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:
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