How To Write the Perfect Set List

setlist 2 (2)While there is no absolute science to writing a perfect set list, and it’s often impossible to predict precisely what an audience will be like, I do think there are some common sense guidelines to putting together a song order that will serve your band the best. The following are the guidelines I always use for a R&R set of original music. Most ideas transfer to any genre. With cover bands things are a little different, but many of my strategies still apply. I will discuss cover gig set lists in a future article.

While the time allotted to original performances can be anywhere between 20 minutes and 2 hours, most of them settle in at the 40 – 50 minute mark. This allows for multiple booking in a club, and enables the club managers to book on the hour. A 40 minutes set gives each band 20 minutes to setup and breakdown. This is the list I will discuss here.

Before getting into actual song choices I’d like to make note that while it’s important to be prepared to play for several songs past your allotted time (encores, possible schedule changes), it’s always best to enter with a less is more attitude regarding how many songs you plan to play. I’d much rather leave an audience wanting more, than play past my due or have the dreaded pulling of the plug on the band because we went over our time limit. Playing longer than you’ve been asked to is not only inconsiderate of the other bands, it can get you blacklisted at a venue.

My songs usually run the typical 3-5 minutes, so for a 40 minute set I’ll plan for 7 songs with an extra encore. And this is my process:

1st song:

This is your first impression. If it’s an 8:00 show, that means those arriving are probably stone cold sober, too. They will not yet be warmed up, having fun, dulled of their senses, and loving everything they hear. This has to be a tight, confident, solid song that will draw them in and make them want to hear more. I like to make it an energetic one that will grab their attention and keep it. Keep in mind also that the first song is the one that will tell the lingering fans of the previous band whether theyshould stick around, or go. Gotta get their attention, and keep it. A good stage performance helps here too.

2nd song:

I consider this one the convincer. First song needs to be great, second song is insurance that the first wasn’t just a fluke. It should be another solid one, but I like to throw a little bit of a change-up here. Pick a song that flows well with the first, but shows the audience that you’re not a one trick pony. It’s nice to hear a band that can change it up a bit, and for those who didn’t consider your first song their cup of tea, you have a chance of winning them over with the second. I also like make this an energetic song.

3rd song:

This is where I like to throw in a cover. And I usually try to make it a popular song, and do it in the style of my band, NOT like the original. This is the perfect place to seal the deal with your audience, and pull in anyone else who might still be on the fence. I’ve yet to throw a well-known cover into a set where I didn’t immediately see people light up, smile and give an acknowledging head nod to their friends. I feel a cover at this time connects the band with the audience. It gives them something familiar they can relate to, and makes them feel like family. Again, I try to maintain the energy of the first 2 songs here.

4th song:

Break, and change-up time again. This is where I think it’s a good idea to lay back, give the band a rest (especially if it’s a really high energy performance), and give the audience’s ears a chance to be refreshed. If there’s a ballad to be had, this is where I like to put it. Keeps people interested, and once again, shows that you can change it up.

5th and 6th song:

While we’re certain all of our songs are awesome, if we’re honest with ourselves we realize we have some that aren’t quite as strong as the others. This is where those songs go. By this time, most of the people watching and listening have made up their minds. They will be a bit more forgiving. If I feel one of the 2 song choices here is stronger than the other (which of course is only my opinion anyhow), I’ll put that 5th, and use the 6th spot for redemption.

7th, or final song:

This needs to be your catchiest, hopefully best tune. It should be a song that everyone will remember you by, and hopefully leave the venue singing in their heads. It should be the performance that leaves them thinking, HOLY SHIT THIS BAND KICKS COMPLETE ASS AND I NEED TO BRING MY FRIENDS NEXT TIME!!!. Your last impression is equally as important as your first. Often times even more important! Unless you’re the last band of the evening, with this song you will be showcasing for the fans of all the upcoming bands. The people you want most to get onto your mailing list. You want them to remember you.

This is also a very tricky spot. You need to always be prepared for this song to either be cut due to time constraints (it’s not uncommon for a club to cut your set short), or for you to get an encore, and this not actually be your last song. If you get the “LAST SONG” cue from the sound-person or club manager after your 4th or 5th song, move straight to this one. If you’re almost certain you’ll be asked to do an encore, then make this 7th song your next best. If the audience is loyal, and familiar with your material they’ll push for you at the end of this one to hear their favorite, and the encore will be better insured.


I usually use the guidelines above for final song, but if I’m uncertain, then I like to have here an alternative catchy tune (the band’s OTHER big hit), or another cover. Playing 2 covers in a set of original music can be tricky, but for an encore people are often forgiving as an encore can seem unexpected. If I used my biggest gun for the last song, I’d rather do a cover than end on a less powerful note than the previous song. It is of course OK to NOT do an encore, even if requested, but it must be done tactfully. As said at the start, I like leaving a crowd wanting more. Much better having them wanting to come back next time for more, than to feel “OK, I’ve had enough”.

Final important note on beginnings and endings…

When I was playing with The Nerve, I came up with something that worked wonderfully for the opening of our shows. It was unique to that band, and a little difficult to pull off with any other I’ve played with since, but I offer it as inspiration for you to come up with your own ideas.

When we walked out on stage, we offered a very short (around 30 sec) a Capella performance of something that would catch the audience off guard. The clip below starts with one of them, yet they were usually a bit more ridiculous. Fans of the band will remember our infamous “Yam Nak Taya, Rorche De Vu” tune. It was nonsense, which people thought was some foreign language. Anyhow, we had about a dozen of these a Capella opening, and we would immediately follow with the count off into our opening number.It worked. Every time.

Endings…. that long drawn out drum rolling, feedbacking, A minor, roll on the floor and jump 12 times thing. Played out, tired, cliché, and boring! I much prefer the humble definitive ending (no more than 15 seconds on a single chord), or creative do something completely different leave em on a wow note. I used a warped pop goes the weasel inmy last show. This one’s on you!

Wishing you all he best at your next show! Have a go at these ideas. Come back and let me know how it went.

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