Making Transcribing Easier

Headphones & sheet music

Q: I have no real problem (anymore) performing publicly with groups/bands, with taking a solo, or with people overhearing me practice (though of course I try to be considerate). But I have an anxiety around transcribing that feels almost like stage fright, and I can’t quite get myself to incorporate it into my daily practice routine. In my mind – or at least how I understand it – transcribing is meant to have a dual purpose: 1) improving the ear and 2) learning how others approach playing music. When it comes to ear training, I sing along with what I’m playing on bass or piano, and I’ve found that to be very helpful. But transcribing is often described as the key to improving as a player. Any suggestions on how to make it an easier process?

P.S. When I do transcribe, I use slow-down programs like Transcribe!, and I often use the note-guessing function. Would you say this is too much of a crutch?

A: First, let me address the “slow-downer” thing. I use a slow-downer as well, but I try and reserve it for when I am really having trouble hearing exactly what is played (either because it is too fast to make it out or maybe the bass is just low in the mix, in which case bumping the track up and octave can really bring out the bass line). I would definitely avoid the note guessing functions. You’re just killing time if you’re not working through it, at least a little bit. Slow it down and work out the notes, one by one. There’s no time constraint. Take your time.

Since you are already accustomed to singing what you play, you are in a perfect place to work on playing what you sing! If you hate bumbling around the instrument, searching for notes, then put the bass down and work on singing the line you want to transcribe. Once you can sing it easily, it should be far less cumbersome to find it on the neck.

Keep in mind that, when we are struggling with a concept, technical line, finding a tone, transcription, etc. that is when we are on the edge of learning something new and understanding it more deeply. Every moment spent struggling is eventually rewarded with knowledge and ability. Mastery is really just a culmination of small victories in the shed and on the stage combined with the comfort level on your instrument that also comes as a result of that time spent.

It’s just like climbing a mountain. One step at a time. Don’t look at the peak and think to yourself, “that’s way too far. I’ll never get there”. If you stand there staring at the peak, you’ll certainly never get there, but if you just start walking (ie: working through the things that you aren’t yet able to do), you’ll certainly get much, much closer (or all the way).

The beautiful thing about your question is that the one thing that freaks you out is the one thing you’ll be doing by yourself. So there is zero pressure except that which you place on yourself. So keeping that in mind, take it easy on yourself. Don’t worry about how long it takes you or how “another player would’ve had this done hours ago, I bet”. Don’t compare yourself to any bar set by anyone but yourself. Set your bar and keep pushing it up. Just focus on one bar of music at a time, then 4 bars, then section by section, then you’ll think in terms of transcribing entire solos or tunes, then albums…

I might set aside a specific amount of time in the shed devoted to transcription, with zero concern about how much I transcribe at first. Just get something! Then, something else.

Personally, I like to notate everything that I transcribe so I can see it on paper and also save it for later (I love reading through old transcriptions). That said, it doesn’t matter whether you notate them or not.

The important thing is about tuning your ear to the sound of music and getting quicker at bridging the gap between what you hear and what you play. It can only help your playing and improvising whether you notate it or not (but you’ll be glad you did, if you do).

If you’re having trouble, you might also start simply and work your way up. Don’t start with an old, scratchy, slightly-out-of-tune-because-it-was-digitized-from-an-old-LP Charlie Parker solo at 240bpm. Start with a nice bass line or a melody that you already know. Find it on the instrument and play it over and over until it’s internalized. Then slowly increase the intensity of what you are transcribing. Don’t think about all of the amazing transcription performances on YouTube. Nobody said that you have to obsess over it and get it to viral status on YouTube. Just work on your thing. Get your ears, hands and mind in the game and maintain forward momentum. The rest takes care of itself.

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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  1. If you don’t sound like shit when you’re practicing, then you aren’t really practicing.

  2. Also, “singing along with what you are playing” is not same as “playing what you are singing”. When you sing along, you are following, but when when you play what you are singing you are leading.

  3. This suggestion comes up a lot, but have fun with it! Transcribe songs for which you are really interested in the bass line. Play along to your transcription often as you make progress through a song. For me personally, it’s that thrill of finally getting this part right that makes me really want to get through the whole song. And finally having the transcription done, especially when I couldn’t find one online just feels so good.

    As far as crutches go, once you really get into doing transcriptions I think those will start to fall away naturally. Of course, you’ll still go to the “slow-downer” and pitch shifter occasionally when you really can’t hear the bass in a particular part of a song, but eventually you’ll reach a point where you’ll just make more progress when you do most of it by ear, and then transcription becomes more of an enjoyable activity than an anxiety-inducing chore.

  4. Orange

    I really enjoyed this column and can relate with the concern.

    My efforts started by trying to transcribe a George Benson guitar solo on a six string bass. I gave up.

    After watching a few videos by Janek and reading a whole mix of stuff I eventually thought of a different solution. To start from the start.

    Sounds silly, but I can still remember the first ever song I wrote and I consisted of an 8bar bass line using mainly open E and it’s octave in a slow rock style. So I transcribed that onto paper. From there I listened to tracks that I had learnt from around the same time that I wrote that little gem.

    It’s snowballed over the last year and I’m really proud of the folders of transcriptions that I now have. From smoke on the water to take 5 I’m doing it all, mainly for the learning but there is always a challenge, a reward and a fix after each one.

    Get comfortable with what you think of as easy then progress through as you would if you were learning bass from scratch.

    Good luck and thanks for the column.

  5. with fast stuff i often figure out the first and the last note of the phrase at first, and then look for the ‘sound’ or ‘shape’ in between…

  6. Bazzbass

    +1 for picking a bassline you really like and slowly working it out.
    I’ve started to tab my fave basslines, like Sir Paul’s Something , Nowhere Manand Dear Prudence and Bowie’s (R.I.P) Space Oddity and The Man Who Sold The World.
    Very rewarding to tab a line you’ve loved for years. What can be better motivation.

    PS there is no rush, it only took me 35 years to work out all of Ramble On lol!