Applying Licks from Transcriptions

Q: I consider myself as a good reader. I can sight read music both in bass and treble clef, and I like to challenge myself with complex etude like those on the Patitucci book or classical pieces. But every time I come across jazz studies, (bebop in particular), I struggle to understand what’s in the mind of the player and my “fingering logic” goes out the window. Usually when I’m reading, I take into consideration the tonality, modes, and chord to have a “pivot” to gravitate around but when I’m in a jazz context, I’m pretty much lost because I can’t relate what I’m reading to what’s supposed to be played on that given chord or section. For instance, reading II-V-I licks – I’m always engrossed by what happens on the V7 chord because most of the time what’s played over it’s completely “out.” I know jazz theory and all the approach note and chromatic passing tone stuff but I fail to apply it in a logical way while reading music. What do you recommend?

A: I think I understand what you are experiencing. I never understood what transcribing music was supposed to do for me, because I could never do anything with it but play that one solo to that one song. I think the key is to grab sonic snippets that you like and then decode them a little bit.

  1. Listen for specific lines or melodic ideas that you like and grab just those phrases.
  2. Look at how the notes relate to the chords under them.
  3. Analyze what is happening (ie, outlining the chord tones over the V7 chord, with chromatic approach notes leading to a resolution on a major chord, for example.

Then, you can practice playing that line in a specific context (V7 resolving to a Major chord, for example).

Once you can do that, then you experiment with using that same type of line over other chord changes. Can you change one or two notes and make it work over some other type of change?

Can you super impose that resolution over a one-chord vamp?

Can you use that same line but resolve to a different chord by changing the last portion of the line?

For me, it’s all about looking at the context of a line as it relates to one or more chords. You might want to start with a short line over one chord type. If you have a line that works over a major chord, for example, you can practice using it in real time over other tunes (over major chords).

Then you can practice playing it over minor chords, over the relative major tonic (playing a C major lick over an A-7, for example).

What if you play that major lick over related major modes (if you are in C, try playing the lick as if you were in F but resolve it to C somehow…). Or minor modes (If you are in C, trying playing a minor lick in D, E or A minor). Experiment with playing it as is, changing one or more notes, etc.. Really try and turn that lick inside out and figure out a myriad of ways to use it.

Practice using it in context by setting up a 4 bar loop and trying to place it in different parts of the phrase rhythmically and harmonically.

With regard to transcription, the actual transcribing portion of the job is really the easy part and only the very beginning of the process. You must then really explore what it is that the musician played over each and every chord with as much context as possible. While it can, at times, feel like banging your head against a wall, it’s this kind of exploration and experimentation that can lead you to some very cool stuff (and quite often, vocabulary that is uniquely yours, even though it originated elsewhere).

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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