How to Read Lead Sheets, Part 01: What Is a Leadsheet?

How To Read Lead Sheets Cover Image


My goal here is to help aspiring guitarists feel more comfortable and better equipped for gigs, jams, and learning tunes in the practice room. Over the next several articles, I will explain how to read and decipher all of the information on leads sheets while also providing video examples to help you understand how to go from staring at a sheet of paper with music to a song you’ve never heard of before to being able to read the roadmap and play the song in a live setting. By the end of the next several sections, you will be able to look at a lead sheet, understand all of the details, come up with an intro, and play the tune all the way through, including making it through the solo section and successfully ending the tune.

The following series is broken up into the following sections:

Part 01: What is a Lead sheet

Part 02: Before you play the tune

Part 03: Intros and Endings

Part 04: The head in and the head out

Part 05: Comping

Part 06: Solos

Part 07: Putting it all together. Let’s play a tune.

Lead Sheet for the Jazz Standard, “There Will Never Be Another You. Copyright 2019, Hal Leonard.


Lead Sheets are transcriptions of songs or tunes that contain the melody, harmony and the basic information required to play the piece; even if you haven't ever heard it before. Think of a lead sheet as an outline of instructions for how to play a song. They are loose guides on how to play something and typically leave many performance choices entirely up to the performer(s).

Lead sheets are incredible learning resources and can also be a lifeline on a gig if you don't know a bunch of Jazz standards by heart, yet.

The Real Book, A collection of Lead Sheets

The Real Book has an iconic history in the Jazz world.

The first Real Books were illegal copies of charts made by students at Berklee College of Music in the 1970s that you could only get a copy of if you knew the right person.

Here is an excerpt about the history of real books as stated in the official real book website that explains how it all went down.

In 1975, a few students at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, Massachusetts, tired of the illegible and somewhat irrelevant fake books available to music students at the time, set about transcribing popular jazz tunes pertinent to the time into handwritten charts. Riffing on the title of a popular Cambridge street paper called the Real Paper and the concept of taking “fake” books to the next level, the Real Book was born.

Word of this new compendium spread quickly in music circles, and demand grew exponentially, with the Real Book finding its way into the hands of jazz musicians all over the world. As demand grew, legions of bootleggers began making their own copies and selling them “black market” style on street corners near music schools or from under the counter at local music shops—a practice that would go on for nearly 30 years, as the Real Book eventually became the unofficially best-selling jazz songbook of all time.

In 2003, sheet music publishing giant Hal Leonard Corporation began securing the rights to nearly all of the songs in the original Real Book and in September 2004 released the world’s first legitimate versions of these treasured volumes. Staying true to the original “homemade” feel of the Real Book, these new licensed versions featured the same logo, cover design, and typefaces inside—they even created a font to match the book’s “handwritten” titles—with a nearly identical song list. Perhaps most impressively, Hal Leonard was able to release the licensed version of the Real Book at an even lower price than the originals sold for, virtually putting the bootleggers out of business.”

You can read more about the history of real books here.

The Real Book 1980 Totally Revised Edition

Foreward to the Real Book Fifth Edition

Table of Contents for Real Book 1980


These days, you can find real books for pretty much all genres and instruments inexpensively at local music instrument stores or online, .PDFs, and as Apps and other interactive learning software. It doesn’t matter what form(s) your real book comes in as long as you feel comfortable incorporating it into your practice routine. Although I prefer to have a paper chart, over the years I have needed charts in all forms and in all kinds of scenarios between the practice room and the stage and so will you!

First, nothing beats wearing the cover off of the classic Paper plastic bound Real Book after years of making notes and dog-earing pages. There is anew Official Real Book website that has all of the books and downloads you need!

There are several Apps for having real books in any key right on your phone that are very popular these days. They are very handy to have on your phone in case you happen to find yourself in a situation where you either don’t know a particular tune or don’t feel comfortable transcribing something into a different key on the fly for vocalists. I would recommend iReal Pro. It is available for Apple and Android and is inexpensive for the value.

.PDF versions of real books come in handy when you need to print out charts for a specific set list and don’t want to have to flip pages or want to study a chart, but don’t want to draw all over your book. There are a few different websites that sell downloads of packages, including the official website or you can Message me if you need assistance locating .PDF versions of all of the Real Books.

Disclaimer: While you should definitely utilize ever resource available to you for your own learning and development, don’t let sheet music become a crutch to your ear and your musicianship. There are nuances in music that you will never be able to learn from a book alone. You do not typically find a whole lot of information concerning chord voicings, intros, endings, melodic embellishments, and soloing in real books. And, often times, when these are included, they are often inaccurate or only relevant to a specific recording. Nothing will ever beat the experience and musical abilities that you gain through learning from recordings, playing live and listening the music that you are learning.

Part 02: Reading the Roadmap Before You Play the Tune

Coming Soon