Transcriptions in 6 Steps


Photo by Michael Hicks

There comes a time in every player’s life where you have to make the next big step in your practice methods: you must do some transcriptions. Suppress your groans, it is not as bad as you think, and it is an immensely useful practice tool. There’s a reason why every player, teacher and book about serious jazz practice recommends it. Think of it like a pro athlete studying game-tapes from a stellar team, you’re really getting a lesson from whichever musician you’re transcribing. Before we begin you should determine if you’re ready to do a transcription. This exercise is meant for intermediate level jazz players and up: do you know (or at least have been exposed to) more than a handful of tunes? Do you have good ears? Are you comfortable taking a basic solo over chord changes? Can you recognize common chord progressions by ear? These are not exclusive questions, but to be successful and avoid needless frustration you should have some core skills addressing each of those questions.

The most valuable part of doing a transcription is the process, not the final result. Obviously when you’ve nailed a cool solo and mimic a killer player it’s a great feeling, but the real learning and benefit come from the rigor of the method. There are six steps to follow (that should be followed in order) to get the most out of a transcription exercise. After you’ve picked a song do the following:

  1. Listen to it
  2. Sing it
  3. Learn it for memory
  4. Play it
  5. Write it down
  6. Analyze it

Did you notice that writing it down is near the end? Avoid the temptation to write anything down until you can play the solo from memory. When you learn a solo you do not have to learn it linearly. Is the first phrase or head something really bizarre that you don’t understand? No problem! Start at the second bar and then work your way back. Find a note or phrase you can identify in the song and use that as your anchor point for the rest of your transcription. Think of the solo like a jigsaw puzzle – you don’t necessarily have to start with any one piece, and learning disjointed segments is fine too. Listen for target notes and rhythmic phrases that land on the beat. You absolutely must listen to the song one hundred times (or more!). Your first transcription should be a solo over the blues. The blues form is so standard and so popular that you should be able to hear the chord changes without any problem. Also the blue-note in the “blues” scale really sticks out, so it gives you a great point of reference. After you do a blues transcription focus on songs you already know well and have the lead sheet for. Knowing the chord changes will let you make educated guesses about the tones used in the solos. A surprising amount of solos rely heavily on chord tones. Your lead sheet may be in a different key than the song itself, so make sure you match the key first. Look for patterns in the solo as well, find scalar runs, familiar intervals, sequences or motific rhythmic clusters to help you narrow down the exact notes. It is extremely useful to know the melody to a song before you start to transcribe it. If you have a note isolated that is hard for you to find on the bass do the following: first play the note on your CD player, sing that note and make sure it matches, finally (while still singing) find the match on your bass. Do you see why the process is valuable? Again, be sure to save writing anything down until after you can sing the solo from memory and then play the solo from memory.

Now that you’ve gotten a song and can sing and play the solo from memory it’s time to write it down. There’s a lot of good software available for notating solos, but there’s nothing wrong with pencil and paper as well. Having the written copy is your official record of having learned the solo, but is not the most important part. A few things to remember:

  1. Always include the chord changes over each bar in the transcription. This will really help with your analysis after it’s written down. Believe it or not when you look at the written solo certain things will pop out at you that you may not notice otherwise, such as specific mannerism (like ending each minor 2-5-1 bar in a descending phrase) or note choices.
  2. Proper notation is important. Be true to the form of the song, make sure you know if it’s ABBA, ABAB or AABA. Include bends, articulations, specific fingerings, grace-notes – as much detail as possible! Your goal is to be inside the head of the soloist you’re studying.
  3. Listen for the tone, touch and feel of each solo – you want to play the notes correctly, but you also want to imitate the exact tone and phrasing of the soloist. There is nothing particularly unusual about the note choices in most cases, we all have the same 24 tones to work with. What really matters is the phrasing and articulation, it’s not all what you play, it’s how you play it.

Transcriptions are difficult. They take a lot of time, and a lot of concentration. The payoff is huge though, and they really are the gateway from being an intermediate player to an advanced player. To help you avoid some common pitfalls keep the following ideas in mind:

  1. The solo is really fast – you can either skip the really fast bars and come back to them once you know the slower ones, get a slow-down computer program that doesn’t affect the pitch, or get a slower solo. There’s nothing sacred about any particular solo, you should work with one that’s feasible for you to transcribe.
  2. The rhythm is crazy – reduce the rhythms to 8th note or 16th note runs. Don’t do anything more intense than 16th note triplets, anything faster than that is probably a variation in feel. Ballads are an exception for notation purposes. If the rhythm is too difficult, get a different solo that’s more approachable.
  3. The song doesn’t sound like my lead sheet – again be sure to check the key, there is also the possibility that you’re listening to a heavily reharmonized or weird version – if this is the case definitely get a different solo. Have you noticed a trend yet? There are lots of great solos out there, and it’s important you start with one that is feasible for you to transcribe.
  4. My mp3 player is hard to work with – depending on the mp3 player it can be difficult to navigate to different places in the song. I’d recommend going old-school and getting a CD player with a dedicated fast-forward/rewind button and preferably with a A > B repeat feature (this lets you repeat a specific phrase in the song as many times as you want). Again there are lots of software programs out there to slow down songs or repeat phrases without changing the pitch.

After you have your solo transcribed and have the phrasing down play along with the recording and try to match everything. Remember the point of this exercise is to get inside the head of the soloist and reproduce everything he or she did when playing. Take the time to analyze the solo as well, how to the note choices correspond to the chord changes? Are there any common patterns? You can also start with pre-transcribed solos as practice, with time they get easier. To keep it in perspective it may take you 6 months to do a complete transcription, this is an intense exercise, but like all things gets easier with practice.

For jazz bassists here are some good recommendations after you do a blues transcription:

  1. Red Mitchell “Blues for Jacques” from This is Hampton Hawes Vol 2
  2. Charlie Haden “Body and Soul” from Charlie Haden Quartet West and also “Relaxin’ At Camarillo” from Always Say Goodbye

Photo by Clix

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  1. Bassist

    While it's great that you are reccomending transcriptions I find a few flaws here. The use of lead sheets for standard songs is silly. You should KNOW a tune before you transcribe a solo on it. If you don't know the tune listen to the recording and learn it from the source not a chart that doesn't relate to your recording. Also telling people to pick a new solo because of fast runs or weird changes is crazy. Figure them out! If it was played by another bassist you can play it. Take the time to work it out. Solo's should be transcribed because the player likes the solo, not because it's an easy solo.

    • john shaughnessy

      I think he’s saying that the notes in the solo sometimes won’t correspond to the “standard” changes, which often happens (Coltrane’s reharmonization of standards, for example). What I would disagree with is finding a different solo when this happens; you should take the time to figure out what the new changes are and why the solo works with them. Just remember that your solo is “nonstandard” – nothing worse than someone plowing through pre-learned lines on a gig but ignoring the changes that everyone else is laying down.

  2. In my experience student's get frustrated quickly with transcriptions because they are such a difficult (though incredibly valuable) exercise. I would equate it to running a marathon – they take a lot of preparation and a long time to do. If a student loved a solo over “Inner Urge” I would tell them to start with something else and work up to it. If they had trouble hearing the changes I would make sure I found them a recording that corresponded to a lead sheet – this is all “transcription training-wheels” but once the student gains confidence in their abilities they'll work up to that great “Inner Urge” solo. You have to walk before you can run, and then build from there – that's the ultimate point in this lesson.

    I agree that your method – learning the song totally by ear and working out whatever solo you want – is the final goal, but students need to know the steps to get there gradually, just throwing someone in with those expectations will only lead to frustration, especially for a beginner or intermediate student.

  3. I agree with Evan as far as geting past the potential initial frustration, though I do think that Bassist's creed “If a bassist played it, you can play it too” is invaluable as well – at least as a motivational guideline. What I do think was very well pointed out is that the “writing it down” part is not the first one in the process of transcribing a solo.
    Thanks for the post!

  4. Thank you both for the feedback! It is always good to shoot for the stars (“if they played it, I can play it too”) though there are times I question what planet certain players came from ;)

    As always these are just guidelines – everyone has to develop their own path – but I think writing it down last is really important, thanks for highlighting that.

  5. corky4strings

    i found a good software for slowing down a song but keeps the song in the same key is. Transcribe it work with both computor platforms.

  6. corky4strings

    i found a good software for slowing down a song but keeps the song in the same key is. Transcribe it work with both computor platforms.

  7. Clifton

    Will, I’ll take this as a Good Starting point! You can bet your Bottom Dollar that I’ll pick a Simple Bass line to Transcribe first! :^D

  8. Randy in Ventura

    Thanks for the helpful tips. As a relatively new musician, I recently discovered transcribing as a great way to learn from the examples of others. On the recommendation of another, I recently purchased Transcribe! ( You can easily change tempo, loop over sections, and filter out frequencies to isolate an instrument. Combined with on-the-fly transposing, it is a great tool for practicing. Brilliant. Wish I had written it. Best $39 ever spent.

  9. PhiDeck

    Author: where you used the word “motific”, was that your intention, or did you mean “motivic”? They both fit, but give different meaning to the sentence.

  10. I don’t agree on everything in this article.
    I’ve been transcribing music for more than 30 years, all kind of instruments, and all kind of music. Here below how I would proceed:
    1) Listen the tune as many time as necessary to get the feel and groove of the song, and to understand the way the melody and solos are phrased
    2) Figure out the key, the time signature and tempo
    3) Write down the song structure (form): How many bars each sections, solos, interludes, etc… to get a global view of the song
    4) Transcribe and write down the chord changes as accurately as possible.
    5) It’s a good suggestion to transcribe the melody first, especially if you’re going to transcribe a solo later on.
    6) Transcribe whatever part you like. You can do it phrase by phrase or part of a phrase depending of the material. Sing or play along each group of notes you’re going to transcribe. When it matches, write it down and move on to the next phrase or group of notes.

  11. i agree that transcribing is one of the best ways to get better, i call them free lessons as well, and analyzing the song goes a long long way beyond the song itself

  12. Conor

    Don’t limit it to just bass solos though! I’m working on dexter Gordon’s solo on blue monk , it is really testing the limits of my fingerboard ;) also sometimes in the low range bass solos can be a bit difficult to differentiate the notes! Whereas a sax and other intrstruments stand out and don’t become quite as muddy IMHO.