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Software Real Books, Fake Books and Music Collections

I can carry the chords to all the songs in these Real Books in my pocket on my iphone
My iPhone has the chord changes to most of the tunes in this pile of Real Books and Fake Books.

The internet and software are making printed fake books seem quaint. I have five (or six) printed volumes of the Hal Leonard “Real Book”. I have other printed collections of fake books, most similar in that they are lead sheets of melody and chords only although some have the full piano part. I also have books of tab transcriptions of artist’s tunes though these are really a separate category from fake books. More and more, when I want to see the chords for a song, I look on my iPad, iPhone or computer rather than in a printed book.

I have written about some of these previously. For example, Band-in-a-Box might be put in this category if you’ve downloaded any of the many user created songs and styles. For example, you can download over 500 tunes, most of which are in one of the real books, from Phillips Music. Other BIAB collections are Just Chords, and Gypsy Jazz BIAB files. The free Impro-visor software also has a collection of tunes you can find in the real books. They call theirs the Imaginary Book. You have to download this from the Yahoo Groups pages for Impro-visor.

However, my favorite app in this category has become iReal Pro. They have apps for iPhone, iPad, Android and Mac. If your only devices are Windows or Linux you’re out of luck. But since most people have either Android or Apple phones and tablets, you should be good. You must download individual or collections of tunes from their forum. This is easy to do and takes very little time. The way this and the other related apps avoid copyright issues is these are chords only — no melody or lyrics. Sometime you need to be able to play the melody if you’ve forgotten the tune but you could also search your music library or youtube. In fact, iReal Pro will find the song on youtube for you.

iReal Pro library

Above: I downloaded 1300 jazz standards in a few seconds. You can create and edit your own playlists and tunes but these are user created playlists and tunes I downloaded from the iReal Pro forum.

iReal Pro has continuously improved since I first purchased it for my iPad. I now have it on my phone, tablet and laptop. One of the coolest things it can do is show you the chord diagrams for tune in-line. The following is the first part of a Tom Jobim classic (I’ve been getting into Brazilian Jazz since getting a classical guitar).

iReal Pro in-line chord display using Chord font

The software also has playback styles so you can use the tunes for practice. These are not as sophisticated as BIAB and originally most sounded rather bad. But I’ve noticed the accompaniments are sounding better. The add on styles for Jazz are worth the price 1. There is a latin acoustic Bossa nova style that sounds good with the above.

The software of course includes transposition and variable playback tempo. You can even choose alternate chord forms for the chords from those in the library. However, not all jazz chord forms are in the library. For example an Fmaj7 (see example above) is in the library as a six string chord  but not as the common voicing where two strings are muted.

iReal Pro Fmaj7: (1-3-2-2-1-1)
Preferred form:  (1-x-2-2-1-x)

(You have to mentally edit out the 5th and 1st string notes)

The standard jazz oriented chord notation using “-” for minor chords can be changed in the options to substitute “m” for “-” for minor chords. However major chords (as in major sevenths) are still notated with a triangle and minor seventh flat 5 chords are notated as half diminished (a circle with a slash through it). The notations used take less space than displaying Fmaj7 or Dm7b5.

Carrying around the real books on my phone is pretty awesome. But iReal Pro, BIAB and Impro-visor all tend to be slanted towards jazz and pop standards. That’s mostly what I want but sometimes you need a pop, rock or blues standard. iReal Pro has fewer of those than other apps but it does have some blues, rock and pop.

Songsterr has a more traditional tab collection. According to their website, they are 100% legal and pay royalties. The money earned from their paid plan options is used to pay the royalties. You can use a basic plan for free as well as an iOS and Android app. But more features are available if you have a paid plan.

The tunes available are supplied by users and you can often find multiple versions of the same song. Some are tabs and some are just the chords. Some have lyrics and others just tab.

Songsterr options for tab from laptop browser

The above is a screen shot from my laptop browser. This shows the options which are displayed above the tab for a tune. Because I am using the basic unpaid plan, looping and tempo control are unavailable, as are most other options.

I have Songsterr on my iPad and find it is a nice supplement to iReal Pro. Playback, at least on the free version, is dreadful yet is still useful if you want to hear how the tab should sound (notes, not style).

Something to be aware of is that the premium version of Songsterr and most other tablature apps for iOS and Android are based on subscriptions through the appropriate app store. The subscriptions renew automatically even if you only purchased a single month initially. You must specifically cancel the auto renewal. There are many user complaints from those who were surprised they got charged every month or had difficulty canceling their subscription. iReal Pro is not a subscription but is not a free app. I prefer to pay upfront. iReal Pro is worth the cost but is chords only, not a collection of guitar tablature.

There are other tab websites and apps but most of the ones offering premium features such as transposition, tempo control, printing and sharing follow the model of Songsterr and require a subscription.


  1. the in-line chords and extra playback styles are now included in the cost – just after I purchased them for the Mac – still worth it

2 thoughts on “Software Real Books, Fake Books and Music Collections”

  1. Thanks for writing this. It’s a great overview for someone like me just starting to investigate digital alternatives to my stack of fakebooks. One sidenote about your discussion of the Fmaj7 chord. Should the “Preferred form” be this (i.e., is there a typo?): 1-x-2-2-1-x

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