Playing from a Fake Book

I would like a detailed explanation on how to play from a fake book. I am playing, " Alice in Wonderland" and it is filled with the II V I progression. I went through the song and noted all of them and am able to play the progression rather easily and am wondering is this the process?

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Yes You’re correct, that is the process.

Detecting the 251s is the first step, and after learning to play the melody of the song with basic chords, you can start experimenting with more advanced voicings and substitutions.

Here is a link to Hayden’s awesome courses on the subject:

Thanks, let me know if you have any further questions,


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Seconding what @Tuomo said, yes, that is the process.

Or, to elaborate a bit more, it’s an important part of the process.

Of course you will sometimes find tunes (and sections of tunes) that don’t have ii-V-I progressions, so in general you’ll need to expand your review of the lead sheets to be more like, “understand what the harmony is doing.” This will include identifying other common progressions besides ii-V-I.

That is one level of playing from a fake-book chart.

Once you have understood the basic harmonic structure of the piece, the next level is to decide how you want your presentation of the piece to sound, and then consciously choose your interpretation of the melody and harmony to create the sound you want. This means what you play in the bass register, what chord voicings you use in each hand, whether you harmonize the melody and/or reinterpret its rhythm, et cetera, et cetera.

The next level – and this happens all the time – is doing all of the above in a gig or jam session where you don’t see the chart before you have to play it in a group. It’s easier to sight-read a lead sheet in a group because there are other players, and hopefully one or more of them knows the tune and can guide you through it as you play the first time or two through the form.

The hardest is when you’ve never heard the tune before and you have to play solo from a fake book or lead sheet. This is often really an impossible situation because it’s very common to find that the lead sheet omits something about the tune that’s really important. An ostinato or syncopated bass line for example (think “Blue Bossa”). Or an important harmonic motif that isn’t shown on the lead sheet. Or a feel change in the middle of the tune. Imagine trying to interpret “Cheek to Cheek” convincingly from a lead sheet that doesn’t mention that one section of that swing tune is usually played as a Rhumba.

This is why, if you’re going to play in public from lead sheets and fake books, it’s important to do a lot of listening. There will always be something important that isn’t shown on the paper. Not everyone plans to play in public, but the more experience you can get with fake books, the closer you’ll come to this ability to interpret a tune on the spot.

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