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How to Write the Perfect Set List

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For any musician, crafting the perfect setlist is crucial. It's about taking your audience on a journey, building energy, and leaving them wanting more. This is especially true for harmonica players playing blues music, where improvisation and audience connection are key. Whether you're a seasoned blues veteran or just starting your band, here are some tips to craft a setlist that'll have the crowd tappin' their feet and hollering for more.


A Note on Musical Styles

These tips are aimed at blues harmonica players, but the general points apply to any genre or instrument. Feel free to apply them to your band - whether you play jazz, rock, funk, soul or anything else!


Write the Perfect Set List: The Crucial Questions


How long are you playing for?

Unless you're putting on your own event, you should ask the organiser how long a set they would like. Most venues will tell you their standard set times that every band keeps to. Keep to their rules so you don't end up alienating the venue.


If you're playing at a festival, you will be told your set length in advance. Never go over your set time, it's massively frowned upon by festival organisers who need to quickly make stage changes to prepare for the next band.


How many songs will you need?

Plan for around 5 minutes per song, but make sure you prepare more songs than you need. It's much easier to cut songs short or even drop entire songs than it is to play an extra song that you haven't rehearsed. Even remembering the title of an unplanned song can be hard when you're in the bright lights of a stage. Don't find yourself short on the night!


For example, a 60 minute set will likely only need 10 songs by the time you factor in introductions, tuning etc, but I would recommend preparing 12 or more songs just in case you need them. Again, I cannot stress how much better it is to have too many songs than too few. (Believe me, I learned this from some very embarrassing early experiences!)


Who is your audience?

Tailor your setlist to the crowd where possible. This applies to all genres, but with the blues your main crowds will be either the general public (at pubs and bars) or blues fans (festivals and blues clubs). So are you playing at a bar or a bustling festival? A seasoned blues crowd might appreciate more rare songs, while a more general audience might respond better to well-known classics. Consider the venue's size and limitations too. A small bar might not appreciate an hour-long jam session, while a festival might require a more dynamic set with high-energy moments.


Crafting the Flow of Your Set

It's important to consider the flow of the set when putting it together. How will you start and end, and what twists and turns will be taken in between?


Start and Finish Strong:

There's an old joke among musicians that as long as you start and finish well, everything in between is irrelevant. There's truth in that, so when you write a set list always make sure that you start with a big exciting song and finish with one too. Open your set with a high-energy blues number that showcases your band's skills and sets the tone for the evening. Similarly, end your set on a high note with a crowd-pleasing classic.


Take a piece of paper and write your strongest song at the bottom - this will be your last song. Then write your second best song at the top - this is your opener. Then start to think about the other songs you have ready - or need to get ready!


The Emotional Arc

Think of your setlist as a story with an emotional arc. Build the energy throughout the set, putting any introspective blues numbers between upbeat jams. This keeps the audience engaged and prevents the set from becoming monotonous. Think about where to place your "killer blues licks" moments for maximum impact.


When you first start gigging, it's safer to put only one slow song (if any) in a 60 min set. It can be useful to have one as it can last 6 or 7 minutes if you need it to, but slow songs need to be played really well to keep the attention of an audience. Ideally you want a range of grooves and keys, but when you're just starting out the most important thing is just to make sure you fill the time.


Leave Room for the Blues

The blues is all about improvisation and letting loose. While having a solid setlist is important, leave room for spontaneous jams and solos. This keeps the performance fresh and allows the band to connect with the audience in a unique way for each show.


What are the best blues songs to use in your set?

The best songs to put in your set are, of course, the ones you know best! However, assuming you have the luxury of a pool of songs to choose from, or time to learn more, there are some key things to consider.


If you're a blues band playing to the general public, remember that most people don't have the same passion or knowledge of the blues that you do. It's a good idea to go with some real classics that have gained a wider audience.


Here are some blues songs that are great for harmonica, and that also go down well among the general public:


Cross Roads (Robert Johnson / Cream / Allman Brothers)

Got My Mojo Working (Muddy Waters)

Hoochie Coochie Man (Muddy Waters)

Hound Dog (Big Mama Thornton / Elvis Presley)

Key to the Highway (Big Bill Broonzy / Little Walter)

Smokestack Lightning (Howlin' Wolf)

Stormy Monday (T-Bone Walker)

Sweet Home Chicago (Robert Johnson / Blues Brothers)

The Thrill is Gone (B.B. King)


As a blues harmonica player, you may want to consider some harmonica classics from Little Walter, Big Walter or other greats of the genre. If you're feeling brave, you might even choose an instrumental: these can be a real highlight of a set and really get an audience on board, but only do it if you have the chops and it feels right on the night.


Perhaps the most iconic blues harmonica instrumental ever recorded is 'Juke' by Little Walter. He recorded several others including 'Off the Wall', 'Rocker' and 'Chicken Shack'. Other great blues harmonica instrumentals to consider include 'Easy (Almost Lost My Mind)' and 'Don't Get Around Much Anymore' both by Big Walter, as well as his Walter's Boogie.


If you'd like to learn some of the best blues harmonica songs and instrumentals, check out my classic blues song studies.


Seven Setlist Top Tips


1. Know Your Audience and Venue - a cosy bar calls for a different selection of songs than a large, outdoor festival


2. Start Strong and End with Impact - come out running, and leave with a bang.


3. Build a Narrative - think of your set as a story, and the band as storytellers.


4. Balance Familiarity with Surprise - consider a fresh take on a classic tune, or an original to change things up.


5. Consider the Flow - try to keep things interesting and be sparing with slow songs.


6. Plan for Flexibility - keep a song going if it's working, and be willing to make changes where necessary.


7. Practice Transitions - moving smoothly between songs adds professionalism and flare.


P.S. The One Thing Every Band Forgets

Engagement isn't strictly part of the set list, but how you introduce your songs and interact with the audience can significantly impact the overall experience. If you're able, share stories behind the songs, especially if they're originals or have interesting arrangements. This personal touch can make your performance feel more intimate and memorable. Most bands don't bother to even think about these things, so even a little prep will go a long way to making you stand out from the crowd.


Knowing how to write the perfect set list is a blend of strategic planning and creative intuition. By considering these guidelines, harmonica players and musicians of all types can design a roadmap for a gig that not only showcases their talents but also deeply connects with their audience. Remember, the ultimate goal is to create a shared experience that resonates long after the last note has faded.


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