Why Transcribing A Whole Solo Has Gotten You Nowhere

So you finally transcribed your first solo, but unfortunately, you don’t feel like you’re improving at the rapid rate you’d hoped for. Where did you go wrong? This is a common situation. I know people that have transcribed hundreds of solos, but little to none of it translates into their playing.

Transcribing whole solos is a lot of work and if you do it right, you can learn a ton. On the other hand if, if you don’t approach it right, you can waste a whole lot of time.

Transcribing is not enough

The main problem people encounter with transcribing whole solos is that they play the solo over and over without pulling it apart. Breaking up the solo to understand its parts is essential.

Imagine you’re a knock-off shop that makes imitation iphones and that your reproductions are so good, that no one can tell the difference. To do that, your shop would have to disassemble many iphones to get into the inner workings of how everything fits together.

That’s the attitude you need to have when transcribing. It’s an attitude of reverse engineering, of disassembling, of understanding how the parts create the whole, and how even smaller elements create the parts.

It’s not notation and analysis, but that can play a role in your process if you like. If it helps you to write it out to understand what’s going on, there’s nothing wrong with that.

I think people’s caution about writing solos down is that people will use the written copy as a crutch to remember and to play the solo. You should never need a written copy of a solo to play it; as long as you remember that, writing a solo down can strengthen your notation skills and your ability to translate what you’re hearing to the written page.

Just don’t get lost in analysis. Most people tend to spend most of their time getting a solo to the written page and analyzing it. These two things will not benefit your playing nearly as much as taking out each phrase that you love from the solo, understanding what makes them work, and learning them in all keys.

Transcribing a whole solo is not enough. It’s a ton of work and that’s why it’s so tempting to stop there. Believe me, there’s still a number of solos I’ve transcribed and play all the time that I still haven’t taken the time to break into pieces. Think that those solos have influenced and helped my playing as much as other ones?

Once you’re done transcribing a solo in its entirety, make sure you get to the next step of pulling it apart. Even if you have to wait several weeks to start pulling it apart, do yourself a favor and don’t stop yet.

Translating whole solos to useful language

But even people that take their favorite phrases from a solo, study them, and learn them in all keys still have trouble translating the lines into useful language.

This is because, for some reason, we like to keep everything we transcribe intact in it’s original condition. For example, people will transcribe a whole solo, and then find a four measure phrase that they love, study it, learn it in all keys, and start to apply it to tunes.

Sound great right? But a four measure phrase is quite cumbersome and inflexible. It’s very difficult to keep using such a large line in your playing, yet people feel like it would be blasphemy to change the line in any way.

We get questions all the time asking us how to apply transcribed lines to tunes and the answer is nearly always the same. Stop trying to integrate such a large line into your playing.

Seriously, how do you expect to use a four measure line in your playing? Or for that matter, even two measures is fairly long.

What to do instead? Break up the line into smaller useable parts. These could be a measure long, a couple beats…anything that you can combine easily with something else. In this way, you actually have small useable pieces of information rather than one huge unusable line.

It’s okay. Really, you can take a piece of a line. You do not need to take the whole thing. Take what ever you like. Change it or leave it the same.

When you try this, you’ll have a complete shift in your playing. It’s as if before you only had words like “antidisestablishmentarianism” at your disposal, and now you have words like: wow, it’s, easy, to, combine, smaller, bits, of, information, to, form, coherent, larger, statements.

Get my drift?

How to actually get somewhere with your next solo

Everyone has a different idea of what works for them when it comes to transcribing. Some learn best by transcribing whole solos, while others prefer only small phrases.

In my experience, both are valuable and I encourage everyone to do both, not favoring one over the other.

The next time you do learn an entire solo, don’t just learn it to learn it, or to write it down and analyze it. Instead, pull apart the entire solo into its smaller parts.

Then, get even smaller and translate these tiny bits of information into your own lines. With this process, transcribing whole solos will have the great impact on your playing that they’re known for.