Bluegrass Music

A Brief Look at Bluegrass Fake Books

Today, internet connection is as common in life as the toilet. You can get any information that you seek (whether it is reliable or not) with a few keystrokes and the power of Google. However, a bit more than a decade ago, people still relied on old-fashioned books. Yes, there are still old fogies like me that like to read from the paper pages instead of the computer screen.

Beginner bluegrass musicians appreciate any help that they can get to comfortably jam with others at a festival or other get-together. That means if he/she doesn’t have a mentor readily available to explain chord changes, one had to secure a fake book. If you don’t know what a fake book is, well, it is a book that contains a large number of songs, usually appearing in musical notation as well as lyrics and chord changes. There are still a lot of these out there and available in print. I still have my copy called, appropriately, Bluegrass Fakebook by Bert Casey (available from, which is one of the most popular. It shows its age, with pages falling out and the cover worn to almost nothing. While I consider myself to have a good ear and able to predict chord changes confidently, I still love having the book around for reference to lyrics and those songs that I am not too familiar with.

These days, you can find the words, chord charts, musical notation, and even lists of artists that recorded the songs with a quick search online. If you have a printer, you can create your own fake book. I’ve seen some people store all of the songs on iPads and take the device to the jam sessions. Hey, whatever works!

While I recommend everyone having some form of fake book, especially beginners, the problem that I always had with the ones published were the choice of songs contained within. While about half of the songs are pretty standard, the other half in the books seem to be personal choices of the author(s). This can vary from modern bluegrass songs, country songs that sound familiar, or even pop and rock songs that someone thought would make a great bluegrass song (and after one performance, they don’t!). One also has to be observant of the key that the music notation and tablature is presented. I have found a number of instances where a popular bluegrass song that was recorded by Bill Monroe, Flatt & Scruggs, or any other well-known artist in a common key of G, A, Bb or C, is presented in the book in the key of Eb or F. Why?

The best way to learn dozens of bluegrass songs is playing along with them. Whether you are working with a recording or sitting in on a jam, your ear will give you the best instruction. Getting familiar with common chord progressions and knowing where to put a capo in the case of a key change are essential to working well in a jam or even performing in a band on a regular basis. While you may start working on original material with a band, bluegrass music is one of those genres that knowing and jamming on old standards is a part of normal life. Whether you buy one or create your own, have a fake book in your arsenal and give it a regular workout. While I am one that promotes original music, there’s nothing wrong with sitting down and jamming on “Wabash Cannonball” or “High On a Mountain” with some fellow musicians when the chance arises.

Chew on it and comment.