How To Construct An Open Mic Night Setlist

Last Updated on April 12, 2023 by Lil Ginge

Open mic nights are famously casual. Do the musicians know what they’re doing? Have the patrons noticed anyone is playing? Any chance I’ll remember the lyrics to the song I’m playing right now in front of 50 people? (No).

But, despite the casual atmosphere of an open mic night, there’s much you should do to prepare. Just because you aren’t a professional (or maybe you are!) doesn’t mean you shouldn’t appear professional during your performance.

For example, when playing an open mic you need to make sure your instrument is in good shape. That it doesn’t need a string change or some tuning. And that it’s ready to rock out with you for a great performance with picks, capos, whatever you need. 

A singer and guitarist playing on a stage

Another crucial thing to do to prepare for open mic is to write down and ready the setlist for your performance.

“But Lil Ginge” you, a new open mic night musician protest. “Why would I need a setlist for open mic night? I just get up there and wing it. It’s so caszhual!

Oh, no no no, my friend. 

That is not the way. 

Let’s look at why you should always prepare an open mic night setlist and also how to construct a great one.

Why An Open Mic Night Musician Needs a Setlist

There are several reasons you need a setlist for open mic night. For starters, when you take the stage and get ready to play your first song without a plan it’s easy to freeze and not know what to do or play.

A setlist is a plan. It’s there to help keep you on track.

The more preparation you do for your open mic and the less you need to think about on stage is better. Knowing what songs you are going to play – and in what order – helps to eliminate something from what you need to think about.

Once you have an organized plan of attack, a setlist helps you know what songs to practice for your performance. One of the main keys to having a successful open mic night is to practice your setlist as much as you can prior to the show. This can help you get into a flow state while you’re actually playing. Or something close to it. 

Finally, a setlist helps you put limitations on what songs you play. It’s easy to lose track of time. When this happens, you might not have enough time to play a song you really want to perform. A setlist will help you avoid this plight. 

How To Choose Songs For an Open Mic Setlist

The most important thing you can do before choosing songs for an open mic night is to get to know how that open mic night works. For example, does it tend to feature mellow folk musicians or loud punk rockers? Each open mic night can have a very different flavor and vibe, And it’s important to be familiar with this when choosing songs for your set so you don’t stick out like a gazelle at a lion party.

In addition to knowing the kinds of music played, you should get familiar with the audience. Does the crowd tend to be large or small? Enthusiastic or quiet? Do they respond better to loud rockers or quiet ballads? While you should always play the music you want to play, it’s also helpful to understand your audience and adjust your set in accordance with their preferences where possible.

Finally, you should choose songs that you’re both great at playing and love to play. If you don’t know a song well or are not confident playing it, shelve it until you practice more. Otherwise, the audience will sense your lack of confidence and be unimpressed with the way you play. In addition, if you love the song you are playing, your zest for the music will shine through and also be infectious.

How Many Songs Should You Include In Your Setlist

When you construct your setlist, include enough songs to fill the time allotted to you. But don’t run over time either. Doing this will depend on two factors:

  1. How much time is allotted to you (i.e. 10 minutes, 15 minutes)
  2. How long each of your songs tends to be

A good rule of thumb is to figure about 5 minutes per song. Most of my songs tend to be 3 – 4 minutes in length, which gives me some time to take a breath or banter with the crowd.

But, if your musical style is prog rock or jam band with lots of intra-song improvisation, your songs are likely to run much longer than 5 minutes each. So, musicians that focus on these genres should allow much more time for a song and plan for fewer songs in total.

Another great tip for an open mic night is to have a few extra songs ready in your back pocket. It is often the case that the show’s host will ask you to play more music. Perhaps there are only a few musicians playing that night and they need each musician to play an extra song. Or, you never know – your performance may be so good that you’re asked to play an encore!  I have seen it before. It can happen to you.

Song Sequence

I’ve found the order of your songs should generally follow this construction:

  1. Open with a powerful song
  2. Play less powerful / more mellow / more intimate songs in the middle
  3. Your most powerful song of the set to close

That’s not a hard and fast rule. I have both opened and closed with more intimate songs. And sometimes I’ll stick a power punch right in the middle. 

But generally, this construction works well. That’s because your audiences will most often remember your first and last songs. They leave the biggest impression on them. So, you want to ideally tear the roof off with your opener and closer.

To give an example, I will share a set of cover songs I played at an open mic night last month:

Lil Ginge Open Mic Setlist

March 22, 2023

“Don’t Drink the Water” – Dave Matthews Band

“Something In the Way” – Nirvana

“Too Much” – Dave Matthews Band

I opened with “Don’t Drink the Water” because it is a loud, heavy, powerful song that will grab the audience’s attention immediately. It starts and ends with a bang to help the audience sit up and take notice. This is worth your time and attention, it says.

For my middle song, I chose Nirvana’s “Something in the Way” – a powerful but gentle ballad. Its intimate nature is good as a mood shifter after my opener, and infuses the set with some variation. If I played only loud and fast songs, each would have a lesser effect. Variation is the spice of both life and open mic night sets.

Finally, I ended the night with what I consider to be my strongest song, “Too Much” – also by Dave Matthews Band. It is a song I’ve played for many years and I’m intimately familiar with it. It’s completely in my bones.  And I consider it to be my “showstopper”. It can work as an opener too. But, I find it usually tops the rest of my performance, so I like to end on it rather than leaving the audience on a lesser note with something else.

Experiment and Mix It Up

Most likely, you won’t figure out your perfect open mic night setlist the first time you plan and write one down. It may take some trial and error to figure out which songs go well together and where in your set to slot each song. I spend some time before a show adding and scratching off various songs. And, I do take into account what I actually want to play.

Sometimes you won’t know if a particular set completely works until you get up on stage and perform it. And that’s okay. Open mic nights are literally the best place for an artist – whether hobbyist or professional – to experiment in front of an audience. Guage their reactions and see how the set flows while you’re actually playing.

Finally, it’s okay to change the set on the fly, too. But, you should only do so when you have a specific reason to. Perhaps the audience is gravitating toward a certain type of material tonight. Or maybe you decide you’re not in the mood for one of your planned songs and you prefer to junk it for another. 

That’s fine too. You still went in with a plan. But as I like to misquote John Lennon, “Open mic nights are what happens while you’re busy making other plans.”

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