Song Builder: How to Put Together a Repertoire—and Use it Wisely

Whether you’re a solo singer-songwriter or instrumentalist, or you play with a group, as you develop plans to play shows, you’ll need to carefully consider your repertoire. If you’ve performed in bars and restaurants, then you understand the value of having a few choice standards at your fingertips. Or if an in-the-round with songwriters is your scene, then you know how important it is to have your best polished material ready, along with maybe something to workshop with the folks while you have the attention of a room full of aficionados.

Planning a concert or recital, or even just a coffeehouse gig, requires thinking about the flow and continuity of the material. Consider the concerts you’ve attended during which the band exited the stage mid-set, leaving one solo player in the spotlight for a song or two. Rather than a build from low to high energy, there’s a rise and fall to a performance throughout its course. Here are some ways that you can build your repertoire by focusing on your goals as a player in any given environment.

To create an effective set list for yourself, set up three columns on a page. Fill one column with a list of songs whose chords you know from memory well enough to accompany yourself or someone else. In the second column, list all of the tunes to which you know the lyrics and melody, or just the melody if you play instrumental music. Reserve the third column for pieces you’ve arranged as chord-melody solos. (It’s totally OK if you leave this column blank, but if you’d like to learn more about chord-melody, check out this lesson). 


Your list could easily take up a few pages, or even a large binder. It will be helpful for you to see what you’re actually able to play for people organized in one place. Divide your song lists into stylistic categories based on the context of your performance. To be a welcomed presence as a background guitarist at a restaurant, for example, write down as many songs as you can think of that you would like to hear over dinner and drinks. Divide them into categories, one page each: soft rock hits, Beatles gems, light jazz standards, familiar traditional folk, holiday music, etc. 

You might include a page for creative arrangements of unlikely pop or rock songs that you’ve put your own stamp on as a solo artist. For the bar crowd, the category pages will probably go heavier on the rock classics, but there will be some crossover for these gigs. Performances in nursing homes, assisted living residences, or other music therapy environments will have pages for oldies, Great American Songbook standards, hymns, patriotic songs, and maybe some novelty tunes. Do some homework as to the age range of your crowd and find out who was on the radio when they were in their 20s. 

For a concert or recital performance, compose your set based on the flow of your songs from one to the next. Pick a song to start with that you know so well you could play it in your sleep. This is when you’re getting used to the room, the sound, the lights, the audience, and the overall vibe. Choose something that is positive and in the medium tempo range. Then figure out the last song. Try ending your program with an exclamation point. It could have a short, cut-off ending or a long crash and burn, but make it a memorable and obvious end to the show. 

Once you’ve chosen the bookends, you can fill in the middle. What key sounds good after the key of the previous song? Consider the feel. If you just played a ballad, try a medium tempo, then go into an uptempo Latin groove, followed by a 3/4 swing. Make a note of these keys and feels beside the song titles so that consulting your repertoire list will give you the ideas to fit these puzzle pieces together. 


If you have been focused and serious about your songwriting, then your performances can also benefit from repertoire lists. You’ll still need the three-column page containing chords, melodies, and chord-melodies that are ready to go. And you can make good use of the stylistic pages within your own catalog. Assess which of your songs are funny, which are tear-jerkers, which make people dance. You might have topical material, social statements, politically correct or otherwise. Copy and paste these titles to create the perfect set for the right crowd. 

Stay alert to your audience and be ready to make substitutions on the fly. A commitment to your career as an original performer will lead to a solid reputation among your audiences and will make your decisions easier when it comes to choosing between a whole world of other people’s music versus your own work.  

A performing songwriter could consider including the occasional cover song in their repertoire. Set up a page for those, too. If you do your own arrangement of “Happy Birthday” as a 4/4 bossa nova, keep it under your fingers and be ready to throw that in if you see fit. I once saw the Indigo Girls bring the house down during an encore performance of “Midnight Train to Georgia.” It was just fun. 

On the other hand, if you are in a cover band or are a solo player, a well-timed original song can be just the thing when you sense that people are listening, or if it is a good musical match for your repertoire. Make a note of what works and write it down for future reference. And remember that reviewing and updating your repertoire is a good practice habit, as important as running through the songs themselves.

This article originally appeared in the March/April 2021 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.

Jane Miller
Jane Miller

Jane Miller is a composer, arranger, and professor in the guitar department at Berklee College of Music with roots in both jazz and contemporary acoustic guitar.

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