case, you don’t necessarily want to structure your set in the “W” format I discussed above. Here you can shape it more like a “U”. You’ll want to open strong with a few songs, then you can bring the energy down a bit toward the middle.
The end of the set you want to bring that energy back up to prep the crowd for what’s to come next. If you’re a dance band, this is a good time to start playing some of your faster dance songs. When you go on break, tell them what’s coming when you get back. This will get them ready to up the energy.
2nd set The second set is almost the opposite as the first. You’re crowd is now ready for the party, the drinks are taking effect and they want you to bring the show. You want to open strong, but it shouldn’t be your strongest song of the set.
You’ll want to play a couple “warm up” songs and then bring the full guns for the rest of the set. If you’re a dance band, play a couple you know people like and might dance to, but after that, it should be hit after hit.
The goal here is to keep people going, keep the energy high for the full set and play with everything you’ve got. Unlike the other sets, you’re aren’t aiming to hold anything back for the last couple songs, they should be no stronger than the whole set, but should still be strong enough to end on.
3rd set By now the crowd has hit its peak energy and might even be starting to wind down a bit. If they’ve been drinking, they might be ordering their last couple drink and switching to water.
Your fans aren’t going to be as picky on what you play. They probably still want to dance, but they will be more open to what songs they will dance to. Most of the time I find that the crowd is more ready to “rock out”, so I will put my heavier rock tunes in this set.
Don’t get me wrong, we’re not headbanging now, we’re just playing songs that are less pop and more rock. The songs may be faster and all, but people still dance to them. Well, sometimes at this point it’s more like running in place or doing jumping jacks, but they’re having fun.
Similar to the second set, you’re going for the high-energy ending. You don’t have to have as much energy as the second set, but you still want to end strong for the night.
I would say about 80% of the time we get asked for an encore. There are nights when you’ve put all your energy into the three sets and you are just ready to be done.
But remember that if your fans are asking for an encore, they must like you and aren’t ready for the party to end.
It’s always good to keep a strong song ready for the encore. This can either be an all-out rock tune or a sing along. The crowd wants to hear a song and want to be a part of what you’re doing. You may typically not get as much crowd interaction as you will during the encore, so make it a good one.
Planning your sets is really a science. As you’re playing your show, pay attention to the songs that get the best and least response. You’ll learn what your future audience wants to hear and what they’ll dance to. Most of all, play all the songs like you love them and the crowd will be more responsive.