How to prepare yourself for a live gig PART I: The Setlist & The Story

keywords: prepare for playing live, setlist, mindset, gear, channelign energy, feeling your crowd, expressing yourself, evluating the performance, stage lingo,…

Hi guys,
I’m planning to do more long reads to bundle a bunch of random experiences together in a theme so I can refer to these articles when people have specific questions that I have answered before. This could evolve into a JustinGuitar blog format later but for now, I will use the Community board as medium.

In this post I will be talking about live gigs, getting ready, the mindset, the energy, the gear,…
I will be doign an experiment by making this article grow in increments, adding theme by theme in this same post as some kind of wiki format.

So here goes:

Prepare yourself for a live gig

Hello fellow guitarists, singers and musicians of all kinds.

I’m always delighted to check your videos and always a great supporter for you daring to do the big jump, the big step, the deep end: a live performance!

For those who are about to work towards a first live gig or just enjoy the read to check up on their own preparation process, I decided to write up my typical preparation for a gig. This is no holy scripture and you’re free to challenge everything. Though, I’m sure first-timers will find this article a valuable check to measure their own preparation.

I usually approach a gig, subconsciously, in these different facets. They aren’t started and finished in a chronological sequence so they don’t always follow the same order. You should take all of these factors into account soon and decide what you handle in a parallel or sequential fashion.

There are 3 large phases when it comes to a gig: the preparation towards the gig day, the day itself and of course there is also the aftermath. “Of course?”…what happens after your gig is usually not a part of the preparation for most artists :wink:

You will notice some tips applies to bands only, others to soloists only. Most of the things apply to both as there isn’t much difference.

The Repertoire versus the Setlist

This is actually something you should consider BEFORE dedicating yourself to a live performance.
You have to make sure that you can fill the expected time with a quality set. If you over promise, you’ll have to put in a lot of extra effort to get the new material well enough to be gig-worthy!

Being able to do the opposite; being selective, will help you to ensure quality or a set that fits the theme or expectations of the host.

Smart timeboxing

If you have the chance to play between 30 and 60 minutes and you think half your set is “filler”, limit yourself to 30 or 40 minutes instead of going for that full hour. Unless you have superfans with a lot of expectations, your audience will “get the message” after 30 minutes. If you get booked for the full hour in this case, you’ll need to make sure you have enough to offer before you get in the area where you start boring people. Even the most energetic bands will sound dull if their act is too much of the same for 30 minutes. So, make sure each of your sets has “an arc”

The Story Arc

Each song is a story and your setlist itself is one big story. When we get to gig with the band or when I’m playing solo, I always to to get a good “story arc” in the setlist.

Start strong

This is your “once upon the time”. You instantly create an expectation as soon as you start your first song. Don’t be mistaken though; your story starts BEFORE your first song and the way you set up, the way you get introduced (or you introduce yourself), your attitude and posture on stage… That’s where it starts. So make sure the act fits the story.

Grab people’s attention, let them know right away why YOU are there on that stage.
Though, you’re setting expectations so make sure your opener is rather representative for your set. Don’t worry if the flag doesn’t cover the whole load. You’ll have variation going in your set so your opener won’t speak for all of your set.

This opener will create the first impression and that is is a big factor in the label you will get from the audience. Your opener should be bold enough, remarkable enough, typically “you”, what makes your style and sound.

Be careful though, putting your hardest, most tiring songs in the beginning of your set could work against you if your playing or singing isn’t warmed up properly. Ideally, you have half an hour of playing and singing going before you start your actual live set. We don’t always have that luxury so make sure you don’t slip during your opener. Your first impression will be ruined while the song might have worked better in a later spot of the set.

Put yourself in the room

Most of the nerves get washed away during a first song so make sure it is a song you practiced a lot and you know very well. You’ll need some “brain power” to get used to your surroundings. This first song the crowd will be checking you out while you are checking the crowd. Quiet and intimate venues need a different approach than a rowdy and loud setting. While you are checking and adapting, you still need to deliver this first song that needs to grab them and deliver enough promises. With “enough promises” I mean; this is where you earn your credit to be using during the set when attention could fade. With enough crowd credit, you can get away with mood changes in your set that aren’t well timed or just less suitable for your crowd.

Maintain attention towards the middle; exchange energy and “currency”

Since you might be changing some directions during your set, you will need to measure whether your crowd is following you in your story. This is often a moment where they checked you and the label they have given you isn’t the most optimal one. They might be there for music but also to chat with friends, have a drink. In the time that is given to you, you’ll have to make sure they give their attention to music. The choice of songs is important but of course, your binding texts are part of your story and often a more explicit way to tell a story…even in a literal fashion. Some fun factoids and anecdotes work well and will disarm your position.

Disarm? Yes, you are trying to establish authority when you are on stage. Listen to me, see me, understand my story, stay with me and follow me. Some like to be led and if you have a great act, people pay to be led by you. Until you are there, you’ll need to exchange currency with your crowd. You’ll get some of the attention but you’ll have to invest as well; energy goes BOTH WAYS!

Channel the balance of authority and vulnerability; you can require all eyes on you but you can make them feel good about themselves because they recognize themselves in you because of a surrounding story that shows them that all of this didn’t come from pure natural talent, or that you had a silly mishap etc. Explicitly describing emotion and how you want to share it with a crowd puts you in a more vulnerable situation and it balances out the authority you are trying to establish.

After all; You are there you entertain your crowd. They will always be thinking “what’s in it for me” and you’ll have to keep that sentiment in mind. While it is a marketing mantra, it is a great box to check when creating your show. What do I want people to take away from this? For each thing you require from them, you’ll need to give something.

Gradually but firmly build up

Your crowd is in the mood, you aligned frequencies and vibes and they are following you. They know your quirks and you teased them with what you have to offer. Now it is time to have a buildup towards your ending section. Gradually build up energy without them noticing. Energy could be power, speed but could be emotion or other experiences. Don’t make this stage too long though, a ramp up only needs a few songs and can be achieved in 2 or 3 songs.

End with the song you want to plan in the heads of your audience

You arrived in your send section and by now they crowd must be able to feel this is what you were working towards. In a sense, they will know this is the time to spend all the energy they have left for you. If it goes well, they throw in a bit more of that vibe than they planned. Encores anyone?

Always be planning for an ending without encores. Being able to wrap up when you are supposed to on a point that satisfies the crowd and left them wanting that bit more really shows the elegance you have going as artist.

( Unless you are a settled name in your venue, then your real high energy ending IS in your encores).

Your final song is what will be ringing in the ears of your audience remembering you, especially if they are going home after that. That song should be one that is predictable enough, has the most crowd interaction and the easiest to remember. Most people in your crowd aren’t involved as much in music as you are. This is where you spoon feed a song. Either with energy, power or once again, emotion.
This is what they will remember you for.

Be able to adjust your drive mid set

Keep reading your audience; many artists need the energy of the crowd to enhance their own show. This constant flow of energy in both ways accelerates and amplifies the energy. This might mean you have to change direction or switch gears during your set. You can do that gradually or hide a sudden change with a good binding text.

That’s why you should always have songs in reserve if you can. Harder to do as a band then as solo performer it is a standard and good practice to have an ace in your vest pocket to play whenever needed. It could be accelerating towards your strong ending but make sure your act doesn’t fall apart in the end section because you are out of songs!

Being able to bring songs in a different version gives you extra options mid set. Making an intimate song more groovy or “danceable” is a great way to improvise; it’s easier to upscale your energy than calming down your act for a crowd that needs more intimate energy from you.

Setlist ready? Check the timing again

So you worked on your setlist, it’s time to check your timing again.
How long do your songs take, how much time do you need in between?
Many underestimate the time between songs, especially if you have a set with many but short songs.

As set, be a gracious performer and respect timings. Hosts and bands following you will value this and you help yourself in the expectation management you have to do with your audience.

Alright, setlist ready, now make sure you rehearse this, alone or with your band, in this order!

Next time I’ll be talking about the mindset when the day of the gig is there, form waking up till the moment you walk off stage again. Mental preparation, taking time, handling stage fright etc.


good start @LievenDV quite a lot chimes with my experience. Quite difficult at the start to build up enough material which is why Open Mics are a good way of getting out there with a short three song set OR even good when established to practice “live” new songs.

Always nice to have a big repertoire and then be able to craft a setlist which will be suitable for that particular event/gig.


This is a great idea Lieven, some gems in among here for sure.

Really interesting read @LievenDV as I look to do a live OM sometime this year. Understand this is more for “proper” gigs but there’s clearly a lot to consider for any live performing!

I’ll be looking forward to the next instalment!! Appreciate that this is quite a significant investment of time for you to plan, share and type up :+1:

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Don’t forget to mention bringing a spare set of strings :rofl: :rofl: :rofl:

Good on you Lieven-
I’ll be rockin’ the nursing home by the time I get to apply these nuggets of wisdom :laughing:

Hey quit it with the spoilers for the next editions! :smiley:

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Lieven @LievenDV

Excellent read and a lot of good advice, If I could add some personal experience about the organising the set list, that may be of interest.

I have only done one gig so far which was at the Christmas Guitar Club, if you know my back story you might wonder what on earth is beginner guitarist with less than 12 months experience and still on grade 1 doing, well it was goal I set myself when I started, tick on the bucket list.

Back to the set list, those interested in the club split into three groups and had to do 5 or 6 songs and it had already been agreed that it was to be a mixture of traditional and country songs. I was surprised how much thought went into the what songs, in which order. Also with some traditional songs there was scope to add extra choruses. At the last practice they decided that we needed to add a better last song and they went for a comedy one. I should add I was just a bystander in all of this but fascinating to watch how a group of amateur but very good guitarist went about things.

I have some other thoughts but as suggested no spoilers.

Thanks Lieven look forward to the next instalment

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hehe I was kidding about the spoilers; this is Community, not a one-way-communication channel! :smiley:

but yes, excellent example on how the creation of a setlist should be taken seriously!

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Thanks Lieven. Both valuable and interesting

As an Open MIc only performer, getting a 3 song/15 minute slot, I’d feel bad about being out of the room to take time to warm up. I feel at an OM watching the other performers is part of the whole ethos of OM.

So I try and pick something comfortable to start, the trickiest one in the middle, and if possible finish big with lots of energy even sing-along potential

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Hi Lieven! I found your tips and advices great, wish to bookmark for future read and reread :heart:

Performing live still a bit far from me, technically speaking I am an expat in Singapore and looking to move to UK :sweat_smile: But definitely one day I would have the opportunity, and thats when I would remember your wholesome tips. Thank you so much, would work hard towards that day to share the joy with live audience!

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This was a good read, I learned a bunch.

Looking forward to the future ones. Particularly curious on the gear side, and anything about different types of gigs.

I was out to dinner the other night, and in a courtyard where a few restaurants are was a solo singer/guitarist. That kind of gig as side entertainment must be quite different to one when you’re on a main stage. Any thoughts on that kind of thing (or busking?) would be interesting too.

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Yeah indeed. I do both and when it comes to mindset they differ a bit. When you’re playing such a gig to bring some atmosphere on a party, at a restaurant etc the story arc of your set is less important. You want to blend in while still have a few of those “oh that’s nice” moments to be noticed (and raise your chances of being booked again in the future (by hthe host or perhaps one of the guests attendign the event).

More to come later!