Ask Damian Erskine: Learning and transcribing

Q: I was listening to one of your YouTube videos and thought I heard similar lines that I’ve heard Jaco play (like a run in “Havona”). Regardless, I would like to tackle some of these parts. Do you just have a great ear or did you start out with charts to learn such fast lines?

A: Thanks man! It’s interesting that something I played reminded you of Jaco. I guess he’s always in there somewhere deep down, but other than learning “Teen Town” as a kid, I’ve never really studied Jaco as much as other guys.

The only time I’ve used charts to learn fast lines was when I wanted to learn some Chick Corea heads… I read through and memorized “Gotta Match” (highly recommended if you need a good butt kicking). I did learn “Spain”, however, by ear. Other than that, it’s always been through transcription and listening through something a hundred times.

Generally speaking, you will get MUCH more out of the exercise and practice of transcribing by ear than you will the written page. In part, because the ACT of transcription is exactly the way to develop great ears. Most of us aren’t born with the ability to discern intervals, etc. it’s a skill that’s developed over time.

That’s one reason that many working musicians hate tab (and many aspiring musicians love it). It’s a quick way to get the line down, but you don’t work through it. Therefore you don’t develop ANY skill other than motor functions and muscle memory (through playing it). That, and the fact that, in the real world, tab will serve you not at all, whereas reading notation and chord charts well is a valuable skill (and one that’s expected of a professional musician).

If we really think about all of our favorite bass players (although this certainly applies to ANY musical musician), when you read their back-story there is always a lot of:
Jaco – couldn’t read (until Joe Zawinul made him work on it when he joined Weather Report) but would listen and figure out lines and memorize them. Eventually, he had such great “ears”, that he could pretty much pick up on anything right away.

Richard Bona – Learned to sing first and always sings when he plays (and practices!), so he has trained his ears and hands to recognize intervals and lines and he can (at this point) play anything once he knows it well enough to sing it.

Victor Wooten – Not a huge reader, but can get by. He learned to play by playing with his brothers. He was using his ears to tell him what worked and what didn’t. Didn’t get deep into the theory behind it (till later) but always knew what sounded good.

The common theme here is not schooling, not theory, it’s not even having transcribed a million tunes… It’s listening and having developed great ears!

Now, aside from playing with a band seven nights a week and learning difficult music be ear on the stage or in rehearsal, one of the best ways to train your ears is by listening… HARD. Transcribing forces you to truly listen, figure something out and listen some more. You eventually begin to make connections between the SOUND of a line and the SHAPE of it on your neck, the pattern, or just a certain sequence of intervals… While tab or written music is the fast track to playing it quickly (immediate satisfaction) the real fast track to musical proficiency is hard and tedious study (long term pay-off).

When I transcribe, I’ll admit… I do tend to use software these days to slow down fast passages. Sometimes (especially with older recordings or poorly mixed ones) it can be almost impossible to truly discern exactly what someone is doing. Many use “Amazing Slow Downer” to slow tracks down, I use “Quicktime Pro”. Many Mac users aren’t aware that if you pay for the serial number to upgrade to Quicktime Pro (instead of the player-only version that comes on your computer) you will get a very functional and stable audio and video editing software.

I also recommend that you always notate what you transcribe. It helps you with your reading (writing music is very helpful in regards to learning how to read it…. It’s like speaking a language in real life to learn it as opposed to learning out of a book. It forces you to think hard about notation and rhythm). Notating it will also help when, 4 years from now, you can’t really remember that thing you thought you could never forget because you spent so much time learning it. I love coming across old transcriptions I’d forgotten about. I also love relearning them! It can seem like a whole new exercise years later.

In summary: Yeah, learn it by ear!

Have a question for Damian Erskine? Send it to [email protected]. Check out Damian’s instructional books, Right Hand Drive and The Improviser’s Path.

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Share your thoughts

  1. Transcribing is as close as you can get to a magic wand for musicianship.

  2. wkriski

    I think most of us learn by transcribing, learning tunes but then turn around and often teach via theory, analysis, scales, exercises leading to frustration for many students. We forget the value of learning tunes in the actual development process because we want the student to understand what they are doing (often way too early).

  3. teledyn

    Grandpa Jones was once asked if he could read music. “Not enough to hurt my playin',” he said.

  4. wkriski

    The only issue I can see is that when new to guitar or a style, it can be hard to figure out what is being played (chords/inversions) or you don't have the technique to pull it off.

    So using existing transcriptions can help as you develop your ear. But it's worth working at.

  5. JohnKuhlman

    Damian…out of curiosity, what do you use when transcribing? Software or pencil & paper? I'm delving into this area more and grew up with the pencil & paper way, but am becoming more intrigued by all of the software “gadgets” out there.

  6. JohnKuhlman

    Damian…out of curiosity, what do you use when transcribing? Software or pencil & paper? I'm delving into this area more and grew up with the pencil & paper way, but am becoming more intrigued by all of the software “gadgets” out there.