Lesson: How to Make Sense of Lead Sheets

If you have a solid foundation but want to learn more about reading charts, then this lesson, based on an actual lead sheet, is for you.

How do you get a guitar player to turn down? Put a chart in front of him. This might be a tired old joke, but isn’t there a bit of truth to it? Guitarists—amateurs and professionals alike—often rely solely on their ears or tablature to learn and share music. But in many real-world situations, like jazz-combo performances and session work, guitarists are presented with charts, also known as lead sheets, in which music is presented in skeletal form, with just melodies and chord symbols to work from.

Charts are not for the completely uninitiated—they require at least a fundamental knowledge of staff notation and fretboard harmony. If you have a solid foundation but want to learn more about reading charts and lead sheets, then this lesson, based on an actual lead sheet by the masterful modern guitarist and composer Mark Goldenberg, is for you.


Just as you would in learning any piece of written music, start by identifying basic elements like the key signature and time signature—in this case, 4/4 and E minor—and the tempo and feel. This one’s obviously a medium Latin number, with a metronome marking of 180 bpm. Be on the lookout for any changes in key and meter (there are none here), and flag them on the chart if you’d like.


Scrutinize the piece’s overall architecture. This chart has a standard AABA song form—with a twist. The A section (the pickup measure plus bars 1–6 and the first or second ending) is the customary eight bars in length, while the bridge (bars 11–19) has an extra measure. Taking the time to identify structural elements in this way, and noting any potentially tricky areas, will go a long way toward preventing you from getting tripped up when reading a chart.


This chart happens to be written for guitar, so it sounds an octave lower than written. If you’re playing a melody not composed specifically for the instrument, or written in concert key, play it as if it were notated an octave higher. In other words, play the C right below the staff (middle C on piano) at string 2, fret 1, or any of its other locations on the fretboard, etc.

A useful—and at the same time tricky—characteristic of the fretboard is its repetition of notes. Before you read through a chart, it’s a good idea to determine where on the fretboard you’d like to play it, and get a general sense of how you will finger the melody. Start by finding the lowest and highest notes in a chart. Then, look for not just one, but all possible fretboard locations for the melody—ideally ones that allow you to stay in position while adding harmonic embellishments and bass notes.

You could easily play “Ask the Fist” in the open position, with the first note, E, on string 4, fret 2, and the next two notes on the open G and B strings, etc. Among other possibilities you could also play it in second position (first finger on the second-fret E, fourth on the fifth-fret G, third on the fourth-fret B, etc.) or seventh position (first finger on the seventh-fret E, fourth on the tenth-fret G, third on the ninth-fret B, etc.). The choice is yours—use whatever position feels most comfortable under your fingers and also has the appropriate timbre.


Also, note that lead sheets generally indicate melodies in their most basic form, with plenty of leeway. It’s expected that the performer will dress up the tune with ornaments like grace notes and other melodic embellishments. (Visit AcousticGuitar.com for video of Goldenberg playing with his trio to see how he interprets his melody.)


To be an expert chart reader, it’s important to have a wide variety of chord types and voicings at your disposal—you should automatically know where to place your fingers on the fretboard in order to play, say, a C9 (#11) chord. (Hint: Try X-3-2-3-3-2 or 8-X-8-7-7-X for just two possibilities.) But you should also consider what’s right for the context. If you’re playing with a bassist, for example, as Goldenberg does in his trio, you needn’t play six-note chords all the way through. That could in fact muddy up the sonic spectrum. So in this instance, it would be best to play lean voicings, like the open top three strings for an E minor chord, to stay out of the bassist’s way.

If you’re reading a chart for a session or performance with another harmonic instrument, like a second guitar or piano, you might coordinate chords in advance, so that there’s no clashing or cluttering going on. In a twin-guitar situation, for instance, one player might do voicings higher on the neck and the other player lower, or one player might run a bass line on the low strings, while the other adds compact voicings above. Just a little advance preparation will go a long way here.


Like a lot of the notation you see in this magazine, charts often use repeats and other symbols to save space and avoid inconvenient page turns. It’s important to understand how these indications work—and to be on top of them during performance. Here’s what to do for this particular chart: As indicated by the forward repeat at the beginning of the first full bar, play the music through the first ending, then, as directed by the backwards repeat at the end of bar 8, go back to the forward repeat. Keep playing, this time skipping the first ending and proceeding to the second ending (bar 9). Continue until you see the indication D.S. al Fine (take 2nd ending) at the end of bar 19. That directs you to the sign (above the first full measure), where, as before, you’ll skip over the first ending and go to the second. The tune ends at bar 10, where you see the indication Fine.

As with all things in music, learning to read charts will take a bit of time and practice to master, and the more you know about different styles, plus the more you work with other musicians, the better you’ll get. So get out there and play!

How to read a chart

This article originally appeared in the July/August 2019 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.

Adam Perlmutter
Adam Perlmutter

Adam Perlmutter holds a bachelor of music degree from the University of North Carolina-Greensboro and a master's degree in Contemporary Improvisation from the New England Conservatory. He is the editor of Acoustic Guitar.

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