Writing sets- the bigger picture

Tim Price just sent me a link to a good article he wrote on his Blog about writing sets. As a bandleader this is very important. Players usually don't learn to do this well until they have had many years of experience. A well thought out set can really engage an audience and a poorly planned set can turn an entire room cold as ice. As Tim says- PRACTICE WRITING SETS. There are some guidelines for set writing that are good to be aware of.
  • Vary the styles and tempos of the tunes- Mix it up! There are times when it is nice to do a set of different styles of Latin tunes, then a swing set, then Blues and groove set (for when the crowd is drunk). This is the format of most club date or wedding bands.
  • Don't play tunes in the same key back to back. This is sometimes cool if the styles or tempos are different enough. Of course Blues or Rock bands do not follow this guideline. I sometimes play with a Blues singer who does EVERY tune in F. If possible have each key move down in fifths or stepwise (this is perceived by the audience at almost a subconscious level).
  • Start out the set with something that is comfortable for the musicians, so things lock in. Save your really hard material for when the band is warmed up.
  • Sometimes it's alright to start or end the set with a ballad. You might end the set with a Ballad if the second to last tune was a scorcher and you want to cool the audience down.
  • Be ready to change up your set on the fly depending how the crowd reacts. You may need to wake them up if they're getting too chatty.
  • If you're playing a gig for wealthy older caucasions, play every tune at 160bpm (businessman's bounce tempo) and segue between every tune with a 3-6-2-5 vamp into the next key. Just kidding. This is exactly what many NYC high society bands do.
  • Write sets that feature different instruments in the band and vary the solo order. Start with a bass solo or a bass melody once in a while.
  • Take the time to work on your set lists before you get to the gig and try to think them through in your head. Try to think about how you will feel after each tune. Keep old set lists that worked well for future reference.
  • Ask your players if they have any tunes they want to play before the gig so you can work them into the set seamlessly. Otherwise you'll have a harder time working them in on the fly.
  • Pick a few alternate tunes before hand.
  • Pick tunes that you sound good playing on. This seems obvious, but I often make the mistake of putting hard tunes that I don't know as well as I should in the set for the sake of novelty. I often overlook tunes that I know very well and sound good playing on for these newer, harder tunes. Don't overlook great tunes just because everyone else plays them.
  • Consider changing the style or meter of an overplayed standard. You might try something like playing 'All the Things' as a waltz or the 'Nearness of You' as a double-time feel Samba.


Anonymous said...


Thanks for posting the jazz blog url on Cragislist. It's fascinating. I'm behind on putting theory into practice but that site's a great motivator.

Thanks again,


Hucbald said...

This is a fantastic topic. I put a lot of thought into this, so I'll just offer my perspective as a performing solo guitarist.

I organize my set into mini-sets, or suites, that progress around the circle of thirds starting in A minor: A minor, C major, E minor, G major, B minor, D major, F-sharp minor, A major, etc. Currently, my set progresses all the way to B major (Which is a pretty remote key for the guitar).

Within each mini-set, or suite, I have it organized so that each one begins with a laid back prelude type of piece, goes through some faster etude and sonata type deals, and each one ends with a "crowd pleaser" type of piece.

So, for example, the A minor suite ends with Mason William's "Classical Gas", the C major suite ends with Eric Johnson's "Desert Song" (Yeah, it's in A minor, but I use "Guardame Las Vacas", which begins on a C major chord and ends on an A minor chord, to transition into it), the E minor suite ends with Eddie Van Halen's "Spanish Fly", the G major suite ends with "A Day at the Beach" (Which I transposed down a whole step from where Satriani plays it so it fits on a classical guitar fretboard), etc. Each little suite is about 10 to 15 minutes in length, so the crowd pleasers are nicely spaced out AND they are all followed with a quiet introspective prelude (Nice recovery time there for me as a performer too).

I have found that at resteraunt/coffeehouse gigs you can actually wear an audience out if you throw too much "brilliance" at them: Better to space those things out so they can enjoy their meals and conversation and draw their complete attention only every fifteen minutes or so.


David Carlos Valdez said...

Very interesting. Thanks hucbald.