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How To Write A Great Live Set List For Your Band

Jul 26, 2008
You're standing at the front of the crowd, the support act have long since left the stage, the roadies have finished setting up the equipment and you wait with anticipation for your favourite band to take the stage. When the house lights drop the crowd roars and the band step out confidently and launch straight into one of your favourite songs.

The next two hours seem to just get better and better and as the band leave the stage you're left both satisfied and exhausted. Songs you've never really listened to suddenly seem amazing when seen live, each song has a big impact on the show and you're left cheering for more.

When a band performs live a great deal of consideration needs to go into how the set list will flow. When you watch your favourite bands live you may not even notice how they've built their set list to give each song the maximum impact it can have but believe it or not there is a hidden art to choosing a great set list.

For this article I'll assume that you're in a band with your own material and you have a good grasp of what your 'hits' are and what generally gets crowds going, or quietens the mood. You'll need to have a good grasp of how your songs will affect the audience and what emotions you want to convey with each of them. The reason for this will become clearer later on.

The most important parts of any set list and live show are the start and the end. First impressions are everything, and you want to leave on a high note to give everyone something to remember you by. With this in mind pick out what you feel are your best songs and reserve them for the beginning and the end of your show.

So, first things first. You'll want to open your show with something from your most recent album/ep/recording. Generally when playing live, bands are promoting their most recent material and so you want to reinforce the new songs. You'll want to pick one of your better songs so you make a great first impression and get people into your show. The song doesn't really have to be your best song as such, but it most definitely needs to be one with a big start and a really catching intro. You need to show people just what your band is about during this song and bring up the energy of the show.

Remember that people are there to see you play, and if you disappoint them with the first song it is almost impossible to make up for it later in the show. A lot of bands will write songs with the specific idea of using it as an opening number when playing live, and it is something you may want to consider doing. The opening song can be considered the most important and so making a statement of intent is vital.

So after you've made your big entrance where do you go next? I would recommend carrying on with another new song and keep the energy going. Don't pause between the first few songs as you want to keep the flow. In terms of how you structure your set from here it depends on how long you have to play. I would generally try to split your set into segments and then play enough songs for each segment to fill your set.

Once you've opened it is important to keep the momentum, so pick songs that are in a similar vein to your first one. For the third or fourth song I would play an old favourite and something that everyone will know. The reason for doing this is that after your big entrance you'll need something to pick up the pace again and make it seem like your show is getting better as it goes along.

After the opening salvo of songs you'll want to start thinking about playing something different. Remember that there is only so long that people can listen to rock and it still have impact as being fast and heavy. You'll need to change it up to keep the show interesting. Play a quieter, more laid back song in this slot. Doesn't have to be really mellow just yet, but certainly something a little different. You'll need to give the audience a break from the energy of your opening salvo and give time for a breather. It's important to do this as it will give your songs more impact when you pick up the pace again in the middle of the set.

By playing something quieter you'll give your audience something slightly different to listen to and you'll affect them differently. Have you ever watched a band play a set and every song was fast and heavy. After an hour you've had enough and by the time they've finished you're glad they're gone, make sure you avoid this and change it up when playing your sets.

After resetting and chilling out for a song or two it's time to build back up for the middle of your set. Here you can do anything you like really and how long this section lasts is entirely dependent on how long you're playing for. You'll want to sprinkle in your hits and new songs together here, remember not to play your best couple of songs just yet, you'll want to save those for the end.

The middle of the set is a good place to plan some audience interaction, maybe introduce the band and have a chat, that kind of thing. It is also the best place for experimentation in my experience. Remember to keep the energy flowing and keep the gaps between songs down to a minimum.

After you've passed the bulk of your set I always find it best if you 'reset' the show again. Heading into the last section head back to something quieter, maybe an acoustic song to change the mood again. However here I would concentrate on ramping it up constantly to reach the big finale. Starting quiet you'll want songs that will build over time back into the full force of your opener. Songs that start quiet and end heavy are perfect to put in here.

After resetting and building back up you'll want to play out your best songs to finish the set. This is the last memory that people have of you so make sure it counts. Every band I've seen always reserves their biggest crowd pleasers for the end, it makes people stay to see the whole show and most importantly, leaves people wanting more.

You can use these points as a general guideline when writing sets for your band, but bear in mind that rules are always there to be broken, especially in music. The start of the show is probably where you have most creative freedom, and I've seen some bands do really interesting things with the start of the show. Remember that if your audience is expecting a big overblown entrance then sometimes something more low key can have more impact. The Smashing Pumpkins and Steve Vai are great at doing this and every show I've seen from them has had a really memorable opener.

Good luck writing your sets and playing live, it certainly isn't as easy as it looks as I'm sure you'll find out.
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