Why transcribing solos is so important – and why you don’t need to do it…
I’m sure you’ve heard how important transcribing is for any serious jazz musician learning to improvise.
And it is important.
Transcription is one of the time-honoured means for improving your jazz vocabulary.
It can rapidly build your jazz vocabuary, and teaches you the subtle nuances of how to speak the language of jazz.
But here’s the thing:
Why does it work? Why is transcription so essential?
I’ll get to that in a moment. But first, I need to clarify something important.
Transcription works best when you do it by EAR – i.e., not writing it down (at least not until you can play along with the recording you’re transcribing). This point is important, and you’ll see the reason below.
Ok, so anyway back to our topic – What is the main reason transcription works so well in improving your soloing skills?
It works like this:
When you transcribe a solo from a recording by ear, it’s essentially forcing you to memorize the material off the recording!
Simply put, that’s all it is doing.
In fact, when transcribing a recording by ear there is no way to play that solo except from memory.
And this highlights the biggest mistake that so many jazz players make when they attempt to improvise.
Often aspiring players think improvising is coming up with something entirely new, that’s never been done before in the history of mankind…
But that can be very misleading.
The best jazz musicians have learned to improvise via a 3 step process often cited by the great jazz trumpeter Clark Terry:
“Imitation, Assimilation, Innovation.”
So, if you want to improvise and sound like a jazz player, you need to start from somewhere (i.e. imitate). This is the material you have transcribed and memorized.
From there, you seek to internalize and understand what is contained within the solo and use this as raw material throughout your own improvisations (assimilate). Finally, you then draw out the general concepts from the material you’ve learned but use those concepts as starting points for your own ideas (innovate).
Often players try to go to the very last step – innovation – without first going through the process of 1) imitation and 2) assimilation.
So, in summary, this is why transcribing works so well.
If you do it properly, it provides you with a large storehouse of memorized music, that serves as the raw material for your own improvisations – and, thus, is the first step on your path as a jazz player.
But here’s the thing:
Is transcribing the only way to memorize musical material?
No! It’s just that the process of transcribing naturally forces you to memorize large amounts of it.
So, ironically it is possible to get the main benefit of transcribing…without transcribing.
But you have to be careful in your approach. Here’s what you need to do:
Start by learning a few short lines that are based on the key chord progressions in jazz, such as major 251s, minor 251s, and dominant lines.
But (here’s the important part)…
Memorize them in a very attentive, methodical way, and make sure you’re able to play them without looking at the sheet music or TAB as soon as possible.
Then, test yourself by seeing if you can play the lines exactly as you learned them as you play along with a backing track.
This will give you the main benefits of transcription, i.e. imitation, without you having to spend hours going through the process transcribing.
From there, you can then go through the process of assimilation, and finally, innovation.
Here’s the thing though:
Whichever way you go about increasing your jazz vocabulary, the main point to keep in mind is that you rigorously memorize good quality material. That will create a secure ‘treasure house’ of jazz vocabulary in your mind to naturally draw from and eventually make your own.
(Of course, there are other benefits to transcribing recordings which you won’t get through my ‘transcribing without transcribing’ technique, such as how great players structure a solo, learning the subtle aspects of articulation and feel, and so on – but that’s another story…)
But now, enough of my ramblings – I have a question for YOU…
For those of you that have transcribed solos, what are the most useful ones that have taught you the most when it comes to building your jazz vocabulary?
Let me know by leaving a comment below, or otherwise, let me know what you thought about this article – how do you rate my point of view on this subject? It would be interesting to get your thoughts.
Founder, Fret Dojo
World Leader in Online Jazz Guitar Education