transcribing solos

Transcribing solos can help you improvise

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Transcribing solos that other musicians have played can be a challenge, as it requires significant music notation chops and a sharp ear. Like any musical skill, though, it can be learned, and is well worth the investment of time to make it happen.

After writing “A great solo can elevate your song” and “11 improvisation tips to help you make music in the moment” for the Disc Makers Blog, I recently had the honor of hosting a DM Twitter Chat focused on soloing techniques and improvisation. The discussion was fun and inspiring and lots of good questions were asked, one of which I want to elaborate on here.

In response to an inquiry about resources for learning more about how to improvise and solo, I directed participants to Mark Levine’s Jazz Theory Book, even for musicians who don’t play jazz, as the lessons included can help with playing in nearly any genre. I also recommended listening hard and long to recorded solos that you love, in any genre and played on any instrument — and transcribing them.

Transcribing solos that other musicians have played (a.k.a. writing down melodies and phrasing choices, rhythms and articulations in standard musical notation) is most often recommended as an exercise for aspiring jazz musicians. But again, it’s a musical workout that can help musicians playing in any genre. Is there a particular metal guitar solo that you love so much that you can hear every note in your head, or a bass breakdown on a funk track that makes you dance every time you hear it? Regardless of the context or style, put as many notes on paper as you can and see what lessons you can learn and ideas you can come up with.

Transcribing solos can be a challenge, as it requires significant music notation chops and a sharp ear. Like any musical skill, though, it can be learned, and is well worth the investment of time to make it happen. Here are a few quick tips to get you started.

Start simple

Don’t choose John Petrucci’s latest Dream Theater guitar solo as your first foray into transcribing. If you’ve never transcribed anything before, chose your favorite pop song or three and write out the vocal lines. These melodies tend to be memorable, simple, and repetitive — perfect material to help you get your transcribing skills up to speed.

Sing along

To get a solo on paper, it can be helpful to first get it in your ear, brain, and body. Listen to an entire solo, or sections of it, enough times until you can sing along with it. Internalizing the solo in such a way will help you immensely when it comes to putting notes on the page.

Separate melody and rhythm

If you’re having trouble with a particular section of a solo, try figuring out the pitches being used first and then the rhythm in which they’re played, or vice versa. There’s no rule that you have to be able to write down both the melodic and rhythmic aspects of a solo perfectly on first listen, so take your time, break the solo down into its integral elements, and get it done.

Slow it down

Lots of music software allows you to alter the speed of digital music files — and special tape and CD players offer the same functionality. If you’re having a hard time with your transcription, use tools like these to slow down the playback and help you zoom in on the notes and rhythms you need to examine the most. Just be aware that some slowdown tools also affect the pitch of the music you’re listening to, making things sound higher or lower than normal; try to use a tool that can make the solo that you’re transcribing faster or slower while keeping all of the pitches the same.

Loop it

Recording software packages from GarageBand on up allow you to loop chunks of audio and listen to them over and over, ad infinitum. When it comes to transcribing, this can be a real blessing. To divide and conquer a challenging solo, loop it measure by measure, and listen only to one chunk at a time while putting your pencil to paper. Once you’ve nailed down the measure that you’re on, loop the next measure and keep on transcribing.

[Editor’s note: I’m an unabashed Prince fanatic and stumbled upon this incredible clip of Miles Davis improvising with Prince’s band during the Sign of the Times era. Seemed natural to include it here.]

Learn more
Here are just a few of the many resources available to help you learn to transcribe — and grow musically in the process:

What, Why, Where, Who, When, and How to Transcribe (Jazz Advice)

How To Transcribe: Some Advice for the Beginning Jazz Improviser (Wilktone)

Transcribing Jazz Solos (Anton Jazz)

Disc Makers’ regular contributor Michael Gallant’s debut trio album Completely received a four-star review from DownBeat magazine and a five-star review from Critical Jazz, which stated: “This, my friends, is the future of jazz. Fresh, invigorating, progressive – there are simply not enough positive adjectives to list here.” Learn more, download through iTunes, jam along with the new JamBandit app, or purchase through CD Baby. Follow Michael on Twitter at @Michael_Gallant or on Facebook.

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