What Most Players Are Missing When They Transcribe Solos…

The typical jazz transcription process usually goes something like this…you start with a solo, you listen to the recording a few times, maybe even slowing it down a bit, then you figure out the notes and carefully write them down, practicing each line until you’ve got it memorized.

After a few hours or maybe a few days…you’ve got it! The secrets you were searching for are revealed. The exact notes right there on the page, the very scales and lines of the greats staring you in the face.

Sounds great right??

But here’s the frustrating thing – even though you’ve put in a ton of work, this process never seems to make the drastic difference you were hoping for. I know because I’ve been there myself…

For a number of years I approached transcription in the same exact way that I see a lot of players doing today. I’d come out of the practice room with a lick for the opening of Rhythm Changes, an altered scale to use over the Blues, or a list of scales to apply to V7 chords.

But when it came time to solo, somehow this stuff wasn’t helping me to improve as an improviser. I wasn’t actually listening to the chords, improvising melodies on the spot, or even totally present with the other musicians on the bandstand.

…I was stuck in my mind, thinking through the chord progression, waiting for the right part of the tune to insert that one lick or scale I memorized.

It wasn’t until later on, when I changed the way I “transcribed” that I finally saw the progress I wanted. And if this frustration sounds familiar to you, the solution is closer than you think. I’ll show you what I mean…

What this process is missing

From the outside, the typical transcription process looks like you have everything you need to produce an amazing solo: you’ve got the theory, some memorized licks, and a few scales to play over chords.

But the truth is anyone can play these scales and memorize licks, it’s the stuff behind them that matters!

If you want to improvise with the sound, style, and feel of your favorite musicians however, you need something else…

To improve you need to know what a player is thinking, why they approach specific chords in a certain way…not just memorizing the exact notes, but figuring out the musical concepts behind them!

This is when you’ll begin to put these musical concepts to action, not simply copying lines, but improvising on your own with the same concepts as your heroes.

You see, analyzing the nuts and bolts of each line and memorizing phrases is  the necessary first step of transcribing. But it’s not the finish line! If your goal is to one day create your own music, to improvise the stuff you are hearing, you need to dig deeper.

But enough talk, let’s take a real solo and put this process in action…

Michael Brecker’s solo on Mr. JJ

Today we’ll take two choruses from the great Michael Brecker from his solo on Mr. JJ, recorded on the Jeff Tain Watts album Bar Talk.

Let’s start with the first chorus, take a listen…

Brecker’s solo begins at [6:30] in the recording…

So let’s say you just transcribed this solo…what’s next??

Are you all done, ready to go insert some of these licks into your next solo over tunes in C minor?

That’s a start, but if you quit here you’re missing out on the stuff that will actually change your approach to improvisation – musical concepts and techniques that’ll open the door to your own creativity over any tune!

Looking beyond the notes…

Beyond the theory or licks of a solo lies the music. The feeling, the time, the sound, and the creative approaches that make the solo unique.

To get to these you can’t just look at the solo on a piece of paper or write down the notes and look for scales.

You need to go a step further…

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To improve you need to get from the licks and theory of point A to the freedom and creativity of point B, discovering and mastering the musical concepts beyond the notes that you can actually improvise with.

Rather than simply copying notes, you’ll be able to think and create music in the same manner the soloist does!

With this goal in mind, let’s explore a few of these concepts (among many!) from the first chorus of Michael Brecker’s solo…

Melodic shape & phrasing

The musical secrets of any solo are often found in the little details. The stuff that’s easy to look over. It’s focusing on and mastering these concepts that’ll make the most difference in the practice room.

One of these details that often gets overlooked is the melodic shape of musical ideas.  And this is something that doesn’t have to do with particular chords, chord tones, or scales – it’s about creating melody.

Take the opening statement from Michael Brecker’s solo for instance…

A traditional theory analysis would say that he’s playing a melodic minor scale over a minor chord – done and done. Now go improvise!

But let’s be honest here, using a melodic minor scale over a minor chord is not going to make you sound like Michael Brecker…that’s because it’s not the scale or the theory that makes this line interesting!

Instead of worrying about the specific notes or scale/chord theory, listen to this phrase as a musical idea, focusing on the time, articulation, and sound:

Try to hear it as one unit instead of a scale or a group of notes. It has time, swing, and emotion, it’s a musical phrase with shape that you can sing.

Remember, the point is not just to figure out what the notes are, but how they are played and applied to the chord progression.

*Creating variations and applying to your solos

The original phrase is an ascending scalar line that ends on the 9th. Practicing this line is useful, but you don’t have to use or apply this musical phrase in the same exact way in your own solos.

Start by taking the underlying shape of the line and creating variations. Here are a few examples…

1) Use the same shape and harmonic material of the original line, but start or end on different chord tones:

2) Apply the idea to different parts of the measure, start on different beats, or try shortening or elongating the line:

3) Change the direction of the line – go up, go down, or switch directions in the middle:

4) Change the harmonic content of the line

5) Apply this shape to other chords or harmonic situations. Take the original line and apply it to major chords, dominant chords, or even a chord progression:

You can apply any of these variations to one idea to come up with new melodic material and harmonic applications. The possibilities are endless.

Now after practicing variations on this melodic shape, listen to it once more at speed:

Once you have the feel and shape of this musical idea ingrained, you can apply it to any chord in any solo: slow, fast, up, down, 8th notes, triplets, major, minor…the specific notes really don’t matter!

Try it out. Use this idea as the starting point for your next solo. Strive to get out of your normal approach by using this idea as a vehicle to come up with new ideas.

This is just one example of a small musical idea from this solo. Take another look at the first chorus of Brecker’s solo. What other individual phrases or shapes can you find and make your own?

Highlighting specific chord colors

Over any chord or progression in a key, there are particular chord tones that you can highlight that will change the feel or mood of the chord.

…anything from a #5 or 13, to a 9th or #11. Each of these chord tones and colors adds a particular character to the sound.

It’s like a painter choosing colors from a palette. Some colors add brightness, some are darker. Some add tension or contrast, while others are more subtle. And when you improvise over any chord you have a number of these tonal colors to choose from.

The question you need to ask is: What vibe, mood, or feel do I want to create??

In the this solo, Brecker highlights a few specific chord tones over the C-7 chord to give his opening line a particular sound:

He begins on the natural 13 (A) and ascends to the 9th (D), and later on he emphasizes these two chord tones again.

Over minor, the natural 13 has a unique sound that can change the “flavor” of the chord. Notice how healso highlights the 11th on minor as well.

There are a number of colors you can choose to approach a minor chord with: the upper structures or the major 7th (as Brecker does), notes outside of the harmony, a pentatonic approach, etc.

You can also apply this concept of highlighting specific colors to create mood to other chords types as well. Check out how he emphasizes the sound of the #11 on GMaj. in the line below…

Here he is implying the lydian sound over Major. There are a number of ways to access this color, simply highlighting or emphasizing the #11, using a minor pentatonic a half-step below the root, a major triad a whole-step up, etc.

The goal is to create a musical phrase around one of these sounds, instead of simply stealing one lick. What character or vibe do you want to give this minor chord, which chord tones are going to lend that specific feeling to your phrases?

Musical cells and phrasing across barlines

Another technique that Brecker uses throughout this solo is taking a simple melodic idea or cell and developing it into a phrase. Check out the passage below…

The foundation of this phrase is this 5 note cell

You hear this cellular approach to melodic construction in the solos of Woody Shaw as well – a way to escape the confines of traditional bebop language and diatonic 8th note lines.

Brecker employs this 5 note cell in his line with a few musical techniques: approaching it with a pick-up, extending the cell, and varying the intervallic content:

Also note how he applies/develops this idea and places it within the measures:

By staggering this 3 beat idea throughout the measure, he alters the 4/4 time feel and placement of the downbeat.

Experiment with coming up with your own music cells or small melodic ideas based on a group of notes. It could be something as simple as

Applying related V7 / ii-V language to minor chords

The last musical concept that we’ll look at in the first chorus of this solo is implying related V7 or ii-V language on minor chords.

Brecker uses this bebop technique multiple times in his solo, the first happening in the 3-4th measures:

Over that 8 bar C minor sound, he uses F7 language, specifically some fragments from the F7 bebop scale:

This allows him to create melodic motion over a static sound with language and concepts that he already has. A powerful technique to use in your own solos over minor, but it does require that you have language!

Brecker uses this technique multiple times in this solo to add motion and harmonic direction to his lines. Here’s another example from a few bars later…

Here he’s creating ii-V7 motion out of a static minor chord. Instead of simply applying language from the related V7 chord, he’s implying a ii-V:

Applying this concept requires that you have some ii-V language or some ii-V lines under your belt. Check out this lesson for more on mastering ii-V’s!

Now for the 2nd chorus…

Using the musical process we used to analyze the solo in the first chorus, let’s jump into the second chorus.

Take another listen to the solo at full speed to refresh your memory…

Brecker begins his second chorus starting at [6:54] in the recording:

Musical concept: Anticipating upcoming chords

Let’s start off this chorus by taking a look at the line that Brecker plays in the seventh bar:

One melodic technique he uses in this line is the anticipation of upcoming chords…

Here he anticipates the F-7 chord by 2 beats and anticipates the Ab-7 chord by 2 beats. This gives his phrase forward motion and momentum, creating interesting phrasing, rather than lines that predictably start with each new chord on the bar line.

He also uses the same technique later on in this chorus. Take a listen:

In this phrase Brecker anticipates the upcoming F#- chord again by 2 beats, and he does this seamlessly with a melodic sequence:

Try using this tactic in your own solos. Simply anticipate the upcoming chord by a beat or two, using melodic material in the new chord early.

What else can you find?

Now it’s your turn to take this chorus and put the process to work. Below is a transcription of the second chorus with some points of interest highlighted.

Starting with the musical concepts that we highlighted in the first chorus, what can you recognize here??

Here are some musical ideas to look for:

  • Highlighting a specific chord tone or harmonic sound
  • Using related V7 language over minor chords
  • Phrasing over barlines
  • Musical cells

What else can you come up with??

Also, go back to the fist chorus and look for melodic and harmonic concepts that you see. Why is Brecker choosing these notes, how is he creating his lines, what are the musical concepts behind his phrases?

Time to get more from the solos you transcribe…

With this process, you aren’t coming away from the transcription process with a few memorized licks that you’re going to try to insert into your solos.

You are learning, absorbing, and mastering new musical concepts that you can actually improvise with in your own way.

…phrasing techniques, musical shapes, an approach to sound and time, harmonic concepts, melodic ideas.

These are musical concepts that you can use in any solo, over any tune! Devices and ideas that you can vary and make your own. This is what you should be coming away with when you transcribe.

You’re going in not with a predetermined lick for one situation, you have a bag of tools that can be applied to every solo you play, that you can vary to fit your needs, and adapt to your own musical tastes.

Sure, it make take a little longer in the practice room, but in the end it will pay off!