Transcribing Whole Solos Is More Than You Thought

In my article on Monday I talked about why you’re not getting the results you want from transcribing whole solos. For the most part, that article was written with respect to language: how to make useful language from a whole solo.

While gathering, understanding, and implementing language is one of the most important aspects of learning to play at your best, there is a ton more information other than language that you can gleam from transcribing a whole solo.

Now no one’s saying you have to learn whole solos. This is JazzAdvice, not JazzRules, so figure out what works for you. But for those of you working on whole solos, here’s a few things to sink your teeth into…

What does it feel like to be John Coltrane?

You will never know what it feels like to be me. Likewise, I will never know what it feels like to be you. Our entire sense of the world could be completely different, yet neither one of us will ever get to see, hear, smell, taste, and feel from the other’s perspective.

What if you could crawl into somebody’s head and feel like what it’s like to be them? Transcribing a whole a solo by someone should feel like that if you’re doing right: you’re copying every subtle nuance you hear and hearing from their angle.

Of course, when you do this, what you’re actually getting is your perception of what it feels like to play like Coltrane, not precisely how he felt, but nonetheless, it’s extremely powerful.

By doing this, you soak up the vibe of the soloist. The vibe is all the subtlety we refer to over and over that cannot be described in words. It’s the magic in the music. It’s the energy. It’s what makes it special. Each player has their own vibe and by learning one of their solos straight off the recording you can absorb their vibe.

Getting a players vibe is a really cool feeling. You’ll find that you’ll be able to produce lines in the style of the soloist fairly easy, without directly copying them. The more you play and the more you transcribe, the vibes you pick up will naturally mix with your own style, resulting in your own vibe. This happens because we are all unique. Stick with the process long enough and you’ll start to hear it happening.

How do long melodic lines feel?

As I discussed in my post on Monday, most of the language you’ll find useful will tend to be fairly short because it’s easy to combine and maneuver. If all you’re doing is grabbing little snippets from solos, how will you get a sense of long flowing lines?

Through listening and making lines your own, you can definitely learn how to make long flowing lines, but by transcribing a whole solo, you can bet you’ll get plenty of practice playing these types of lines.

How to play long lines is always a question submitted to us. People can’t seem to understand how to continue their line, weaving it effortlessly through the changes. This is not something you will learn to do via theory. Sorry bulk of jazz education…Improvisation is not connect the dots. It’s a language and learning how to construct longer phrases means listening and imitating them.

How did you remember that?

I believe it was Harold Mabern who told me that a jazz musician’s greatest tool is his memory. How does one increase their aural memory?

When I first starting transcribing I thought, well if I can hear and remember one note in my head, why can’t I hear and replay two in my head…or three, or whole phrases, or a whole solo?

The truth is, you can. With a little effort, you can hear and retain an entire solo in your head. This does not happen over night, but it does happen in six months if you’re dedicated. Just, think. By next spring, this could be you.

By transcribing an entire solo, phrase by phrase and not writing down as you go along, but instead forcing yourself to remember each phrase as you keep adding to the previous one, your aural memory will exponentially and rapidly improve.

The process starts by increasing your aural attention: your ability to focus dead-center on what you’re hearing and to hear it the way it sounds, not the way you think it sounds.

As you aural attention increases, you transcribe more quickly and easily…and then you begin to be able to retain larger and larger chunks of music. In time, your aural memory will strengthen and you’ll be remembering whole solos with ease.

How do you structure ideas in a solo?

This is a fairly broad topic, but let’s discuss three notions of structuring ideas in a solo, all of which can be learned when you transcribe an entire solo: how one idea leads to the next, thematic development, and solo beginnings, middles and ends.

Many of the greats sound as if each phrase they play is a natural extension of the one that came before it. Bird is a perfect example. Studying how a soloist can take one idea and pair it with the next idea will help you learn how to do this yourself.

It’s more of a compositional technique, easily forgotten about when practicing improvisation. In fact, all these ideas of structure are really compositional techniques.

Thematic development, while similar to understanding how one idea leads to the next, takes it to another level. Some of my favorite players take one phrase and build upon it, using it for the basis of several lines or even a chorus.

This is essentially thematic development: you take a theme and develop it, exactly as the name implies. Some great players to listen to for this are Stan Getz, Sonny Rollins, and Bill Evans.

And our last idea of structure that you can learn a whole lot about from transcribing a whole solo: understanding how to begin a solo, how to play the middle of a solo, and how to end a solo. These are not pure formulas to be taken in as laws, but more things to observe in a solo you transcribe.

Certain soloists tend to start solos in a very specific manner, devleop the middle of their solos in a particular way, and end them in their signature manner. Observe these tendencies so you too can gain insight into how you wish to convey a sense of beginning, middle, and end within your solos.

Transcribing whole solos

So, still up in the air to whether transcribing whole solos is for you? Like I said before, it’s up to you. There’s benefits to transcribing all different ways, whether it be whole solos, choruses, large phrases, or small phrases. Experiment with them all and see what helps you improve the most.

If you do decide to work on a whole solo, you can be sure that there’s plenty to learn besides the obvious stuff. Really try to get inside the player’s mind and absorb their essence. That’s probably the most important thing about transcribing a whole solo and once you do it, you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about.