US maize yield has increased eight-fold in the past 80 years, with half of the gain attributed to selection by breeders. During this time, changes in maize leaf angle and size have altered plant architecture, allowing more efficient light capture as planting density has increased. Through a genome-wide association study (GWAS) of the maize nested association mapping panel, we determined the genetic basis of important leaf architecture traits and identified some of the key genes. Overall, we demonstrate that the genetic architecture of the leaf traits is dominated by small effects, with little epistasis, environmental interaction or pleiotropy. In particular, GWAS results show that variations at the liguleless genes have contributed to more upright leaves. These results demonstrate that the use of GWAS with specially designed mapping populations is effective in uncovering the basis of key agronomic traits.