For all artists and groups, regardless of their popularity, a strong set list is the foundation to putting on a good show.
Whilst it can be fun to perform without a set list (especially for bands with a pre existing following) a well designed set list allows a band to win over an audience that might not have heard them before. It means they can focus on their sound, rehearse the performance to perfection and put on the best show possible.
1. Begin with a bang
First impressions are extremely important and the first song on your set list should give the audience an overall impression of your bands sound – a real “statement of intent”.
However, before you even get to the first tune, there are a couple of tricks you can use to kickstart your performance;
If you’re a rock or metal band, consider kicking the evening off with a “wash” (No, we aren’t talking about a shower, although that might be a good idea after the show!). Taken from the drumming phrase “cymbal wash” this generally means all of the band just making a bit of coordinated noise before they all kick into the first song in order to up the tension.
The key really is to start strong. Many people are going to make up their mind about your band within the first couple of songs, so it’s important to start with a couple of songs you consider to work really well together.
That said, the great Les Paul always advised that bands should not worry about their first tune as audiences take time to become directly connected with the music.
2. Have the energy of your songs form “an arc”
Although it’s slightly genre-dependent, you probably wouldn’t want to see a band that constantly performs songs of the same tempo and mood, after all, a bit of variety never goes a miss!
Now it’s important to understand that by “forming an arc” we don’t mean anything about animals going 2 x 2! A good way to structure your performance could be to start with fast and energetic songs, showing off your principle sound. Follow this by moving towards slower songs for the middle of the performance, before finally finishing off with more energetic songs. If you were to plot this out on a graph, it would resemble something that looks like an arc.
While this is good general advice, it is only one way of doing things. An act should choose their set list based on the strengths of their songs. The one key point that all artists and bands should remember is to make every performance memorable!
3. Leave room for improvisation
Again, this will be slightly genre-dependent, but when you are beginning to attract a fan base, it will become increasingly important to allow some room for improvisation and experimentation within your set.
This could be done by adding in new songs, changing a solo or even changing the arrangements songs. For example playing an acoustic version, or even fundamentally changing the groove of a tune can really help to change things up. For great examples of improvisation and a groove change, check out Prince’s version of “Lets go crazy” with his rock band 3rdEyedGirl.
4. Ensure that your set list flows
From the perspective of the audience, a band that stops between every song, perhaps mumbles a few words and then clumsily begins the next song can become incredibly tiresome.
This sort of performance can be seen pretty regularly, but if we’re being brutally honest, it can potentially turn new fans away. Similarly, long gaps in between songs can also prove for an incredibly awkward experience for all involved.
By treating every gig as an opportunity to engage with the audience and considering yourself as an ‘entertainer’ as well as a musician, you can end up with a much more interesting and interactive experience for both the band and the audience.
Come up with “standby” things to talk about. Interesting facts about the band or song (especially if it’s a cover), stories about how the song was written or what inspired it and even a few tried and tested jokes can all be great ways to avoid an awkward silence and get that extra bit of audience interaction. That said, no one wants to hear you break into a long monologue after every single tune, so it’s important to strike a balance.
This can also be done musically – weaving songs into one another (known as a “segue”) and leaving clear gaps in the set to allow for audience participation such as clapping along or sing-along breakdowns.
5. End with a showstopper
It could well be argued the most important bit of the set is the end of the performance and a band should aim to make as memorable impact on the audience as possible.
Depending on the genre, this could be an opportunity for one last sing along with the audience, with a band the lead guitarist’s last chance for a solo of your best energetic hit. Either way, make sure you have a strong set of songs towards the end of your set.
As the old adage says, it’s important to always leave the audience wanting more!
Not only will this increase your chances of being asked to perform another show at the same venue, but you may even get asked for an encore!