Lead Sheet Basics

What do you play in your left hand when using a fake book or lead sheet?

That’s a question I get asked all the time.  This page is all about lead sheet basics.  The main things you need are an open mind and a willingness to “play” with possibilities (that’s why we call it “playing” the harp!). If you’re ready to experiment and discover what you like best as you go along, this page will get you started. If you already play from lead sheets, perhaps there will be a new idea or two to freshen up your style.

Please note: This tutorial requires that you know something about chords. If you need help with that, go look at the resources on the music theory page.

What is a lead sheet, anyway?
Simply a melody with chord symbols added. (A fake book is a book of lead sheets). As you play the melody with your right hand (or sing it), you create your own accompaniment with your left.

Before you can experiment with multiple ideas, you need to be able to play the same thing (simple chords or broken chords) in your left hand through the entire tune until you can do it without thinking much about it too much.

In fact, the very best thing to do first is to simply play the note indicated by the chord symbol (C for the C chord), droning it once or twice per measure as you play the melody with your right hand. (This can actually be a beautiful and haunting accompaniment if you love the notes as you play them).

Here’s another tip: one way to really get the chords in your mind is to sing the chords names to the melody as you play.

Next, keep singing and go on to playing whole chords (usually rolled on the harp) all the way through and then broken chords (also called arpeggios) until both are also easy. If you get bored, that’s a good sign and means you are comfortable changing chords and fitting the left hand to the melody.

Now you’re ready to experiment with different accompaniment patterns.

Remember, less is more; you don’t need a different pattern for each measure. To start with, I’d try playing arpeggios on measures where there is only one chord for the whole measure (or longer). Then I’d mix in rolled chords on measures where the chords change in the middle (or more often)—usually at a cadence.

(Cadences usually occur at the end of the middle phrase—the high point—and at the end of the tune. They are the punctuation marks of the chord progression.) After a string of arpeggios or moving notes, our ears are ready for some stately chords. You ear will let you know the best places to change your pattern. Keep in mind that while repeating the same pattern for a whole tune is boring, changing the pattern every measure or two feels chaotic. It’s all about balance . . .

To give you some ideas and get you rolling, here’s a collection of ideas for playing a C major chord, from simple chords to fancy arpeggios (click on image for larger version):

Next, I’d look for a few variations for my arpeggios. Maybe walk up the chord on one measure and down the chord on the next, or use a fancier arpeggio. For example, you can try this roving thumb pattern (this is a C major chord in 4/4 time, with the thumb playing non-chord tones part of the time):


Or, how about the Garret Plus?:


(This example is again in 4/4, and I’d finger it 4 2 1 X 3 2 1 2 3).

Sometimes, using a pattern like this means you will change chords less often. Use your ears to decide what you like and don’t be afraid to experiment.

I suggest you collect patterns and practice them on each chord in the common keys you use (C, G, D, F) until you can easily “throw” a pattern at a chord on the fly. Can you play the above examples on an Am chord? a Bb chord? a D chord?

Here are some extended patterns that you can use for your experiments. Remember, pick one and play it for a whole chord progression until that’s easy. Later, you can mix and match with simpler patterns for contrast.


(click for larger version)
Soon, you’ll be comfortable seeing that chord symbol and knowing that your hand can find a pattern of notes that will fit. That’s when playing from a lead sheet or fake book becomes really fun!

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