What is a Music Fake Book?

Ah, the Fake Book. An essential tool for the gigging musician and for decades the bane of the publishing industry. The Fake Book, in case you’re not familiar with it, is basically the simplest version of sheet music available. It is a collection of songs written with only the melody, lyrics and chord changes over the appropriate beats. Usually, there is no arrangement, no intros or endings, no specific instructions on “how” to play the song. Hence, the word “fake” – musicians are supposed to take the basic information and simply “fake” it.

Fake books were essential for my personal growth as a musician. As a kid, I knew how to read single not melodies because of my trumpet experience, and I’d begun to learn basic chords. When I discovered my first fake book, I recognized that if I sat at the piano, I could play the melody in my right hand and play the chords in my left – and I literally began playing piano overnight, much to the shock of my parents. Within a couple years my friend and I got a gig playing for tips at a local diner that had a beat up piano. He played flute with I played chords behind him. Because we had to fill up two hours, we brought every book we could find, and I learned hundreds of classic songs from fake books, long before I’d ever heard them recorded. Seriously – I thought I’d discovered “Autumn Leaves”!

Fake books and their predecessors have been around for decades (since at least the early 1940’s). They became so prevalent among musicians that at one point (1964) the FBI 1964, wrote that “practically every professional musician in the country owns at least one of these fake music books as they constitute probably the single most useful document available.” Why did the FBI care? Because, for the most part, fake books were illegal. They were generally written or compiled by musicians, and then copied and distributed with no regard for paying the copyright owners for all the songs they contained. There is actually a book about the history, Barry Kernfeld’s “The Story of Fake Books”.

The one fake book that rose to the top of the heap (for most modern musicians, anyway) was called “The Real Book”, a collection of what were, at the time, the best modern jazz songs, mixed with popular standards. The book was created around 1974-5 by a group of students at the Berklee School Of Music. This book is still the most common book you might find at a jazz gig. It became so popular that even today’s music-writing computer software programs include a notation font that mimics the Real Book’s handwritten manuscript.

Since that time, while there continues to be a wealth of “illegal” books floating around, publishers have begun to issue “legal” versions of fake books (including The Real Book), making it possible to enjoy their great usefulness while still paying the composers and publishers their fair due.

So, which books should you own? Well, that depends on the music you want to play. Fake books are now available for nearly every style, including Jazz, Broadway, Classic Rock, Blues, Classical, Country, Christian, Dixieland, Disco, Latin, Folk, Klezmer, Polka – you name it. And many books exist based on one band, like The Beatles or The Rolling Stones.

Most books are also released in multiple keys, so whether you play trumpet, alto sax, bass or piano, there is a book in your key and clef.

Related Articles

Parent's Instrument Rental Guide

Playing Music Makes You Smarter

Learn More