This topic comes up from time to time amongst musicians. Here's my strategy. How about you guys?

Unless you’re only into completely unpopular music you should be able to find songs that are fun to play and that people will enjoy having you play. Certain songs will almost universally work – Brown Eyed Girl, 867-5309, Don’t Stop Believin’, Summer of ’69, etc. But there’s like a gazillion great tunes out there that are seldom played that still get people dancing and drinking. Set order is everything - I’ve played tons of songs that would get crickets early in the night that never failed to get a great reaction late at night.

I have 4 basic rules for song selection:

  1. You better have fun playing the songs. So never play a song that your singer hates – always let the singer veto anything. Nothing kills the vibe live more than a singer that doesn’t want to sing a song. And never play a song that more than 40% of the band hates – it will have the same vibe killing effect. Close to 100% of the listening public in a bar will never notice if you play a solo note for note, nail all the multi-part harmonies, push/pull the beat too much, etc. but they will absolutely notice if the band is having a good time.
  2. Never play songs that are obscure unless they are immediately immersive – familiar changes, great melody/hook, killer vocal, etc. For example, Soulshine by Warren Haynes – most people have never heard it but if you have a singer that can handle it then it always kills. A good counter example is Maria by Blondie – I know for a fact that nobody wants to hear this no matter how well you do it.
  3. It’s always good to play AC/DC and Stevie Wonder tunes.
  4. I will never play Sweet Home Alabama again unless it’s a dying wish, someone gives me a large bag filled with money, or I’m asked to join Lynyrd Skynyrd. Also, that Kid Rock song, Werewolves of London, and any other variation of a V-IV-I tune with that groove are all subject to the same restrictions.