Lead Sheet Symbols

Understand what you’re seeing and what to play.

Just about every jazz gig will include being handed a piece of paper with, for example, 36 bars on it and letters written above each of the bars.

Those letters are often accompanied by symbols – which you will fast learn to recognize. Some of the symbols tell you the immediate basics; like if a chord is major or minor, sharp or flat. While you won’t be playing a chord, per se – you will be playing notes from the chord to accompany the chord being played. We review what notes you can start to focus on in the Performance Tips – Chord Tone Patterns section.

For now, let’s get down to these symbols.

Let’s discuss how these chord symbols are constructed.

Each chord symbol is constructed using 3 parts – through you won’t always see all three depending on what the chord is, but 3 will fully explain a chord. The parts are as follows:

Chord Example: C min7 b5

  • Chord Letter: This is the first part and essentially, it tells you where the root you’ll be playing is. Example: D, A# or Gb.
  • Chord Symbol: This is the second part and is a symbolic representation of the chord’s “quality.” This can mean: major, minor, diminished or half diminished, etc. Don’t freak out, you can always hover around the root note and play along while you learn about it.
  • Chord Number: A number typically indicates added notes to flavor the chord. You can ignore the majority of them, I’ll explain as we go a couple that you’ll want to note – but a Flat 13th isn’t going to mean a whole lot to you unless you’re the pianist or guitarist.

Just remember, you don’t need to follow a chord sheet in a literal way. Think of it as a guide to options you can explore to make your bass line melodic. It doesn’t dictate what you have to play, it shows you what you can play. Focus on the Root Note, example: “C”, and the chord symbol – example: Major/Minor, etc.

Let’s talk about those symbols now.

Major Chord symbols:

As an example, you may see the letter “C”. Third fret on the A-string is a good “C”. It might be represented in a few different ways.

  • C
  • CM
  • Cmaj
  • C△

You can refer to the page on Chord Tone Patterns to understand how major chord tones work. When you see a MAJOR symbol of any kind, you will play the chord tones in the major scale pattern. Mix them up, play them in order, do what feels good to you and experiment.

Take note that when you see a Major in a jazz song, it typically means you’ll a Major 7th chord tone pattern. It’s just a major chord, but as you’ll review on the Chord Tone Pattern page, we play the 1st, 3rd, 5th and 7th notes in the major scale. You’ll see the pattern, it’s going to be the same pattern in every major chord tone you play – A through G.

Because we typically play a Major 7th when we see a Major Chord Symbol, we might also see that represented as a “Major 7th.” Like this:

  • CM7
  • C△
  • C△7

Minor Chord symbols:

As an example, you may see:

  • Cm
  • Cm7
  • C-
  • C-7

You can refer to the page on Chord Tone Patterns to understand how minor chord tones work. When you see a MINOR symbol of any kind, you will play the chord tones in the minor scale pattern.

Diminished Chord symbols:

As an example, you may see:

  • C°7
  • Cdim
  • Cdim7

That little circle, or the reference to “dim” is going to tell you to play the Diminished Pattern.

Half-Diminished Chord symbols:

As an example, you may see:

  • Cø7
  • C-7♭5
  • Cm7♭5

You’re often going to see the Half-Diminished Chord Pattern being used. it’s one of the Big-4 you’re going to memorize, be sure to read about it on the Chord Tone Pattern Page.

Dominant Chord symbols:

As an example, you may see:

  • C7

You’re often going to see the Dominant Chord Pattern is another you’ll use in virtually every jazz piece you play. The note-letter and the number 7 direct you to use the Dominant Chord Tone Pattern.

SLASH Chord symbols:

I’m glad you read down this far, because this is going to answer a big question all jazz players eventually ask. What is a slash chord and how do I play it?

As an example, you may see:

  • C7/G

Let me make this clear and easy for you. You’re the bassist? Play the note on the bottom of the chord. No explanation needed, just do that.
(Note: In this situation, it means a C7 played over a G. You’re the G, the piano or guitar is the C7. Bass plays the bottom of the slash.)