Dear Piano Players:

Our blog friend Nancy asked about using “Fake Books”. Fake Books are a wonderful way to learn popular music. They provide a melody line and lyrics plus chord symbols. Essentially you must provide an improvised left hand using those chord symbols. The best Fake Books for beginners are the “Easy” Fake Books published by Hal Leonard. Here are some of my favorites:


Additionally Hal Leonard offers Books such as The Easy Twenties Fake Book through The Easy Nineties Fakebook; a Latin Fake Book, plus fake books of Hymns, Disney, Classic Rock… you name it!

The great thing about this series is that all the songs within them are written in the key of C! So although there will be accidentals and a great variety of chords, these arrangements are fairly accessible. (I don’t suggest buying books such as The Ultimate Fake Book because the notes and chord symbols are so tiny you’d need a magnifying glass to play them!)

The chords included in these starter fake books are MAJOR TRIADS, MINOR TRIADS, 6ths, 7ths, SUS CHORDS, and SLASH CHORDS. (It’s no coincidence that my Upper Hands Piano series teaches you how to play all of these chords in Books 2 and 3!) Although I feel no love for the publisher Hal Leonard (they are gigantic, and have taken over the music publishing world, big time), I begrudgingly recommend these books because they are by far the best. The notes and chord symbols are large enough to see and the arrangements are fairly easy.

That being said, you need to know a few things before using a fake book.

  • Make sure you get the “C” Edition, written for piano. There is also a “B-flat” Edition for trumpets and clarinets, and an “E-flat” Edition for saxophones. You don’t want those!
  • The printed chord symbols are written only when the chord changes. But you will need to play chords at least every two measures to keep the rhythm and harmony going. For example, the sheet music for the song Dancin’ In The Street from Hal Leonard’s Easy Sixties Fake Book shows only one chord (C7) on the whole first page because the chord doesn’t change for 14 measures! If I were playing this song, I would repeat the C7 either every measure or every two measures. I wrote about this in my arrangement of By The Beautiful Sea in Upper Hands Piano Book 2, p. 46: By The Beautiful Sea.
  • You will want to start by playing block chords with the melody line. However, as you get to know the song better, you can try some different things with your left hand chords. You can break up the chord in a kind of “oom-pa” rhythm as I demonstrated in my arrangement of I Wonder Who’s Kissing Her Now in Upper Hands Piano Book 3, pages 36-39:            I Wonder Who’s Kissing Her Now – block chords,       I Wonder Who’s Kissing Her Now – block chords p. 2,           I Wonder Who’s Kissing Her Now – broken chords,        I Wonder Who’s Kissing Her Now – broken chords p.2
  • Another option for adding some rhythm in the left hand is to play the entire chord first, then hold down the bottom note while repeating the top two notes as you can see in my arrangement of Careless Love in Upper Hands Piano Book 3, pages 50-51

    Careless Love, from Upper Hands Piano BOOK 3, p.50
Careless Love w/ broken chords from Upper Hands Piano, BOOK 3, p.51









As you advance you will want to mix up block chords with broken chords to keep it interesting! You will also break up chords entirely, playing each note of the chord separately, especially in measures such as bars 3-4 of Careless Love where the melody is tied and it’s up to your left hand to fill in some rhythm. It’s great to mix up block and broken chords, and to improvise some single notes from the chords to avoid sounding too repetitive. When you become very comfortable with your chords, you will begin to add notes from the chord into your right hand below the melody, while playing mainly octaves and fifths in your left hand. The idea here is to spread out across the keyboard to give a bigger sound. More about this tomorrow in my video about using Fake Books.

With love and music, Gaili

16 Replies to “FAKE BOOKS (Part 1)”

    1. I must have a Fake Book somewhere I just don’t know where it is. I have so many piano books, still ones I inherited from my mother and also my father, who was a cellist /pianist and maestro in Amsterdam in the 1940-1970’s. Even my Medium grandpiano ” a Ronish” is my mam’s and is 100 years old with ivory keys. Still in good condition. I am lucky that way. Aimee

  1. I’ve been using fake books since I was 16..I am now 63. Fake books used to be illegal underground books you had to know someone to even buy. My first one cost $50.00. And it was worth it.

  2. ne thing that might be useful along with learning chords is learning Common Sequences of chords, such as The Circle of Fifths, : ii-V-I progressions (in Major and Minor), I-vi-ii-V (a/k/a “Ice Cream changes”), stock bridge progressions “Montgomery Ward” (like “Satin Doll”) and “Sears Roebuck” (like “I’ve Got Rhythm”), 12 bar Blues, Etc. I hear a lot of Amateurs struggling just to get from one chord to the next.

    1. Yes- I will be covering the circle of 5ths in Book 4 and I think I’ll add iim7-V7-IMaj7 to Book 4 too. Next time I do a blog post, I will make a video about chord progressions. I did cover The Blues in Book 2. Thanks for your suggestion!

  3. Thank you Gaili. I’ve used fake books from time to time and have used some of the tips you mention to help fill in the bass. One downside of playing the piano is that we are more conditioned to play solos with a defined bass line. I tried to fill in as a rhythm player with a small jazz band using “lead sheets” but I found it hard to change chords fast enough. When they started to ad lib, usually at the bridge, I lost track of the beat even when I tried to tap it out with my foot. I didn’t have a sense of where the chords changed without having a melody to follow. The soloist was all over the scale. They couldn’t use me because I couldn’t keep a rhythm going underneath, so I’m trying to improve by playing more from a fake book to get a better feel for creating rhythm.

    1. Hi Terry
      When you are playing in a jazz ensemble remember that the bass player is catching all of the chord changes for the group. The pianist “comps” two-handed chords here and there. You def don’t play every chord but offer chord accents once every bar or two. You do however need to know where you are in the music, so it would be good to practice comping along with a recorded tune. Start with a slow (jazz) blues like Miles Davis’ All Blues. Try practicing a rhythm all the way through such as playing on the “and” (upbeat) of 1 and on beat 3 downbeat. Then try another rhythm all the way through such as playing just on the upbeat after 3. Then try playing through again mixing those two rhythms. Do you have a jazz teacher you can take a couple of lessons with? Thanks for your comment.

  4. my question about fake books or lead sheets. and it may have been asked lots of times.
    When i see a chord symbol how do I know just in what octave should I play that chord.
    I am playing the chord with my left hand and so it is below middle C, but how far below. one octave, two octaves ?

    1. Hi Len- that is a great question. When you see a chord symbol it is up to you to decide which octave in which to play the chord. Try this:First play the right hand melody with the left hand chord as close as possible to it; then play the melody again, this time with the chord an octave lower. Which octave sounds better to you? We want to avoid playing the chord in an octave that sounds muddy- or too low, for that chord. On my piano, all major triads below F2 sound muddy (that’s 2 Fs below middle C) so if I’m playing triads (3 note chords), I generally don’t go below that F triad. Once you decide which octave sounds best, you might want to write a little up or down arrow to the left of the chord symbol to remind you whether you will be going up or down to the next chord. Make sure that you keep your octave consistent. If you go up high sometimes and down low other times, it will take much longer to learn the song. You can write the arrows in pencil, then erase them once you have memorized in which octave you will be playing the chord. Does that make sense? Thanks for your question!

  5. I have the easy pop/rock fake book and I am having problem with the slash chords I see a slash chord c/e over the note g what does that mean

    1. Hmm that’s weird, if it says C/E that means it’s the first inversion of a C triad, meaning you play from bottom to top E-G-C. If there is a G at the bottom, it should say C/G, in which case you would play G-C-E. Basically, whatever is to the left of the slash is the name of the chord, and whatever is to the right of the slash should be played at the bottom of the chord.

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