Jonny May
Quick Tip

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  • Basslines
  • Chords
  • Lead Sheets
  • Songs
Music Style
  • Jazz Swing
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Do you want to learn how to play Autumn Leaves lead sheet in the jazz piano style? With these 4 steps, you will learn how to play a jazz piano lead sheet:

  1. Learn the melody
  2. Walk a bass line / chord sheet
  3. Use the cycle of 5ths chord progression / rootless voicings for right hand
  4. Put it all together!

The skills you will learn in today’s lesson will take your playing to the next level! The ability to combine a melody with a bass line and chords is such a fun and rewarding way to create arrangements of your favorite songs on the spot. Let’s get started.

Autumn Leaves Jazz Piano Lead Sheet – Melody

Autumn Leaves is one of the most popular jazz standards of all time, and has been recorded by countless jazz artists. Before we start the lesson, it’s important to listen to Autumn Leaves so you can get a sense for this melody and chord progression. Some great examples are by Miles Davis, Chet Baker, and Nat King Cole.

The first step to learning any song is to learn the melody. Blow is the melody for Autumn Leaves:

How to play Autumn Leaves lead sheet jazz piano
“Autumn Leaves” melody

The numbers above refer to the best fingering to use for this melody. If you aren’t comfortable reading sheet music, you can learn this melody with our Smart Sheet Music. This shows a digital light-up keyboard that plays along with the sheet music so you know which notes to play.

Once you have it down, you can alter the melody to make it more interesting and more swinging! The way it’s written above can sound a bit flat without any syncopation or rhythmic variation. Check out this melody with a more swinging rhythm:

Autumn Leaves melody with rhythmic variation
Autumn Leaves with rhythmic variation

Now that’s more like it! Experiment with different rhythmic approaches to discover fun ways to play melodies. Next, you will learn how to play a bass line with the melody.

Bass Lines for Autumn Leaves Jazz Piano

Bass lines are so much fun to play because they play a huge part in creating the feel or groove of a song while still outlining the chords. When we play music in a swing style, the bass line can be either in a “2-feel” or a “walking” feel.

2-Feel Bass Line

A 2-feel bass line is easier to play because it only has two notes in each measure. As you may already be familiar with, a walking bass line has a note on each beat of the bar.  You can think of a 2-feel as a bass line that “skips” beats two and four, although the notes are being held over each of those beats. Below is a demonstration of the 2-feel bass:

2-feel bass line
2-feel bass line

As you can see, the bass line only has notes on beats one and three. The best way to play a 2feel is to use the root and 5th of each chord. But that doesn’t mean it has to stay the same every measure! Feel free to add some notes here and there for variety, like this:

2-feel bass line with variations
2-feel bass line with variations

Here, we’ve added a neighbor note every other measure. The neighbor notes, whether upper or lower, should approach the next chord by a half step. This adds musical interest and energy to your bass line! Next, you’ll learn how to add a Walking Bass Line.

Walking Bass Line

The “walking” bass line features 4 notes per bar, or one note per beat. Just like with the 2-feel bass line, the goal is to outline the chords, but we have more flexibility and more options since we can use twice the number of notes! Check it out:

Walking bass line example
Walking bass line

It’s a good idea to play the root of each chord on beat one of every measure because this helps to solidify the sound of the harmony and reinforce the melody on top of it. You also may have noticed that each chord is preceded by either an upper or lower neighbor. Both upper and lower neighbors work well to lead into the next chord, so experiment with both if you’d like. But, this bass line doesn’t swing. Next you’ll learn how to swing your Walking Bass Line.

Swinging your Bass Line

Sometimes you may want to add some swing in your walking bass line:

Walking bass line with swinging rhythm
More swinging walking bass line

By adding extra notes between the beats, you can create a more swinging, energetic bass line. Typically, this works best when you add the “and of 3” before beat 4. This helps propel the bass line along with a bit of extra energy. Don’t be afraid to experiment with these additional notes! Every upbeat has the potential to add swinging energy to a walking bass line.

If you want to dig deeper into walking bass lines, check out the jazz walking bass lines courses! Next, you will learn how to use Chord Shells and Rootless Voicings.

Chord Pops – Shells and Rootless Voicings for Autumn Leaves Jazz Piano

Chord pops are a great way to add some color and fill in the harmony in the spaces in the melody. There are two essential techniques to adding chords to your arrangement: Chord Shells and Rootless Voicings. Chord Shells are simple 3-note chords, and Rootless Voicings are more colorful 4-note chords.

Chord Shells

If you are more of a beginner jazz pianist, I recommend starting with Chord Shells. Chord shells are “empty” chords that provide the chord quality without any additional color, using only the root, 3rd, and 7th of each chord. Here is an example of a Chord Shell for Am7:

Jazz piano shell voicing on keyboard
Blue: the root (part of your bass line)
Red: shell voicing

We remove the root (in blue) from this chord because it’s already being covered in the bass line. Here’s what Chord Shells look like without any roots:

Jazz Piano Lead Sheet Chord Pops - Shell Voicings
Jazz Piano Lead Sheet Chord Pops – Shell Voicings

Remember that your left hand is playing the roots with the bass line, so there’s no need to duplicate that with these right hand chord pops. Chord Shells work so well because they include the guide tones of each chord, which are the 3rd and 7th of the chord. The less repeated notes there are in your voicings, the clearer your playing will be. 

Jazz piano shell voicing on keyboard
Blue: the root (part of your bass line)
Red: shell voicing

This chord progression is known as the Cycle of 5ths because each chord is a 5th apart from the previous chord. For more on the Cycle of 5ths Progression, check out our Cycle of 5ths in 3 Jazz Styles course.  Harmony moving by 5ths is very common in jazz, and one of the great things about this chord progression is that the 3rds and 7ths only move by one note as you go from chord to chord. For example, here is how you move from a D7 to a G Major 7 chord using chord shells:

D7 Chord Shell
D7 Chord Shell
Gmaj7 Chord Shell
Gmaj7 Chord Shell

Here, the 7th of Am7 – G- moves down to the 3rd of D7 – F#- and the 7th of D7 – C- moves to the 3rd of Gmaj7 – B – cool!

To take a deep dive into Chord Shells and really master them, check out our Chord Shell & Guide Tones Exercises course. Next, let’s learn about Rootless Voicings.

Autumn Leaves Jazz Piano Rootless Voicings

Rootless Voicings expand on Guide Tones by adding two more notes, typically the 5th, 9th, or 13th. These notes give Chord Shells musical color because they utilize extensions (extra notes that make chords sound extra good). Let’s take a look at some more colorful chords:

Chord pops - rootless voicings
Chord pops – rootless voicings

Here we’ve added some nice extensions: the 9 and 5 on major and minor chords, and the 9 and 13 for the dominant chords. Try playing these chords individually while you play the root with your left hand. For example, here is how you add extensions to the A minor 7 chord:

Am7 rootless voicing with 5 and 9 added
Am7 rootless voicing with 5 and 9 added

There are some weird notes we played for B7, but it still sounds pretty cool right? Those notes (D natural and G natural) are altered notes, and they sound great on dominant chords. For reference, the alterations here are the #5 and #9. To learn your chord extensions and chord alterations in all 12 keys with exercises, checkout our Piano Chord Extensions course and our Piano Chord Alterations course. Next, let’s create the arrangement!

Putting It All Together

Here’s everything we’ve put together:

Autumn Leaves full arrangment
Autumn Leaves full arrangement

Pay attention to how our chord pops fit between each phrase of the melody. This is an easy way to play both the melody and chords in a way that sounds together, yet is easy to play!

If this arrangement is a little too tricky, you can always use a 2-feel bass line and Chord Shells to simplify the arrangement.

Final Thoughts

Creating your own arrangements from jazz piano lead sheets is so much fun because you can come up with rhythmic variations for melodies, your own bass lines, and combine Chord Shells with Rootless Voicings. The possibilities are endless!

If you want to dig deeper into a tune just like Autumn Leaves, check out the Autumn Trees course. Another great comprehensive course for learning how to play lead sheets is the Learn Lead Sheets with 7th Chords.  In this course, you learn the 8 most common chord progressions in lead sheets.

To expand on everything we’ve covered in this Quick Tip, our Fly Me to the Moon 1 and Fly Me to the Moon 2 courses go into even more depth on how you can play lead sheets and create your own arrangements.

Finally, you can master many of the techniques you explored in today’s Quick Tip in our Piano Foundations Level 2 Learning Track and Piano Foundations Level 3 Learning Track.


Thanks for learning, and see you in the next Quick Tip!


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Austin Byrd

A graduate of the University of North Texas, pianist, composer/arranger, and educator Austin Byrd has been fortunate enough to perform with Arturo Sandoval, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Eric Marienthal, Francisco Torres, Marshall Gilkes, Tom Kubis, Ron Stout, Tierney Sutton, and many others. He has also toured the United States, Canada, Japan,...

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