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The Joy of Fakebooks

with companion

Fakebook Review


Bob Keller

28 May 2011

last revision: 5 July 2011


I'm writing this note because I love tunes and, in particular, I like reading them in fakebooks. This gives me access to a large set of tunes in a relatively small amount of space. Each tune generally fits on one or two pages, in contrast to sheet music, so I can get an overview of the entire tune at a glance. In this article, I describe some of the aspects of fakebooks that might be of interest to the new user.




Although it is seen both ways "fakebook" and "fake book", I dislike the latter terminology because it confuses the subject with a fake book, that is, something that appears to be a book, but is not. A fakebook is indeed a type of book, specifically it is a book containing leadsheets.


A leadsheet is a piece of music that represents the bare bones of a tune, specifically a melody line, possibly with words, and the accompanying chords in symbolic form. Leadsheets contrast with sheet music in that the latter contain accompanying parts, typically piano, in addition to the elements of the leadsheet. Below, you can get an idea of a leadsheet vs. a piece of sheet music.


Appearance of sheet music

Appearance of a leadsheet


As you can see, a leadsheet offers a much more compact representation, because it does not including the stylized accompaniment. This also leaves it up to the performer to decide on the style and accompany the melody in the manner she chooses. In some ways, the leadsheet is a more appropriate representation of the tune, since it does not include the superfluous accompaniment information.



Brief History


For some professional musicians and, more importantly, for buskers, a book containing leadsheets of songs likely to be requested is a more compact and convenient way to perform a large repertoire of tunes. This is how fakebooks got their start in the first place. Before the first fakebooks, musicians would subscribe to a service known as "Tune-dex" which issued note cards containing leadsheets for popular songs. These would help them "fake" the song, i.e. play it even if they were unfamiliar with it, hence the name "fakebook".




Front and back of a Tune-Dex Card, 1946
(original size 3 x 5 inches)


Eventually someone got the idea that, rather hauling around a box full of cards, it would be simpler to copy the cards onto pages and put them into a book. The first fakebook was thus born, in the 1950's. To my knowledge, it was called "Over 1000 Songs". To get an idea of how it appeared, imagine a comb-bound book about an inch thick full of pages that contained typically three leadsheets on a page, as depicted below.


Cover of an edition of the first fakebook

(original size 8.5 x 11 inches)

Page 6 of the first fakebook


The disclaimer on the cover reads: "This collection of popular music has been compiled to furnish a compact library of the most requested songs for the professional musician and is NOT INTENDED TO BE SOLD TO THE GENERAL PUBLIC". The second part of the disclaimer was probably a euphemism, intended to defuse the fact that the unknown publisher did not hold copyright for the tunes contained therein. These books were sold "under the counter" in many music stores, and were bought by many musicians, amateur and professional alike.


Since that time, hundreds of different fakebooks have been published. At some point, possibly with the books published by Charles Hansen, copyright notices were published with each song and, presumably, the publisher paid for the rights to publish those songs.


In the jazz community, the lingua franca fakebook came to be called "The Real Book", obviously a pun. This book was even more essential than the fakebooks of popular songs, since many of the tunes in it were not published in any other form. They had to be transcribed from recordings. Until recently, the most widely used book in jazz circles was The Real Book Fifth Edition, although there were also volumes 2 and 3 of additional songs in the same format. In 2004, the Hal Leonard Corporation produced The Real Book Sixth Edition, which was the first commercial book of this kind. Since then, they also produced volumes 2, 3, and 4 of additional songs, as well as specialty real books each devoted to a specific composer, such as Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, and Bud Powell.



How to Choose a Fakebook


In the companion Fakebook Review, I list over 100 fakebooks. With so many choices, how is a newcomer to choose one for starting? Books will have different appeal depending on their intended use. Some possible uses are as follows:


Playing on the bandstand: For this kind of use, it helps if the notes are large enough to be read from a distance, especially if one is playing standing up, as a horn player might well be. If tunes are being requested or called at random, it is helpful if the tunes are organized alphabetically for quick access. A second alternative would be to have a readable index at hand that gives page numbers.


Singing: If you are planning to sing the tunes, having the words would obviously be good. A second consideration is verses, the lesser-known part of a standard tune before the chorus. Until the Sher Music Standards book came out, most fakebooks did not include verses for standards, although they are common for pop/rock. While it is common not to sing the verse of a standard, I would say that verses are increasingly appreciated in the jazz community. All other things being equal, I would choose a fakebook that included verses, even though this does make the transcription less compact.


Self-study: In study collections of music, for example the "Great American Songbook", the emphasis could be on having a large assortment of tunes, rather than readability. In this case one might prefer a smaller note font, and more dense packing of staves.


Learning about chord substitutions: In jazz it is common to replace some chords and progressions with ones that have a jazzier ("hipper") sound. This is called chord substitution, and advanced players do it on the fly. The extreme of this is re-harmonization, wherein few of the original chords are left intact. Some fakebooks, notably ones by Frank Mantooth and Champ Champagne, provide examples of substitutions, along with the original chords. Such leadsheets can be invaluable for acquiring an understanding of how substitutions are done. Some fakebooks even provide an explanation of their rationale, so that the ideas can be applied to tunes not in the book.


Finding specific songs: Perhaps you would like a leadsheet for a song, but don't want the sheet music. In this case, buying a book gives you that song plus other possibly-related songs for the cost of a few pieces of sheet music. A good way to find which books have a specific song is to use the Seventh String Fake Book Index, which allows you to search from a title from any subset of a large set of books. There are other indexes available on the web, and I have made my own limited (16,000 entries) spreadsheet index.


Not all fakebooks have the same degree of accuracy. Many contain mistakes, some more than others. For example, when the Real Book Sixth Edition was introduced, it was said to have corrected all the mistakes in the Fifth Edition. However, some new ones were introduced. In my opinion, the Sher Music books are likely to be the most accurate. A slight down side is that, unlike the Hal Leonard books, many of the Sher books contain tunes with full arrangements that take up significant space, but which the average player would not stand a chance of playing without a great deal of practice. In this regard, they are often more like books of arrangements rather than just fakebooks.



Chords-Only Fakebooks


A chords-only fakebook (for which I suggest the abbreviation cofakebook) is just what it says: A book with just the chords, no melody. Quite obviously, such a book offers less guidance, than a regular fakebook. To play the melody, you are expected to know at least the sound of the melody from other sources, such as having heard it, and be able to construct it on the fly. This is not as hard as it might seem at first. Being given the chord provides a strong hint for the possible melody notes.


Playing using a cofakebook will thus improve your ear in ways that a regular fakebook cannot. Cofakebooks are generally more compact, because tunes don't take up as much real estate due to the absence of melody. There are only a few of these, most notably Pocket Changes (2 volumes) and Grigson's book. The book "Jazz Chord Changes Anthology" is a reduced reproduction of an out-of-print French book "Anthologie des Grilles de Jazz". The formatting in this book would take some getting used to in order to read from it effectively. The Vanilla Book, from the late guitarist Ralph Patt, contains simplified changes for about 400 jazz and standard tunes. While many people cite this book, and it does have an interesting cross index of chord progressions by tonal center, several of the progressions in the tunes are suspect, so it would be best used with caution.





There are software products that display leadsheets, and some of these come with their own cofakebooks, or allow you to download chords-only leadsheets from the web. These include iReal b (formerly iRealBook), which is a commercial app for the iPhone, iPad, iPod, Android, and MacOS; Impro-Visor, which is a free open-source app having an associated chords-only fakebook called The Imaginary Book available free to user group members; and Band-in-a-Box, a commercial app for play-along, for which many free leadsheets can also be found.


All of these apps also play backing tracks based on the leadsheet. Impro-Visor and Band-in-a-Box can play and display melody as well. SongTrellis is another website offering chord changes to many tunes. Unfortunately, the playback sounds of many of those progressions seem to suffer from a lack of voice leading, as if all chords were played in root position, so it may be hard to get a good impression of the expected sound for a given tune from this site.





If you desire a book for reading during performance, then the best choices are the Sher Music New Real Book series and the Hal Leonard Real Book series. It is best to start with the lower-numbered volumes, such as the Sixth Edition of (implied) volume 1 and the first New Real Book. If you are a beginner at jazz, then consider starting with The Real Easy Book. Despite the title, it is not really dumbed down; the tunes are just a little simpler, at least for volume 1. Volume 2 introduces some tunes that are not so easy. Volume 3 includes a brief history of jazz threaded among the tunes. The Real Easy series also includes performance information such as bass lines and chord voicings (see below), which can be very helpful for the beginner. For performance, you should avoid books with page turns and bindings that don't lay flat. Having the tunes arranged alphabetically is important, or at least have a quickly usable index. Books with smaller note fonts are less preferred.


An important aspect of learning to play jazz piano are the voicings. If you simply play the chords in a fakebook in root position, it will not sound like jazz. Except for the Real Easy series, voicings are mostly not represented in fakebooks. They are a performer discretionary item. To learn about them, it is best to get help from a teacher, although there are many books that explain the technique, such as Phil DeGreg's Jazz Keyboard Harmony. Using only such a reference, however, the amount of material may appear more overwhelming than it really is. Even if you don't plan to perform on piano, knowing about voicings is very helpful for hearing the chord changes and understanding how the music works.


If you are a horn player who has not yet learned to transpose from concert pitch, transposing for the purpose of playing tunes from a fakebook is a very good way to learn. However, some players prefer to use pre-transposed books, which are available for several of the more popular editions.


If you desire a book for self-study of lots of tunes, but don't care so much about reading from a distance, then select one of the books with more than a thousand tunes, such as The Most Fantastic Fakebook in the World,  The Ultimate Fake Book, The Best Fakebook Ever, or one of their earlier or related counterparts. (You may find amusing the tendency of various fakebook vendors to use modest, understated, titles.)


If you want to learn about jazz chord substitutions, then the books by Frank Mantooth and Champ Champagne, both published by Hal Leornard as series of several volumes, are good choices. Also get other instructional books, such as Andy Laverne's Handbook of Chord Substitutions.


As an alternative to investing in fakebooks, consider play-along packages, which consist of a set of leadsheets and an accompanying CD. With these, you get tracks with which you can practice, as well as the printed music, at a reasonable price. The widest selections of play-alongs are from Jamey Aebersold and Hal Leonard. They tend to be organized by composer or genre.



Fakebook Review


I've compiled a spreadsheet listing over 125 fakebooks with various key attributes, such as number of tunes, feature size, indices, and so forth. You can use these to help make selections. For example, if you want a book readable from the stand, choose ones that have a staff size of 8 mm or more. Also, I advise you to choose a book that lays flat on the music rack (either spiral, comb, or stitched lay-flat binding). Otherwise you will be constantly trying to flatten the pages or clamp them so the book doesn't close on its own.


I have avoided reviewing, and don't recommend, books in which all tunes are "in C" (not to be confused with C books, which means concert pitch). Such books are unrealistic, in that many of the tunes will not be in the standard keys that other musicians use. Also, it shelters one from dealing the pleasures and realities of playing in different keys. Note that just because the key signature has no sharps or flats does not mean the tune won't transition to chords in different keys. For example, "All the Things You Are", a well-known standard, goes through six distinct keys implicitly. So even if it were transposed to start in C, in would not stay there throughout. I have also not reviewed "EZ Play" fakebooks, or miniature versions of other fakebooks.


I have included URL's to links for many of these books. I prefer Amazon links when available, because their user reviews will provide you with different independent opinions for each book, something that the publishers of the books generally do not do.


If you have suggestions for additions, or corrections, please email them to me. I will be adding to this sheet as I discover new and interesting books.


Here are the points of comparison, and why they might be important:


Rec (0-5) with 5 high

This my own subjective rating


The publisher of the book, if known


The year of publication


The title of the book


A rough idea of the genres of music

Copyright notes

Whether the publisher has listed the copyright holder. If so, the book is more likely to be legitimate.


The type of binding. Ideally it is a comb or wire binding. If it is stitched, it should be of the lay-flat variety. Books that do not open flat are very annoying.


Subjective judgment of ease in reading.

No. of Tunes

The number of tunes in the book. Approximate numbers are preceded with a ~. Minimum numbers are followed by a +.

No. of Pages

The number of pages in the book. Approximate numbers are preceded with a ~.

Mostly 4 bars per line?

Having a uniform layout of 4 bars per line makes it easier to recover if you get lost reading.

Page Size WxH (inches)

The page size in inches

Staff Height (mm)

The staff height in millimeters

Note Height (mm)

The note height in millimeters

Note Font

Qualitative comment on note font

Chord Font  

Qualitative comment on chord font

Max Tunes per Page

Ideally each page contains only one tune.

Unnec. Page Splits?

Is a tune split across two pages when it would fit on one page?

Unnec. Page Turns?

Is a tune split onto two non-facing pages unnecessarily?

Chord subs?

Are chord substitutions indicated?

Supplementary material?

Is there supplementary material, such as tutorial or explanatory material?


Are there arrangements of some tunes? This is not normally expected in a fakebook.


Are lyrics provided? Given a choice, it is best to have the lyrics, even if you don't plan to sing them, as they sometimes aid in interpreting the tune.


Are the indications of who has recorded or performed the tune?

Alpha order in book?

Are the tunes ordered in approximate alphabetic order? This is helpful for quick location.


Is there a table of contents, listing the tunes in the order they appear in the book.


Is there an index, listing the tunes alphabetically with their page numbers.

List by Composer or Performer

Is there a separate listing of tunes by composer or performer?

Style Index?

Is there a separate listing of tunes by style?


Does the book come in versions for transposing instruments (e.g. Bb for trumpet and Bb saxophones, Eb for Eb saxophones)?


Does the book provide a list of recordings on which each tune can be heard?


Does the book provide gratuitous photos of performers or composers?





Barry Kernfeld, Popsong Piracy, Fake Books, and a Pre-history of Sampling.


Barry Kernfeld, The Story of Fake Books, Scarecrow Press, 2006. (This book focuses on the legal history of fakebooks, rather than the musical aspects.) (Sample chapter)


Andy Laverne, Handbook of Chord Substitutions.


Bob Keller, Jazz Page.


Bob Keller, Spreadsheet Fakebook Index (Google document).


Seventh String, Fake Book Index (searchable).


Chris Paradine's Index of Common Fakebooks (searchable)., JDM Jazz Fake Book Index in spreadsheet form, as a single pdf (143 pages). Includes index for Aebersold play-alongs up to Volume 106., LeftBankJazz set of indexes. (intended humor)