How To Make A Guitar Setlist | Learn The Songs You Need To Play


“The beautiful thing about learning is nobody can take it away from you.” – B.B. King

If you've already told anyone you play the guitar, you can be certain at least two things will happen in the near future:

  1. You are in for a couple of months of enormous pain and suffering (also known as practicing).

  2. Each time you are in a meetup with friends, you will be handed a guitar to play something for everyone to listen (and maybe yell as if trying to sing along). Yeah, guitars have a nasty habit of appearing out of nowhere so that you have to play something for everyone.

The first point is unavoidable. Just do it and get it over with. The sooner, the better.

The latter, however, is tricky.

If you are like me and love to play hard rock and heavy metal, then let me tell you straight as it is:

You are doomed.

-- Max

The problem here is that unless you are in a very specific group of friends/family, you can't just grab a guitar and start playing your favorite Slayer or Iron Maiden songs. It just doesn't work like that. Sorry!

In this post, I'll show you how you can come up with a basic setlist of songs to practice so you'll be ready for any shit-test in any situation.

I think no player can consider them to be a real player once you gain a certain independence with your instrument.

If all you can play is just power chord riffs, yeah, you just might be the suitable choice for a hard rock band, but it sure as Hell won't get you any attention from the opposite sex (unless they just so happen to be of the rock sub-culture, in which case if you are a man looking for a woman, you are basically screwed).

It's fine if you love to shred and use lots of palm muting, I do too, but sometimes the situation calls for another approach.

I used to struggle a bit with this.

Picture yourself in a night party with your friends at one of their place. Suddenly, someone grabs a guitar and starts playing something. They all have a lot of fun, and when the song is over, someone asks:

"Who else knows how to play guitar?"

At this point, you can do one of two things:

  1. Run for your life.

  2. Step up and be a man/woman.

If you take too long to decide, there will inexorably be someone who comes out of the blue saying:

"My friend knows how to play", and of course, that friend is you.

At that time, there's no coming back, and you will have to play something.

Have you been in that situation before? I've been multiple times, and right now I'm going to give you two examples of what you can do: a correct and an incorrect approach.

The incorrect approach is what many expert teachers might even recommend, and that I will now cripple to its knees. These guys recommend improvising something, because they consider yourself as a musician, not a simple dorky guy who plays someone else's songs, which would be heretic.

Now, I don't mean to be disrespectful to these teachers (or maybe I do just a little), but that kind of attitude is way off. It's the kind of response you would expect from an all-powerful being talking wisdom from the top of their ivory tower meaning to cast light on all the wrong doing of the world.

No, it doesn't work.

People don't care if you are a great musician, at least not at this stage. They just want to be entertained, and the best way to do this music-wise is to play songs, especially ones that the audience knows and can hopefully sing along.

This is the kind of attitude that often leads people to rule you out as the weird nerdy guy who thinks he's way too smart for the rest of mankind to be worthy of their time and respect. Once again, it doesn't work.

Look, I could give a guitar to John Petrucci to play something for my grandma, and do you think he would start shredding his ass off? Well, maybe, but I'm pretty sure he'll play something more appropriately.

This, of course, leads to the meat and bones of what I want you to incorporate on your repertoire: the correct approach is to have a song setlist ready for when the need arises.

Of course, you cannot hope to have songs learned perfectly for every kind of audience, that would be difficult and off-point, but you can learn a couple of songs that will reasonably translate well into multiple settings that most people will know and will be happy to hear you perform.

By doing this, you'll bridge the gap between yourself and the rest of the people. Most people like others with whom they have fun, so you will not only be having fun altogether, but you will also improve your relationships with them. Yeah, no kidding!

OK, by now I hope I've made my point as to why you should have a setlist well prepared. Now, let's move on to how to make it.

Creating the setlist

There are three main aspects:

  • How many songs?

You should be ready to play a couple of songs. Just one or two won't be enough.

At a bare minimum, I would aim to have at least three songs. I would recommend five or more, but usually three songs should be pretty OK. You are not going to give a concert, but you should be able to play for more than a couple of minutes.

  • Which songs?

There's no room for extreme songs (sorry, Nuno Bettencourt).

Although this depends on the styles you like and that you would like to play, you usually have to make room for a couple of present-day hits. Yes, even one or two Taylor Swift songs would come in handy, but I prefer to stick to mostly classic rock songs which most people of many age ranges will recognize.

I would recommend you choose songs that have lyrics, of course. Most everyday, non-players out there have a hard time connecting with music without lyrics (the exception would be classical music), so choose songs that can be sang. There are some exceptions to this rule, however, which I'll show you from my setlist.