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Guitarology #5

Play Something They Know.

Rourkes Drift, South Africa, 1879. Welsh Guards vs. Zulu. Zulu have home field advantage.

“There were but twenty of us left. As the Zulu massed they sang their war song, but they had not one decent tenor. We sang ‘Men Of Harlech.' They attacked and swept over us. We were now only ten. We sang ‘Land Of Our Fathers’. They attacked and swept over us. Four remained. We sang ‘Calon Lan’, ‘The Pure Heart’. They attacked and swept over us. Only Sgt. Llewellyn and I still stood. As Dai began to sing ‘Sosban Fach’ I shouted, ‘For pity’s sake Dai, sing something they know!’" - Max Boyce

Making a set list is not always a matter of life and death but then you never know. What to play and when to play it can be vital. I find it very difficult to decide and really don’t like doing it. For those of you out there who may feel the same may I suggest a couple of tips and guidelines which have been passed to me which can help.

The classic is to arrange the keys in ascending order and if possible relative, ex. E-A-D. There is a psychological lift from the tones being raised. It is also best if the keys are not bunched together, E-E-E for example. It tends to make things boring for the listener not to mention the soloists, though having said that there is no hard and fast rule. It’s more important that the atmosphere of the song be correctly placed. One wouldn’t place three ballads in a row just because the keys were in the right order.

Sets within sets are useful. Say three or four songs running almost seamlessly before a pause. Like chapters in a book with a beginning a middle and an end. It’s also easier to think in smaller numbers and then assemble the groups. Very handy when one has to change instruments or tuning. It’s a natural break that allows the listener to relax for a moment before the next "mini-set" and allows the players a chance to wipe down, take a drink, and settle for the next onslaught.

By the way, it is very important to consider what others may have to do to set up for a particular song and how much time they need for guitar change, adjusting effect settings, or whatever. I like to keep dead air to a minimum and so try to use songs with an intro that I don’t play on to use when it’s me that needs the time. Alternatively, use the gap between mini-sets when the audience is perhaps ready for a short bit of dead air.

It’s also a very good idea to try and remain flexible. It can take a lot of struggle to get a crowd up and dancing. If you’ve got them up, keep them up. Don’t go to the beautiful love song just because that’s what you decided back in the dressing room. Try and be aware of what’s going on with your audience and if necessary adapt. The set does not have to be cut in stone, unless of course you’re doing television ( Ashlee take note).

Dynamics is a greatly under used tool these days. Full tilt all the time just wears folks out. A bit of soft before the full hammer adds tremendously to the impact. I’ve always thought it’s a bit like being a good lover. Awareness. Tension. Contrast. All leading to the big finish.

Finally, before we get lost in too much analysis, these final words which make it really simple. This was said regarding film editing but it certainly applies to set constuction.

"Start with something they’ll never forget. Finish with something they’ll never forget. And in between just don’t annoy them." - John Huston

Courage© 2005 Steve Power

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