Adam Rafferty – Guitar and Spirit

All about music, guitar, spirituality, personal development and being happy

How To Create a Great “Set List” For Musical Performance


I’m often asked the question “do you use a set list when you play concerts?” This brings up the question of how to put a set together for a good show. I use a loose set idea with a game plan which I will describe.

But first…has the following every happened to you.?

The Dilemma

  • You go to see a band, their first tune sounds great, but as the set goes on it all the songs start sounding the same.
  • You go to see a singer-songwriter who has written all originals.  She’s cute, her guitar skills are not quite up to par, and other than a smile, the music has nothing you can sing when you get home.
  • You hear a rapper and the beat is loud, energy is good.  But, after 3 songs it all blurs together.
  • You hear a jazz band, and they solo endlessly.
  • You hear a solo guitarist, and after 10 minutes it all sounds the same.  (whether it’s percussive, new age, classical or whatever)

Get the idea?

It’s not the style that’s problematic – it’s that musicians can very easily fall into the trap of all material sounding the same – without realizing it.

The problem is twofold…

  1. You need good material.
  2. You need to use variety in, tone, tempo, dynamics and groove in your set.

The Solution – Melody and  Contrast

You’ll first need to choose the “what” (good songs), then you’ll need to present it all in the proper proportions, and sequence (making the set list).


First off, you need good melodies that are memorable whether they are your original songs or covers. The basic theme of whatever you play should be singable, like:

Beethoven’s 5th Symphony, “Billie Jean”, “Yesterday”, “Isn’t She Lovely”, Your Own Song(s) Here.

Cool percussive stuff is not melody.  The endless stream of consciousness lyrics from rappers and songwriters is not melody (no matter how heart wrenchingly profound it may seem).  Different guitar tunings and/or fret locations may be fun for the performer – but do not necessarily make melody for the listener.

Whatever you play should have “a theme” that your mother could sing back after hearing it once.


I plan my sets knowing that I want contrasting “musical colors” to break things up and provide satisfaction for the listener.

These are personal to me…yours can and should be different.

I use the following – (take note of the variety):

  • funk grooves
  • jazz swing grooves
  • Brazilian grooves
  • a blistering boiling fast song – to raise excitement
  • something bluesy with bending strings
  • a few ballads for a dose of “pretty”
  • a percussive / beatbox song – i.e. getting different sounds from the guitar & visual contrast
  • some midrange easygoing material for middle of set

That covers the “what” I’ll play.

Now – set planning.  Don’t try to do it from first to last song…plan in order of “important moments” in the set, and let the order take shape from both ends to the middle!

  1. First I plan the last song. I always end the set with a BANG !  (Which of your songs could do this for you?)
  2. Next, I plan the first song. I start the set groovy get the peoples heads bobbing, it helps them (and me) relax.
  3. For the first 3 or 4 songs, I entertain!
  4. Set middle is the “journey” – ups & downs are OK.  Mid-intensity material OK.
  5. Have at least one pretty ballad midway – to let the set breathe.

Any one “type”  of song for a whole set is way too much – whether it’s a ballad, funk, uptempo.  Too much is too much!

Maybe you are starting to think about your own set…thoughts like… “I need more ballads”  or “I need an uptempo” or “wow, all my stuff is similar”  – and that’s good, for you to start this process.

Now your practice sessions can be used to choose and “round out” your repertoire so you can provide more variety for a set.

Rock on, practice hard, and let me know how your journey goes!


Author: Adam Rafferty

Adam Rafferty. Fingerstyle Guitarist. Recording and Concert Artist. Meditator. Philosopher. Lover of Groove.

4 thoughts on “How To Create a Great “Set List” For Musical Performance

  1. Thanks for the insight. As a church musician and worship leader our team often plans sets based on song content or intensity and we generally do not do more than 5 or 6 songs per service. The issue of rhythm, melody or style sometimes is secondary. Thanks for the insight. It will be fun to try to broaden our approach.

  2. Hi Adam,

    i see youre in the netherlands atm, unfortuatly i cant make it to your gig; yes, i know: i’ll never forgive myself. I hope you have a good time!!

    I have a question and ill post it here for i dont know any other way to get in touch with you. I saw your vid about warming up exerccises on you tube today: playing the G maj scale, then the 4th, etc. My question is; do you think it is important that the finger of your left hand, when you press the string to produce a note, should not touch another string?
    eg when you play the first note, g, may your index finger of your left hand touch the a-string? Do you think this is importand?

    PS. im on your email subscription list.

  3. I am going to breakdown my set list and probably do alot of rearranging according to the guidelines you mentioned Adam.Thanks!

  4. Thanks! I am a licensed architect who is breaking into the music business. My background is folk and traditional, I am also a classically trained vocalist. I accompany myself. I like that your suggestions will work with any kind of music. One question, about how long should a set be? Thank you!

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