Gigging? Make a Reserve Tune List

It’s 11:58, and you just finished a killer set. So much so that the crowd is clapping, fist pumping, raising their drinks in the air and collectively begging for one more song. The band members look around at one another and think, “yeah, this is awesome! But what are we gonna do???” You played through the set list and it was perfect… you ended with your “single” and they liked it, they really liked it. Too bad you don’t know what else to play.

Although these are fantastic circumstances for having to play one more song, you didn’t anticipate having two minutes at the end of the set and zero repertoire left. In this scenario, you have three choices: tell the fans that you’re sorry, but the club is closing and you’re done for the night (unplug and run!), replay a song from earlier in the set that fans may have missed, or trudge through a well known (yet possibly unrehearsed) cover tune that fits your genre. These are all viable options, but think about how much easier things would be if you simply did have one more song.

So this brings us to the all-important concept in the world of gigging: having material. If you play in a band, performing originals or covers, the songs you know are like the tools in your toolbox. Just as an experienced electrician shows up to your house with a van full of gear to tackle any problem, your band should have enough material to handle different gigging scenarios. This doesn’t mean that every band should have the type of repertoire to cover every kind of gig but it does stress the importance of being able to deal with different and potentially unexpected situations. While a wedding band isn’t going to be called to play a Tuesday night songwriter circle, and a punk band isn’t going to be play a small jazz club, it is necessary to be able to adapt to different types of venues and set lengths.

Depending on the style of music you play and the function of the gig (whether you’re hired to play a wedding or you’re playing a short set in a local coffee shop), the booking agent or event planner will have certain expectations when it comes to your material. If you’re in a wedding band, you may have hundreds of songs to choose from, even though you’ll only play fifty over the course of the gig. Although a wedding band is usually hired for specializing in a certain genre (classic rock, modern country, or 60s and 70s Motown and soul), they’re expected to play everything from heartfelt slow songs, to light jazz, upbeat dance music, specialty songs for the first dance, and requests from the attendees. Hence, it’s part of the job to have plenty of material, and a wide variety of it, to properly do the gig.

Cover bands playing clubs and casinos are expected to have at least four hours worth of material as well, and to be able to choose songs that reflect the mood of the club or to help cultivate a party environment. The band’s ability to respond to the vibe of the club, or create a “scene” is highly dependent upon their list of material, how much they can effectively play, and when they choose to play certain songs. In addition to having variety, it’s important to have enough of each type of material, so the band can play three to four sets of straight party music, if that seems appropriate. Therefore, having the right tools in the band’s toolbox let’s you go from doing a good job and doing a great job (or getting called once or twice versus once or twice a month).

While most wedding and club bands are required to have a vast amount of material, it’s a completely different story for original bands. A band can get away with playing a show and only having a handful of songs, mainly because the function of the performance is different. Instead of being hired to create a party, a band or artist is booked to share their particular music and to attract (and build) an audience. Clubs frequently hold “short set” nights for bands to play 20-40 minute sets, or anywhere from 5-10 songs, and this can be a great way to meet other bands, network, build a fan base, and gain experience performing. Unfortunately, it’s very easy for one of these gig scenarios to take an unexpected turn. New bands can certainly get acclimated to the scene this way, but the time slots (and set lengths) frequently change at the drop of a hat. If another band on the schedule doesn’t show or the club suddenly expects you to play an hour instead of 30 minutes, you may find yourself in a pickle.

For original bands, working up material isn’t easy, especially if the band doesn’t rehearse very often, but it’s crucial to have more songs that you expect to play. You may have to work up a few covers, but it’s always better to have to cut songs from a set than add them. A good rule of thumb is to have twice the number of songs than you anticipate playing, so if you’re only going to play 7, have 14 prepared. That way, if you seem to rush through the songs on the set list or the sound man gives you extra time, you don’t have to stress out about what to play. On the nights when the opening band on the bill suddenly gets lost and never makes it to the gig, the club will be relieved (and pleasantly surprised) if your band can play two sets without breaking a sweat. With a greater number of song options, you’ll be able to cater to your audience, develop a flow to your set, and pick what to (or not to) play at a specific club. Having this kind of flexibility is essential, especially if you’re a louder band walking into a small club or if your vocalist is under the weather and you need to steer clear of certain songs.

Ultimately, if you get a group of musicians together and start telling “tales from the road,” you’ll hear about every awkward or completely unexpected gig scenario (and hopefully how they cope). If I ever feel out of place or take by surprise at a gig, I immediately think back to the Blues Brothers playing at Bob’s Country Bunker, posing as a band that plays both Country and Western. Although the band ends up playing “Stand By Your Man” and a never-ending rendition of the theme from Rawhide, they play the gig and make it work. So, although it usually takes one or two nights of being unprepared in order to whip your band into shape, remember to always have one more song, sitting there in the back of your mind, for the nights when you just may have to play it.

What’s your approach? How do you keep from running out of tunes? Tell us about it in the comments.

Ryan Madora is a professional bass player and educator living in Nashville, TN. In addition to touring and playing sessions, she fronts an original music project, The Interludes and teaches private lessons. Visit her website to learn more about her music or to inquire about lessons.

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  1. We had a gig back in the 90s that one of the other bands went AWOL. We ended up debuting an instrumental piece we were working on, and it passed with flying colours. We actually just dug up the tape from that gig, and we’ll be posting the audio for our 20th anniversary this year.

  2. I’ve played gigs with a mate that we call the human jukebox! We could play all night just by watching his guitar and having a rough idea of the song. We were all thrown in the deep need at gigs with him: I don’t know this one! Just follow my lead! Great way to learn new songs!

  3. I once played a gig at a jazz club when we ran out of songs, so the keys player started playing something and was shouting out the next chord in the sequence to me over the piano. A very strange situation to be in where you don’t know what chord is up next!

  4. No problem, if this happens we just start jammin. And we can go on for hours……;-).

  5. A..D..and E its about 30,000 songs – just gotta figure out which ones!

  6. We have both original sets and cover sets. Over the last couple years our song list has been growing, so we always have plenty of material left in case we run out on our setlist!