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Why transcribing solos is so important – and why you don’t need to do it…

by | Aug 12, 2017 | Articles, General Updates | 15 comments

I’m sure you’ve heard how important transcribing is for any serious jazz musician learning to improvise.

And it is important.

The reason?

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.

The result?

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.

Cool huh?

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.

Cheers,

Greg

==

Greg O’Rourke,

Founder, Fret Dojo

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15 Comments

  1. Peter John Bailey

    Yes, very good…but the other important aspect of transcribing what you hear is to also practice writing and reading. When moving up the fretboard it also helps to learn the fretboard and associate fret and string positions with the written notes. I would also suggest writing out both the standard notation and tablature. they both have their strengths and disadvantages, but to the string players, both forms of notation are invaluable to learn the fretboard. I spent 20 years playing the guitar by ear and when presented with music (notation) I would go to the piano to play it, hear and then learn it. No, don’t do as I did, learn the fretboard and to read and write tablature or notation for the guitar. I would also suggest that all string players, in fact, all musicians should learn the rudiments of the piano, at least learn to visually relate to the piano, for it will accelerate the process of understanding harmonic concepts because notation is written for the linear logic of the piano and there is only one position for a given note, so chords, their construction and their inversions are easily seen, understood and assimilated.

    Reply
    • Ken Niehoff

      I was arguing with the first part of the article. I find it tedious and difficult to transcribe from a recording. Why not get transcriptions of solos and memorize parts that really speak to you? Yes, there is less “ear training” but the compensation is time efficiency.

      Reply
      • Greg O'Rourke

        Yes Ken I actually think that’s fine – but with an important caveat: As long as you end up memorizing the material as well enough as you did if you were transcribing from the audio recording. That’s the step a lot of students miss when they work from pre-done transcriptions. The key is to get off the page as soon as you’re able and play it along with the recording from memory.

        Reply
  2. William von Zangenberg

    Transcription for me is extremely valuable in all areas of music. It sharpens your ear training like nothing else can and kind of forces you to listen to every nuance in the players lines. It also helps clarify the bridge between what you think is being played when you first listen to the piece and what is actually being played when you put on your transcribing ears.

    Reply
  3. Michael Melchione

    I’ve learned that sometimes if you copy note for note, it doesn’t work unless the band plays exactly like the record so you have to be able to adapt the transcription to the feel and groove that the band is playing

    Reply
  4. Josh Gordis

    I once read that Wes Montgomery started by learning Charlie Christian’s solo’s and he would play those on the bandstand – I guess it works!

    Reply
  5. Rodney Harris Jr.

    This was helpful. I always thought transcription was write it down first then try to learn it. The way I transcribe chords, is I listen, try a few chord qualities, then write down the chord, so if I ever forget, I have an easy reminder. For solos, I would listen to a section, write it, then move on. Never thought to learn it, then write it once memorized.

    Reply
    • Greg O'Rourke

      There are still benefits to transcription Rodney if you write a solo down first – Peter in his comment above delved into this really well. But the main thing most students need to do is a) train their ears, b) learn vocabulary. One of the best way to achieve these two aims is to transcribe a solo by ear. Even if you just do it once, it’s enormously beneficial. Reflecting on my own playing, the vocabulary concepts that come easiest are from a handful of solos I transcribed by ear first – the ideas in those solos have ‘stuck’ with me the most.

      Reply
  6. Kevin Brennan

    Thanks for outlining a new approach to transcription, Greg. I’ll have to give it a try.

    My problem with transcribing is that once I learn the solo and can play it well enough, I’ll move on to something else and then quickly forget the earlier piece! Some elements stick, but not every note. I can see that a large part of all this is memory training as well as musical experience.

    I’ve just learned Kenny Burrell’s “I’m Old Fashioned” and have gotten a lot out of it. Not just from a vocabulary point of view, but it’s also not difficult to play. A perfect solo to learn when you’re just getting into transcribing.

    Reply
    • Greg O'Rourke

      This is an interesting comment Kevin – here’s the thing, if you quickly forgot what you just worked on, it means you didn’t memorize it well enough. Check your practice technique carefully and see if you can play it without any sheet music in front of you. Also, pick key pieces of the solo out and use those as starting points for lines in your own solos. If you do this with a couple of lines here and there in your solo you’ll find the solo as a whole will ‘stick’ to your long term memory much more easily. Even if you do move on, still review the transcription periodically from memory e.g. once a week.

      Reply
  7. nico

    Very Good Article,

    Though easier said than done for the beginner transcribing a solo or chord progression of a tune for the first time. You need as ,I found belatedly out some solid musical theory ( and the practice of it ) and it does takes a lot of time to internalize and learn as second nature for on the spot transcriptions.

    My mentor; a pianist ( composer) said I have my work cut out for me. Oh no!, but you can’t get something for nothing she said – for me 15 minutes a day as part of the daily practice .

    This is what he said: learn all triads ( maj, min, dim, aug ) in all inversions acrosss the fingerboard and then when comfortable , then add the extrensions: 7th’s, 9th’s, 11th’s and 13th’s and do the same.

    Next learn all the intervals – start with key of C, as there are no accidentals.

    This will take some time, so don’t rush as the ear over time will learn all these sounds.

    Next I had to learn all “roman numeral” standard chord progressions ( refer to jerry cokers small excellent paperback – improvising jazz ). the practised in all keys for the guitar.

    Then she told me, I had identify rhythms in a tune and started by clapping and writing doen the rhythmand each beat.

    Then the hardest of all lessons, learn phrasing, where to employ dynamic control to make the mnusic expressive and communicative to the listener: does the music move along ? and say something something or wanders all over the place leaving the lsitener befuddled with scle gymnastics abd a zombie dull dead tone.

    Sounds simple ! bloody hard work if you ask me and a long time to see any improvements in my transcriptions.

    But this is the price of musicianship of course.

    Unfortunately there is not short cut, unless one has perfect pitch ! LOL

    Reply
    • Greg O'Rourke

      Good point Nico – you do need to be at a certain level to transcribe a solo from a recording. I think start small and easy – e.g. Chitlin’s Con Carne from Kenny Burrell’s album Midnight Blue. That’s a pretty easy solo to transcribe.

      IMHO, I would be careful getting too much into the technical aspects of harmony, arpeggios, scales, chords etc before actually making music. This is a big misconception about learning jazz. Would you need to know every word in the dictionary in another language before having a basic conversation with someone in that langugage? Of course not. Learning basic transcriptions and melodic soloing approaches is a much more direct way to establish a foundation in the genre.

      Reply
      • Iggy

        What I find it is the most challenging task is approaching the rhythmic nuances of solos. I can easily get the notes and repeat (humming along) the lines, but notating slight variations is hard, IMHO.

        Reply
  8. Jackson

    You are right. I stray from listening and attempting to play what I hear because it’s like chopping weeds down with a machete to finally find the golden ring. Gets discouraging. Then I spend a whole lot of time with little marks on paper, working on arpeggios, memorizing patterns, trying to make them more musical. I finally give up and go back to some music I love and if possible watch the video and that helps to find what’s being played (piano must be easier: only 1 place in 88 keys to play a tone, not 6 or 7 like we have. When I start to hate picking up my guitar, I know I’ve blown it with a poorly focused work ethic instead of the love of music. If you’ve really got a method, let’s get to it! {;^)

    Reply
  9. Youssef

    I loved your article. I’m inspired a lot by Joe pass, there is so much to learn by transcribing his solos … The president of the bebop as he was called .. Thank you again for helping everyone who is attracted or passionate about jazz .

    Reply

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