A fake book is a collection of musical lead sheets intended to help a performer quickly learn new songs. Each song in a fake book contains the melody line, basic chords, and lyrics - the minimal information needed by a musician to make an impromptu arrangement of a song, or "fake it."
Fake books are not intended for novices: the reader must follow and interpret the scant notation, and generally needs to have thorough familiarity with chords and sheet music. However, fake books can be an avenue to playing songs quickly; a few chords and a one-note melody line can allow even an amateur to play a passable version of any song with relative ease.
Despite the name, fake books are often unbound, consisting of a thick, loose stack of sheets.
A predecessor to fake books was created in May 1942 when George Goodwin, a radio station director, released the first Tune-Dex cards. Printing on 3" x 5" (7.6 x 12.7 cm) index cards that were the same size as library catalog cards, Goodwin provided lyrics, melody and chord symbols as well as copyright information. Goodwin also promoted the cards to professional musicians until 1963, when poor health forced his retirement.
According to Barry Kernfeld's book "The Story of Fake Books", by the 1950s gangsters were duplicating the Tune-Dex information into bound fake books with prices between $10 and $25.
For many years the "standard" fake books were called simply "The Fake Books." All were composed of songs illegally printed, with no royalties paid to the copyright owners. In 1964, the FBI's Cleveland, Ohio, office observed 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.".
The first two volumes, Fake Book Volume 1 and Fake Book Volume 2, issued in the late 1940s–1950s, together comprised about 2,000 songs dating from the turn of the 20th century through the late 1950s. In the 1950s the Modern Jazz Fake Book, Volumes 1 and 2 was issued, and Fake Book Volume 3, containing about 500 songs, came out in 1961.
The music in Fake Books 1, 2, and 3 was photocopied or reset with a musical typewriter from the melody lines of the original sheet music. Usually chord symbols, titles, composer names, and lyrics were typewritten, but for a number of songs these were all photocopied along with the melody line.
The chord changes in these books were notoriously inaccurate. Most of them were based on the guitar and ukelele chords commonly found in earlier sheet music, which often did not include the roots of the harmony. For example, a chord labeled "Fdim" ("F diminished") for guitar or ukelele might functionally be a G7b9 ("G seven, flat nine") chord, which has a G as the root plus all the notes of an Fdim7 chord. Thus, successfully using the Fake Books required the expertise of jazz musicians and others trained in functional harmony in order to reinterpret the chord symbols.
The three Fake Books were well indexed, alphabetically as well as by musical genre and Broadway show. Interestingly, although the tunes in the Fake Books were compiled illegally, the creators printed copyright information under every song — perhaps to give the false impression that the Fake Books were legal.
The Modern Jazz Fake Book was divided into two sections, each indexed separately as Volume One and Volume Two. The music was transcribed by hand from recordings, and each transcription included performer name, record label, and catalog number. Unlike today's fake and "real" books that have "jazz' in their titles, the Modern Jazz Fake Book included no standards, but only original tunes written and recorded by jazz musicians.
All these books have been long out of print.
During the school year of 1974-75, an unidentified group of musicians based at the Berklee College of Music in Boston published The Real Book, which claimed to fix all problems of poor design, although it was riddled with errors which were gradually corrected by generations of players. Steve Swallow, who was teaching at Berklee at that time, said the students who edited the book intended "to make a book that contained a hipper repertoire, more contemporary repertoire." Alongside the standard tunes of previous decades were lead sheets for compositions by then-contemporary composers such as Keith Jarrett, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, Joe Henderson, Wayne Shorter, Carla Bley, Pat Metheny, Mike Gibbs, Ralph Towner and Steve Swallow (amongst others). It was extremely popular and in its turn spawned a number of "fake Real Books."
See also 
- Jazz standard
- Ralph Patt, author of The Vanilla Book of 400 chord progressions for jazz standards
- Real Book
- Rise Up Singing
- The Fiddler's Fakebook
- Kernfeld, Barry (2003). "Pop Song Piracy, Fake Books, and a Pre-history of Sampling". Kernfeld. Retrieved 2008-04-05.
- Kernfeld, Barry (2006). "The Story of Fake Books: Bootlegging Songs to Musicians". Scarecrow Press. Retrieved 2008-04-05.