How to play a lead sheet – Part 1

Today, I am going to teach you how to play from a lead sheet. If you do not know what I am talking about, a lead sheet is music notation that includes the melody line, the lyrics, and chord symbols.

At the present time, you do not see many lead sheets in church music.  They are very common in popular music, especially jazz.  You may have heard of fake books.  Fake books are simply books of lead sheets.  By the way, there is nothing fake about playing out of a fake book–in fact, you are about to learn it requires a great amount of skill.

So why do I want you to learn how to play a lead sheet?  There are a few reasons:

  1. It is going to introduce you to the chords I personally use and the chords I want to teach you.  Once you start playing and hearing them, you will
    eventually play them instinctively.
  2. It forces you to improve your theory.  You will have to know the notes in the chord and learn how to voice them so they sound good.
  3. Even though you will not see many lead sheets in a church setting, many songs you play will have chord symbols.  If you know how to play lead sheets, you can play in lead sheet style which comes in very handy at times (such as when you are asked to sight read something very hard).  I do this all of the time.
  4. Transposing is much easier to do when you are playing in lead sheet mode.

When you stop to think about it, improvising from a lead sheet may be easier than improvising from something like a 4 part harmony in a hymnal.  After all, you don’t have to analyze the chords to determine what they are–the chord is given to you in a lead sheet.  I am confident that though you will find it difficult at first, you will be able to learn to play this way.

Now, let’s talk about chord symbols.  Everyone uses different symbols, but here are the ones I am going to use (hopefully consistently).
I am going to give all the chords you will see along with an example.

Major C
Minor Cmin
Dominant C7
Major 7th CMaj7
Minor 7th Cmin7
Diminished Cdim
Half diminished Cmin7(b5)

I have not talked about diminished or half diminished chords yet, so let me do that now.

A diminished chord is simply a chord made up of four notes where there is a minor third between each one.  Here is an example:

Don’t be confused by the way it is written.  If you play the notes in the order of C, D#, F#, and A, you will see the three minor thirds.

A half diminished chord is a chord made up of four notes where the first three notes are separated by minor thirds and the fourth note is a major third higher than the third note. Here is an example:

Again, the actual order of these notes in the chord is C, D#, F#, Bb.  So why do I write a C half diminished chord as Cmin7(b5)? Examine the chord above again
and see if this is not a good description.  Making a chord minor means that there is a minor third between the first two notes.  Lowering the fifth makes the interval between the 2nd and 3rd notes a minor third.  The distance between a lowered fifth and the 7th is a major third.  So, Cmin7(b5) is an accurate way to label a half diminished chord.

You may be thinking that I am missing chords from the table above.  There are numerous variations of those chords, but these are the basic ones you need to know. If you are wondering about the augmented chord, that is a variation of a major chord (raised 5th).  I would write it as C(#5) or if it is a dominant, C7(#5).

I do want to talk about the major 6th chords because you are about to see some.  A major 6th chord is simply a major chord with the 6th in it. In a C chord that would be an A.  Here is an example of a C6 chord.

Don’t worry about where we will actually use each of these chords yet.  I will go into much more detail later.  I am giving you just enough information so that you can play a lead sheet.

Now here is a lead sheet for a simple hymn.

You may notice that these chords are far more complex than what you would see in a hymnal. When you finish learning this song, you are going to be surprised at how good it sounds.

Note that there are few color notes specified in the chords. Those are for you to find and add on your own.  Lead sheets typically leave these notes out unless the melody itself is a color note.  In this lead sheet, the major 6th chords are written that way because the 6th is the melody note.  Otherwise, I would not have labeled them that way.

I have included the Bb/C slash chords in this example to help you find some great color notes.  This is a very versatile chord that you will grow to love.  Just know that I am labeling it that way to keep things simple, and normally, I would label it differently.  All the other slash chords are inversions.

You might be wondering if these are the chords I would use on this hymn.  The answer is yes (at least some of the time–if I played the song ten times, I would probably use some different chords each time). However, the biggest difference between this lead sheet harmony and the harmony I would play would be the color notes I add.

Now, let me give you a few steps to get you started practicing this lead sheet.

  1. Play the melody as the top note in your right hand.
  2. Play the chord root as the bottom note in the left hand (unless it is an inversion).
  3. Fill in the other notes of the chord in between the melody and bass note. Try to use each note only once.  If you are going to double a note, double the melody note.  Try to spread the notes out fairly evenly.
  4. Try to add color notes (notes outside the chord). For example, if you are playing a dominant chord, possible color notes are the flat 9th, 9th, sharp 9th, 11th, sharp 11th, flat 13th, and 13th.

For the time being, just play the chords very simply. Don’t play arpeggios in either hand and keep your hands close together.

Don’t expect to learn all of this in a day, a week, or even a month.  This week, just try to apply steps 1-3 to one song. I am going to cover step 4 in much more detail in the next lesson.

Practice strategy:
Practice steps 1-3 on “Take My Life and Let It Be.” Don’t get frustrated–take it slow.  If you get very comfortable, go ahead and start trying to add a color note or two to each chord.