General thoughts relating to the topic of transcription…

“I’m a believer of exact duplication of a solo. I have to be clear about how exact because students will say they’ve transcribed.  But then I play them this tape, which I carry with me while teaching which has about thirty students of mine over the past many years now who have done this exact duplication. I put this tape on and you can’t tell if it’s Sonny Rollins or the student …or Trane … or Miles. And then I look at them and say: “Have you transcribed?” And they look at me and say: “No”-because most haven’t done it to that degree. -David Liebman

Transcription is a right of passage for any serious musician. B.B. King transcribed Charlie Christian, Pat Martino transcribed Wes Montgomery, Jimi Hendrix transcribed Buddy Guy, and so on…

Exact Transcription is the only method that allows the student to truly experience each individual genre’s distinct aesthetic qualities. Undoubtedly, books, DVDs, and other learning aids offer some assistance to music students but it must be pointed out that using any of the methods as singular approach is a recipe for disaster. Transcribing a solo or even a complicated rhythm guitar part allows the student to put the music under his or her own fingers and experience the thrill of flawless execution. This approach also allows one to gain valuable ear training experience and improves the student’s overall logical comprehension.

On occasion, I have met an alleged musician or student who takes pride in the fact that they refuse to transcribe. Often, these indolent players hide behind witty aphorisms like, “I don’t transcribe because I just want to play my own style.”  They see themselves as a means to an end and act as if they are playing from a place of “divine inspiration.” This attitude is both self-serving and ultimately fruitless. I encourage transcription skeptics to launch their own deep investigation into the early years of their favorite musician’s development. Read biographies, interviews, and any other documentation you can get your hands on. I guarantee you’ll find that your favorite player probably spent a great deal of time snuggled up to a record player learning riffs and licks note for note. Of course, all of us have heard the mythological stories about the greats who never took lessons. Often, we find that the words “self-taught” merely serve as a placeholder for “transcribed his ass off!”  The former isn’t glamorous or mystical but it’s usually spot on.

Did you know that Eddie Van Halen transcribed every single Clapton solo he could get his hands on? Emily Remler spent no less than two years transcribing Wes Montgomery solos. While at Berklee College of Music, Steve Vai spent the majority of his time skipping class so he could transcribe Frank Zappa solos. Ornette Coleman transcribed Charlie Parker so precisely that he once claimed that he could play like Charlie Parker “note for note.” And the list goes on and on. In addition to transcribing, you should make an effort to trace the influences of your favorite musicians and learn from them the same way your heroes did.

My personal transcription battles

Well, here’s my transcription of Sonny Rollin’s solo on “Tenor Madness”:

Sonny Rollin’s solo on “Tenor Madness”

There was a time when I thought I would never be able to transcribe a note. Sure, I saw transcriptions in magazines from time to time but those were done by musical geniuses, right? Most of them probably have perfect pitch and can do it with out any effort. Needless to say, I found out that transcribing is something that every musician is capable of. Believe me, if I can do it-anyone can. Truthfully, I couldn’t even tune my guitar for the first 6 months I had it.

The first jazz solo I ever attempted to figure out was Miles Davis’s on “So What.” It’s a relatively simple solo but I had no ear at all, so it took me about 3 days to do it. I recommend this one to every beginning jazz student. Miles often used the “less is more” approach to music and this solo is a prime example of that. The changes are comprised of only two chords: Dmin.7 and Ebmin.7. I have included the PDF file of my transcription down below. Try to do one of your own and then check it later.

Miles Davis’s solo “So What”

The first rock solo I ever attempted to transcribe was David Gilmour’s on Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb.” It took me about 2 weeks to do it and the end result was a total mess. I actually made a pathetic attempt to notate it as well. I did a reasonable job of figuring out the notes but I wasn’t even close on the notation part of it. It was absolutely absurd. I don’t recommend this solo to beginning guitarists at all. Try to pick something simple to work on like B.B. King’s “The Thrill is Gone” or Kurt Cobain’s quotation of the melody in “Smells like Teen Spirit.” 

Here’s the transcription of the Comfortably Numb solo for anyone who would like to try to tackle it:

David Gilmour’s solo on Comfortably Numb

Eventually I became pretty good at the art of transcription. There is no special trick or exercise one can really do to help you become good at it. Honestly, you just have to do it and keep doing it. I do use one of the popular audio slow-downing  software applications on the market to help me figure out music. This is extremely convenient because in the “good old days” players had to change the speed dial on a record player in order to slow down music. It worked but the problem was that the actually sound of the music dropped an octave. In the past, I actually figured out  a few solos using this method but it was somewhat grueling. Now a days, the slow-downers are better than ever and easy to find on the internet. Do a little research and find one that suites your needs. 

Get off the page as soon as you can

One thing I have learned about transcription is that you have get off the page as soon as you can. If possible, transcribe an entire solo on your instrument and write it down later. I find that if I write a solo down as I transcribe it, I will tend to keep looking at the written notation when I play it. Incidentally, I have rarely been able to learn a solo from a transcription book. The most awful example of this is probably the fact that I have read through the Charlie Parker Omni Book in it’s entirety no less than six times and I can’t play a single complete solo from it by memory.

By the way, I don’t generally like to notate rock guitar solos. The task always proves to be daunting rather than rewarding. I am a firm believer that rock music is best communicated as an oral tradition. Furthermore, the only thing more difficult than trying to read a rock guitar solo is attempting to write one out.

Licks vs. entire solo’s

As time has gone by, I’ve become less inclined to transcribe entire solos and more prone to working on individual licks. After transcribing several solos, I realized that I would focus on a few key licks from each one. I want to point out that I think it’s imperative for students to work on several solos  (In their entirety) during the first few years of their development. It’s important to learn how to develop a solo in a variety of ways and learning one in its entirety will help you do that. I still learn entire solos from time to time but I just don’t have the time to do it at this point. 

Sometimes, I will only transcribe a chorus (one time through the form) of something, just to get a specific idea of what is going on. For example, I noticed that every time I played the John Coltrane tune “Giant Steps” I would always starting my solo with either his original initial line or one that I had actually written out. I wanted to get some ideas on how to develop an opening chorus, so I transcribed the first chorus of Mike Stern’s version:

Mike Stern’s opening chorus on Giant Steps

Here’s another example. This is Joe Diorio’s opening chorus on “A Child is Born”:

Joe Diorio solo on “A Child is Born”

Often, I prefer to just transcribe individual licks and write variations on them. I even kept a “lick book” for several years. Every time I would hear a tasty lick, I would learn it and write it down immediately. Here’s a page from my lick book:

Lick Book

Figuring out songs by ear

For a long time, I actually found it easier to transcribe single note passages as opposed to simple chord patterns. I think I found it easier to focus on individual notes rather than entire chord progressions. Eventually I was able to figure out chords and progressions by focusing on specific aspects of what I was hearing:

1) Determining the key of the song

I try to determine the key of the song before doing anything else. Sometimes, I can instantly identify what key the song is in just from associated it with another piece of music I might know well. If I can’t instantly pick out the key, I will simply run a pentatonic or major scale against the recording. This method works well with simple forms of music but there are exceptions to this. Frequently a song will be based on a “modal progression” rather than a simple Major or minor scale. For example, let’s say that a song contains the following chord progression:

d min., C Maj., d min., a min., C Maj, d min.

When I play the chord progression, I notice that the notes of the C Major scale fit nicely. The only problem is that the song doesn’t resolve to the C chord. The  d min. chord clearly acts as the tonal center. All I have to do now is figure out what d minor scale contains the notes of the C Major scale. Obviously, the scale starts on the 2nd degree of the C scale, so the progression must be based on the Dorian scale. If what I just laid out for you sounds like a foreign language, I suggest you study some basic music theory. The best theory book I have seen for guitarists is called Theory for the Contemporary Guitarist by Tom Dempsey


2) Focusing on the bass line

 Once I know what key a song is based on, I can usually just determine what the chord progression is by hearing the scale degree each chord is based on. I usually hum the bass line and it follows that each chord will correspond to a common progression. There are a number of common progressions that I have memorized based on the diatonic system. 

Here are a few common progressions you should memorize the sound of:

I-IV-I                Example in the key of C: C Maj., F Maj., C Maj.

I-IV-ii-V           Example in the key of C: C Maj., F Maj., d min., G Dom.7

I-vi-ii-V7          Example in the key of C: C Maj., a min., d min. G Dom.7

3) Figuring out chord voicings and qualities

Once you’ve figured out the key and bass line of a song, you’re going to want to figure out each chords specific voicing. Many pop/rock songs are deceptively simple because their foundation is based on simple triads or barre chords. Upon further investigation, you will often find that these simple chord progressions contain added tensions in the top voicing. For example, guitar players will often add a G (the 11th) or an open E (the 9th) on the top of a simple D Maj. Chord form. It’s important that you pay close attention to the highest top notes of each chord.

If you don’t understand the theory behind the diatonic system yet, don’t worry. Simply go about figuring out the bass line and try to determine the quality of each individual chord. Ask yourself whether the chord is Major, minor, diminished, or some other quality.  Of course, there are many chord progressions that do not conveniently fit in to one scale or mode. 

For instance, The Beatles have many songs that contain progressions featuring a variety of chords that are “borrowed” from other keys. Let’s look at the first 7 chords from the opening verse of the Beatles song “Something”:

 C Maj., C Maj.7,  C7, F Maj., F Maj./E , D7 , G Maj.

 1) C Maj. =The first chord of the song and the tonal center.

2) C Maj.7 =The first chord with an added 7th on top (B)

3) C7 = The C7 chord is known as a “secondary Dominant.” This means that it is a Dominant chord that is “borrowed” from a different key. In this case, the C7 is the 5th of the F scale and it resolves down to the F Maj. chord. As you can see, the C7 resolves itself down to the F chord but the progression doesn’t fully modulate from the C scale. The analysis would look like this: V7/IV. This is translated as “five seven of four.”

4) F Maj. =The IV chord of the progression.

5) F Maj./E =The IV chord stays the same but the bass line moves down by half-step. This movement leads nicely to the next chord.

6) D7 =The D7 chord is another Secondary Dominant chord. Specifically, it is the  V7/V chord.

7) G Maj. = The G Maj. Chord is the V chord of the key.

So, what have we learned from this? If we transcribed the bass note for note, obviously we come up with something that resides in the key of C. However, if we investigate the progression further, we can easily conclude that not all the chords present are part of the key. It is your task to familiarize yourself with the sounds of these additional chord functions in the same way that you would any basic progression.

General ear training tips

I will definitely be doing some advanced ear training videos sometime in the future but for now, let me leave you with a few basic tips that will help you get started on your own.

1) Find a guitar buddy to do exercises with

I find it’s always easier work with another musician. Be sure to do ear training exercises on the piano or keyboard in addition to the guitar. I say this because for whatever reason, it seems that sometimes we guitar players have an easier time figuring out parts that come from our own instrument. I think this is due to the fact the guitar has a timbre and resonance that is very specific to it. When I was in college my roommate (a bass player) and I would frequently spend time at the piano forcing elaborate and torturous ear training exercise on each other. This brings me to another important point…

You’ll definitely need to find an ear training partner that you can be fairly open with. Often, our ability to actually play an instrument outweighs our capability to actually hear it. Ego and pride sometimes get in the way of accomplishing the serious work ear training requires. People are afraid to reveal the fact that they might not be able to distinguish between the sound of a #9 and a b9 chord. It’s a source of embarrassment and you and your partner should try to keep that in mind when working together. I was fairly comfortable with my roommate because we often played together for up to 8 hours a day. We knew each other’s strengths and weaknesses well enough that there was no need to really prove anything to each other. When we did ear training together, we were only concerned with getting the work done. 

2) Carry around a pitch pipe with you

I used to have a pitch pipe in my car at all times. I would turn on the radio and try to figure out the key of whatever song was playing at the time. It was a good way to entertain myself while stuck in traffic jams. Now I try to sing harmony lines against the choruses of the songs I hear on the radio. That’s a whole other topic for another time…

3) Figure out songs on the radio

Turn on the radio and try to figure out the chord changes to whatever song is playing before it ends. I still do this all the time. My best friend is probably pretty annoyed with me because whenever we watch movies together, I break out my guitar and start playing along with whatever song is on. It’s gets interesting when we watch foreign films that contain music with exotic scales.

4) Figure out the chord changes of songs by memory

Try to figure out songs with out listening to the music. This may seem like a hard thing to do but I assure it’s not. First, try to figure to figure out the melody on your guitar in order to establish the key. You should be able to look at the melody and at least figure out what the I chord is. Continue to sing the melody and place whatever chords you think belong under it. When you think you have the right chords, turn the recording back on and check yourself. If you do this enough, you’ll eventually become quite good at it. 

5) Sing something and figure it out on your guitar

Please note: This isn’t the same as those irritating jazz guitarists who have sing every note they play during their solos. Singing what you play is a “pitch matching” exercise more than anything else. Honestly, it doesn’t take a whole lot of ability to sing along with what you’re playing and more often than not, it just annoys the listener.

I’m sure most of you have already done this but I wanted to include it anyway.  Simply sing a melody and figure it out on your guitar. If you can’t figure out any of the pitches, simply single out the first note of your melody and go from there. Once you get the first note, it should be fairly easy to find the rest because you will have established the range of the melody already. After you figure out the melody, try to put a chord progression to it. Again, most of the time the melody will imply a specific chord progression. Try to experiment a bit and see what you can come up with.-Tone


7 thoughts on “General thoughts relating to the topic of transcription…

  1. Great site / blog Tone. Some really nice ideas and conclusions you come to that I think will help a great many people including myself (always looking for a different way to look at things). In complete agreement about transcription on the whole, but I think that learning to play what you sing is a great rite of passage, thats very effective at getting a person to phrase better and actually tap into what kind of melodies you’re hearing rather than just running lick A over the first chord, arpeggio B over the next, pattern C over the next part, etc. While a guy like Keith Jarrett singing along (note he’s not really singing along in pitch, but more murmuring) can be annoying – I actually think it adds to the sound when someone like George Benson does it or Kurt Rosenwinkel. At any rate, big difference between singing what you play vs. playing what you sing. What I’m advocating is the latter, playing what you sing. I think its a great organic way to make sense of everything in a way that helps keep phrasing at the forefront (for me at least). So I had to add that. Many many thanks for all the great tips and hard work you put into making this blog so worthwhile, you’ve got me coming back for more!

    • Thanx for checking out the blog.

      Well, of course I agree with everything you’re saying. I think people need to be aware of how they are making people around them feel when they “Sing what they play” in a performance. Kurt Rosenwinkel/George Benson…those guys have perfected that balancing act. Some others I can think of…not so much. Again, I agree with all your points.

  2. Really liked the site and your playing.
    I have a question regarding transcribing licks. I have always had a problem using a lick – either transcribed or written by myself – in an improvised solo. It kind of breaks the flow of the solo for me when I try to insert the lick at the right spot, you know what I mean?
    Do you actually practice the licks in order to “paste” them in the middle of an improvised solo or are you using them as a source of inspiration for trying to come up with improvised ideas which are similar or using a similar concept?
    Hope I’m making myself clear.
    Again thanks a lot for this great site!

  3. Man .. Beautiful .. Amazing .. I will bookmark your blog and take the feeds additionallyI’m satisfied to find numerous helpful info here within the post, we need develop extra strategies on this regard, thank you for sharing. . . . . .

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