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Published on March 26th, 2012 | by Sam


Building a Jazz Repertoire: Part 2

Thanks for picking up on part two of my series on Building a Jazz Repertoire.  Part one was mostly about getting all the songs out of your head.

Wheelhouse (or Core) songs

The next list will be your list of Core Songs, (or your Wheelhouse).

These are tunes that you are extremely comfortable with, the songs you can kill on, the ones youve spent the most time getting into, the ones you have great chord arrangements for, etc.  Another aspect to this list is that they are completely memorized-you know all of the parts inside and out, no holes on the bridges, you have an intro, outro, etc.  Songs you know decently well will be up next but right now these are the ones you would call on a trio setting in front of a huge audience without music.  Note that some of your Core songs will also be on your Need to Know list.  

It would be a good goal to have about 30 songs in this category.  If you do, great.  If not, here’s a good way to decide on songs to put in this category:

Building Setlists

 Start to imagine a set you might lead in a trio.   The types of tunes will vary depending on your style or specialty.  The example here is a general jazz guitarist.  You’ll probably have a couple of swinging tunes, a couple uptempo tunes, maybe a bossa, a bebop tune, however you structure your set. Then start to fill out ‘setlists’ that are mostly for reference.  (you can use these in real sets but they are primarily for reference). Fill in the tunes in the categories you have decided you will include.  Here’s an example using pretty common tunes:


Blues.      Billies bounce

Med   All the Things You Are

Uptempo.    Oleo

Ballad.     Body and Soul

Straight eighth/bossa.  Recorda me 

Med.  It Could Happen to You

Uptempo.    My Shining Hour

Blues.     Sandu

Medium/funk. My romance

Then, shoot for three sets. In this (VERY generic) example you would have 6 blues, 3 ballads, 6 medium tunes, 6 uptempo tunes, 3 straight tunes, and room for 3 more.  You can adjust this to your own needs or what you already know, but if you did have songs in those categories you would be in great shape for any regular jazz gig. Also organizing tunes this way does not necessarily mean that this is the order that you would always play them in, it’s just a reference. Of course, you don’t have to use this run-down of tunes! However you would organize a set for playing a regular gig is what we’re after here

If you only have a couple songs in this category, don’t worry!  Make a goal of getting one set together.  

If you had some sets with gaps target those first. Find songs that fit the areas that you need more tunes.  Use your master list to find the songs you want to use to fill this one out.  

Maintaining this List

Keep this list easy to get to and see-print it out and keep it with your case or make a small version to keep with you all the time.  These should also be the tunes you refer back to and work on the most. Take extra care with these songs to get a bunch of different sets of changes, listen to a lot of recordings, transcribe solos, and transpose the song. Practice new licks, work on new chord substitution ideas, and make chord arrangements of these songs. In short just get really into these core songs. 

The core songs can also be replaced and added to, there’s no rule to having only 30 songs-that’s just a manageable number.


If you teach make a list of core teaching songs. These would be your go-to teaching songs, or ones that target specific areas of learning the guitar.  As a side note I would suggest that teachers make up handout sheets of these songs.  Remember, this includes the ENTIRE song-intro, melody, chords, solos, everything.

Part 3 is coming up next week.  Let me know what you think in the comments.  What are some of your wheelhouse songs? Do you organize your tunes in a different way?

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3 Responses to Building a Jazz Repertoire: Part 2

  1. Pingback: Article on Building Your Repertoire - The Jazz Guitar Forum

  2. I went through this process when I started my trio, and it was a great help. There’s nothing like building set lists to show you where you are. I try to pay attention to keys when I’m doing that (avoid too many minor tunes, tunes in the same key following each other, etc.), which adds another layer of difficulty.


  3. Richard says:

    Good article. Did I miss the third part follow up?

    I keep my list organized in an Excel spreadsheet, with sortable headers. There are columns for the title, the key, who’s singing (I am in a trio, but I also do duo and solo work) or whether it is an instrumental. There is also a column indicating the song’s status — (1) in the line-up, (2) in preparation, (3) suggestions or (4) scratched (songs we’ve done and don’t do anymore, for now, at least). That way, I can sort the table in any kind of way depending on what I am looking for. The sort function also allows me to print or display only the info that I require and in the order that I choose.

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