How to Play Autumn Leaves on Guitar
Earlier this week on my Facebook Page I mentioned that I was going to revive the tune study section of my website and asked readers what standard they would like to see a new article on. While everyone had good suggestions, the tune I got requested the most for was how to play Autumn Leaves on guitar.
If you are new to jazz guitar, Autumn Leaves is a great tune to start with, but hopefully this article should be of interest to more experienced players too. This article breaks down the harmony and structure of Autumn Leaves and shows you how to create a chord melody, blow, and comp over the changes. If you sometimes find learning standards tricky, check out this article I published.
Even if you already know this tune, there should hopefully be material here that helps you develop your single and comping and chordal chops, so let’s get stuck in.
Autumn Leaves Harmonic Analysis
Autumn Leaves is a 32 bar song form that follows the AABC song form structure. Each section is 8 bars long and marked out on the example below for you to follow along with. Having two A sections which are almost the same means the harmony and chords in the first half of the tune are almost identical.
The Autumn Leaves chord progression switches between major and minor ii-V-I’s as illustrated on the diagram. The first ii-V-I is in Bb major, and the second ii-V-I is in G- which is the relative minor of Bb. The B section of Autumn Leaves starts with a minor ii-V-I and modulates to the major ii-V-I, so you could think of it as been a reserved A section.
This type of movement makes transposing Autumn Leaves into different keys quite easy because all you really have to know is relative minors and ii-V-I’s in each key. For example if someone called for Autumn Leaves in the key of C and you knew that A-7 is the relative minor of C, then that’s half of the work done.
A ii-V-I in C gives us D-7 — G7 — Cmaj7 and a ii-V-I in A- gives us B-7b5 — E7 — A-7 which is effectively the first A section of the tune already. Play the minor ii-V-I first, and then the major ii-V-I and you have the bridge.
It is worth noting that Autumn Leaves is commonly called in two keys, Bb and G major. Intermediate jazz guitarists should practice Autumn Leaves in both keys. I have written out examples for this lesson in both of these keys, but they should ultimately be practiced in both.
The G7 is sometimes used in the last bar of the A action to provide a nice V-I minor cadence. The Ebmaj7 in bar 4 is essentially there to create movement before the modulation to the minor ii-V-I, but the Ebmaj7 can also be seen as a tritone substitution into the A-7b5 in the next bar if you’re feeling more harmonically adventerous.
Autumn Leaves Melodic Analysis
When learning a new melody, the harmony should be examinded so that you’re interalizing the music not just memorizing shapes. The melody of Autumn Leaves is almost entirley based of using thirds. All the quarter note rhythms are scale based phrases leading to a long note which is the 3rd of the chord as shown in the example below.
One of the best ways to outline the chord changes to a progression is guide tone soloing. Guide tone soloing means using arpeggios in a musical fashion, and provides an effective way to outline chords quickly. Using guide tones helps us hear and see how the harmony is moving. The example below uses guide tones to voice lead through the progression smoothly which can be used as a basis for improvisation.
Autumn Leaves Chord Melody
Autumn Leaves is a great piece of music to write a solo guitar arrangement for no matter what stage you’re at in your development as a jazz guitarist. Before you learn a chord melody for Autumn Leaves, make sure you know the melody as single lines first to avoid getting lost or tangled up in big chords.
I decided to write out my solo guitar version of Autumn Leaves in the key of G, because of the open string possibilities the minor ii-V-I in E minor permits. I have written out a basic arrangement of the first ‘A’ section below which I recorded a sample video of a while ago. Please note that I have kept the written arrangement a little simpler than my performance to make it easier to read and play in tempo.
I used sixth intervals to harmonize and thicken up the single lines and chords for the longer rhythmic values. Although the lead sheet shows each of the chords in separate bars, common practice is to play two chords in one bar when playing the head of the tune like in bar 1.
Autumn Leaves Comping
Because ii-V-I’s are so common in jazz progressions, Autumn Leaves is a great vehicle for practicing different comping rhythms, voicings, and chord soloing. The first example shows some different inversions of the top 4 strings that you can use to comp and chord solo with.
I have used a mix of different chord voicings to get a different melody note on the top string. For example the A-7 voicings all contain notes from Dorian mode of the top string, so by playing all these chords together you are effectively playing a harmonized Dorian mode.
For the dominant 7th and major 7th chords I used #11 chords instead of having 4ths on the top string. While there’s nothing wrong with having the 4th on top, this can sometimes clash with the 3rd. Check out this article to learn more about #11 chords and how to improvise over them.
I have also written out the voicings for F#-7b5 so that each of the different chord types is covered. Practice applying these chord inversions the other chords in the song which aren’t included in the examples below and finding voicings on the different string sets.
This type of chordal practice is an essential part of feeling comfortable in comping and chord soloing situations when playing Autumn Leaves.
You can also practice chromatically ascending and descending chord voicings as shown in the example below. Note the top note of the chord on the E string descends chromatically in the first bars. The same technique is applied again over the minor ii-V-I but the descending note is on the B string this time.
Shell voicings are great to practice when learning how to play Autumn Leaves on guitar too. The example below shows how you can comp the first A section uses shell voicings.
When learning any new standard, it is highly recommended to check out as many different versions you can. Listening to different versions of standards will help bring some inspiration to your practice and give you some good arrangement ideas.
Because of it’s popularity, Autumn Leaves is one of the most commonly recorded jazz standards there is so the list below is just a few of my favorite versions. To finish off the article I have decided to share a great trio arrangement by Barney Kessel.
Barney plays it in a completely obscure key, but the chord melody and arrangement techniques are well worth checking out.
Some other great versions to check out are listed below.
- Jim Hall and Ron Carter — Alone Together
- Joe Pass — Unforgettable
- Hank Garland — Move!
- Howard Roberts — Whatever’s Fair & All Good Time Instrumental Hits
- Cannonball Adderley — Somethin’ Else
- Louis Stewart — Louis The First
Although I have mostly discussed chords, structure and harmony in this lesson, understanding and hearing the harmony is moving and working is more important to developing well rounded and phrased solos.