We get questions all the time on how to go about transcribing. Often, the people that write in say that they tried transcribing, but it just didn’t work for them, or it was just too hard. Yes, transcribing is not easy, but the problem does not lie in the inherent difficulty of this activity, but in the selection and approach by the practitioner.
The way to start transcribing is by starting small. You needn’t tackle a full solo or even a full chorus. No reason to be intimidated. It’s a much easier process than you might think.
Finding something to transcribe
When you get in your car, what jazz album do you grab? Who do you listen to when you get home from work? What player do you wish you sounded like the most? The answers to these simple questions will tell you who you should transcribe.
If your answers are all modern players, then you need to do some homework. Rather than jumping to transcribe them, figure out where they came from. Read interviews, ask your friends, listen more closely. Who influenced them and helped them become the player they are today?
Despite what you may think, they stole language and built upon it just as you’re doing. Mark Turner strikes me as one of the most innovative musicians around today. He sets himself apart from many other tenor players, playing with his own sound and concept that varies greatly from the norm.
But in this New York Time Article, The Best Jazz Player You’ve Never Heard Of, Mark freely admits his indebtedness to players like Warne Marsh and John Coltrane, to build what is so identifiably his own.
So, if your answer to who you listen to in the car is Mark Turner, then your next step would be to pick up some Warne Marsh or Coltrane records, if you don’t own them already.
Once you know who you’re transcribing, it’s time to make your selection. For your first selection of something to transcribe, to make it dirt-simple for you, choose a short line, anything under four measures, over a chord progression that is familiar to you. For example, if you know the chord changes to All The Things You Are, and you find a recording of your favorite player playing over it in top-form, you have a perfect candidate to steal from.
Listen to the recording and make a mental note of any lines that grab your ear, lines that you would want to play, after-all, that’s what you will be doing. In an ideal situation, one of these lines will be over a chord progression that you’ll see time and time again, like a ii V.
In All The Things You Are, if you found a line that you like over the first few measures of the bridge, you’ll be able to learn that line and immediately apply it to any ii V situation you encounter, hence that would be a valuable line to learn.
To sum up, it’s really simple: Find a short line by a player that you love listening to, over a familiar tune, in a typical harmonic progression you’ll encounter repeatedly such as a ii V, and open your ears up.
How to transcribe your selection
We talk about this at length throughout the site, but here’s a quick recap.
Put your selection into a program like Transcribe. This is not idle product placement. This is a tool we use everyday. Literally, everyday. It makes learning this stuff much more fun and accessible. It’s an excellent investment.
Once you have your selection cued up, loop it and reduce the speed to 50%. Clearly hear every note of the phrase in your mind’s ear. Then, while continuing to hear each note, sing the line along with the recording, dialing in every note perfectly. Repeat, Repeat, Repeat…The goal is to hear and sing the entire line as one continuous phrase, not pick out each note and piece it together.
Gradually increase the tempo, making sure you can still hear and sing the line accurately.
Once you can hear and sing it, reduce the speed again back to half, and play with the recording perfectly. Repeat it, then repeat it some more. Oh, and then…repeat it some more, while gradually increasing the tempo until complete mastery.
Here’s some other articles to checkout about transcribing:
Once you’ve transcribed your selection…
The next step is to understand how the line is constructed. What chord tone does it start on? Where’s it go? What kind of concepts were applied to construct the line?
Having a clear idea of how the line relates to the harmony and how it was constructed will help you move it effortlessly into other keys. When you do understand the inner workings of the line, start playing it in the other 11 keys. This is a process that takes a lot of time at first, but the more you do it, the easier it is to take anything through all keys.
While you’re working on taking the line through all keys, another thing to focus on is applying it to tunes. Take the tune you’re currently working on and apply your transcribed line to every harmonic situation where it fits in the tune. This exercise will help you have the line at your fingertips when you need it.
Getting started with transcription
To start transcribing, make it 10 times easier than you think you need it to be. You think you can transcribe a chorus of Miles? Great. Start by finding a single ii V line that Miles plays and start there.
Start with something way easier than you think you’re capable of and it will help you transcribe in a thorough manner as described previously, as well as give you the confidence to keep transcribing in the future. There’s no reason to attempt something too difficult, get frustrated, and stop transcribing. Make it easy on yourself.
Once you do get started transcribing and you get your first line down, be excited and pat yourself on the back, but realize that transcribing is not an end in itself. You need to take what you transcribe and understand how it was crafted, then figure out how you want to build upon it, while using it in tunes you’re working on. In this way, it will become a part of your vocabulary.
Stick with it. With each melodic line you learn, it will get easier and if you can learn to transcribe just one measure, there’s no reason why you can’t learn to transcribe entire solos. Getting started transcribing is much simpler than you think and once the answers to your questions begin to reveal themselves through this process, you’ll be hooked.