Playing From A Fakebook
by Ray Pool

Playing from a fake book has become the focus of my career in both teaching and performing. I do it at my restaurant jobs in New York City, and I travel around the country giving workshops to other harpists on how to do it.

Playing "by the numbers" like those found in fake books is not a recent idea. In the Baroque era musicians frequently performed from a figured bass line. The numbers indicated which harmonies should be played above the given notes, as in the following:

(The New College Encyclopedia of Music, Westrup and Harrison, rev. ed. 1976, p. 207.)

Quoting Walter Piston from his text "Harmony" (W. W. Norton & Co., 1941): "The figured bass had a practical use in the days of Bach and Handel, when the ever-present keyboard instrument required a guide to the harmonic background of the music in order to fill in missing parts or to reinforce weak on...The problem is solely one of distribution of given materials and of correct voice leading."

A few years ago The New York Times printed an article with the heading, "If C.P.E. Bach were alive today, he would play jazz." The figured bass of the Baroque era is the lead sheet of today's popular music. In both, a single line of music - in our era it's the melody - is given along with symbols that provide a guide to the harmony intended by the composer. Spelling (names of the notes) and voicing of chords (position of the notes in the chord) are left to the skill and ingenuity of the performer.

Many harpists are not familiar with fake book notation. To use it you first need some harmonic vocabulary such as seventh chords, root, third, fifth, triad, major, minor and diminished triads, and inversions. {Check Harp Spectrum's Glossary if you are unsure of the meanings of these terms.] I will focus here on seventh chords, which are used in most popular music. These are chords consisting of four notes - a root, third, fifth and seventh.

The bottom three notes make up a standard triad. The top note is a seventh above the root. Four different kinds of seventh chords occur automatically in the major scale. As you can see in example 1, they are: (1) Major 7 on I and IV consisting of a major triad and a major seventh with the chord symbol such as C Maj7; (2) minor 7 on II, III and VI consisting of a minor triad and a minor seventh with a chord symbol such as D min7; (3) Dominant 7 on V consisting of a major triad and a minor seventh such as G7; and (4) minor 7 flat five on VII, consisting of a diminished triad and a minor seventh with the chord symbol B min7(-5).

Example 2 shows the same chords in four different spellings. C Major 7 will always be spelled C - E - G - B, but the placement of the pitches will vary when a melody line is being played by the highest pitch of each grouping. (I.e., if the melody note is E, the pitches would be placed G - B - C - E.) As you study each of these chords in its various inversions, note two things: (1) the chords built on the first and fourth steps of the scale, which require an adjustment when the root of the chord is the top note. You should play the second finger one string lower and change the chord analysis from a 7th to a 6th, thus eliminating the very tight-sounding interval of a half step that would result from maintaining the pitch of a Major 7th. 2) the highest pitch of each inversion. In lead sheet notation, this will be the only note that is given. The others must be filled in by the performer's ability with chord spelling.

Example 3 provides the lead sheet notation for the seven diatonic 7th chords in the key of C Major. It is now up to the performer to fill in the missing notes that lie below the given pitch. The easiest way to accomplish this is to place the right thumb on the given note, consult the chord symbol and think of its spelling, spell the chord out loud (for initial study) and then place the second, third and fourth fingers on the remaining pitches of the chord. For example, the first chord in the first measure has the note B placed in the right thumb. You should then say the chord symbol and the four notes of the C Major 7 chord out loud "C Major 7 -- C, E, G, B." The second, third and fourth fingers would then be placed on the pitches C, E and G. Finally, play all four pitches as a chord.

Space does not permit an in-depth chord study at this time. However, when you see, after a reasonable amount of work, that these are very predictable patterns from key to key, the chords will appear far more "user friendly." The structure of seventh chords is deceptively simple on the harp. By placing the fingers in an "every-other-string" position you can merrily strum your way up and down the strings. Do you know the exact pitches you are playing? Do you know the names of the chords? The performance skill of putting together melody and harmony is possible only when chord symbols and spellings are understood. Playing a tune in this format is far less daunting than you might imagine.

Example 4 uses the chords of D minor 7, G7 and C Major 7 (including C6) to outline the melody of "Londonderry Air." By doubling the left hand an octave lower an extremely thick sound is automatically achieved from these seventh chord inversions. Although it is not preferable for the final performance of the piece to continue in such a studious and predictable voicing, this example immediately illustrates all possible pitches available for a simple but rich harmonization.

Finally, here is an example of lead sheet notation of a melody with chord symbols, in which the melody notes and chords from Example 4 are shown in a modern "fake book" sample in Example 5.

What are the benefits of knowing how to play following these symbols? First of all, there are huge fake books available from major publishers which include from 600 to 1,200 tunes in a price range from $25 to $35 per volume, or approximately $0.03 per title. Not every tune is wonderful, but hundreds are. The cost of sheet music these days is usually in the vicinity of $4.00 per arrangement, so the economy of lead sheet collections needs no further discussion.

Secondly, the flexibility that this skill affords can not be overemphasized. Successful harpists need be able to play along from a lead sheet as either the accompanist or the soloist. Many hymn books include chord symbols for the accompaniment of congregational singing, and folk song resources provide the same. Work in the commercial world of music demands this ability.

You can do it, too, with a little time and a specific approach. Just remember to (1) place the melody note in the right thumb, (2) read and spell out the chord and (3) place the remaining pitches, and you'll be stepping into a vast new repertoire!

Video Link

Ray Pool plays Amazing Grace

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