How To Transcribe: Some Advice for the Beginning Jazz Improviser

Why Transcribe?
Before covering a process for transcribing jazz, it is important to understand the point to transcribing jazz solos. Today we have access to a lot of written material giving advice on how to improvise and practice improvisation. There are books of solos that other people have transcribed for you. You can even get computer software that will transcribe music for you. With all this information presented for you already, why take the time to figure it out for yourself?

Jazz, like all music, is an aural art form – it is meant to be heard, not read or seen. Attempting to learn to play jazz well just by reading books will take you to a certain point, but will leave quite a bit out that is important to playing jazz. Only a part of improvising involves what notes to play, and you can’t really learn how to swing, phrase, shape notes, or pace your solos by reading music or words. You have to pay your dues by listening to the music.

Additionally, hearing good solos on recording and then learning how to play that solo helps many aspects of improvisation. It helps to train your ear – after practice transcribing over time you develop the ability to hear a phrase and immediately repeat it. The imitation involved in playing someone else’s solo will also help you learn more intangible aspects of good solos, such as building and pacing your own solos, phrasing, and proper stylistic interpretation.

Before jazz education became wide spread jazz musicians rarely could take lessons or read books to learn how to improvise. So they went straight to the source, the musicians they admired and wanted to emulate. If they couldn’t meet and talk with their favorite player in person they went to the recordings. By listening to the recordings and then learning how to play the solos from those recordings they began to be able to imitate that player well. After enough of this, perhaps with some help from more experienced local musicians, they would assimilate the improvisational technique and could create their own sound.

Where to start
Once you’ve made the decision to start transcribing you need to take the first step, find a solo you like. This can be one of the harder steps of the entire process.

You should choose the solo carefully. It’s really easy to choose one of our favorite solos by one of our favorite players, but often this can be a quite difficult solo to transcribe, especially if you have little experience with this. While it might be tempting to choose a solo by John Coltrane, Woody Shaw, or other major jazz innovator, solos by these artists are frequently too complicated for inexperienced musicians to be able to hear and play. Instead choose a solo that is simple, but still has a lot to offer you in the way of ear training and jazz vocabulary.

It is also helpful sometimes to choose a solo from a tune you already know or can get the sheet music to. Eventually you want to be able to hear and transcribe chord changes too, but at first it’s often better to leave that aspect out. Furthermore, knowing what chord is being played during a particular line will offer clues to what the soloist is playing.

You might also want to avoid transcribing a solo from a harmonically and rhythmically complex style at first. After you’ve gotten a few simpler solos under your belt you can move on to more complicated styles. It might be tempting to transcribe a ballad, because of the slow tempo, but ballads can be deceptively hard to transcribe. Very fast tunes can also be difficult to hear accurately, so try to find a medium tempo solo at first. Quite a few solos from the Swing Era can work very well for this.

Here are some possible artists who have recordings that can be good places to start looking for a solo:

Alto Saxophone – Johnny Hodges (Duke Ellington Orchestra), Paul Desmond (Dave Brubeck Quartet)

Tenor Saxophone – Lester Young (Count Basie Orchestra), Dexter Gordon

Baritone Saxophone – Gerry Mulligan, Harry Carney (Duke Ellington Orchestra)

Trumpet – Chet Baker, Miles Davis

Trombone – J.J. Johnson. Carl Fontana

Piano – Count Basie, Duke Ellington

Bass – Jimmy Blanton (Duke Ellington Orchestra), Paul Chambers

Guitar – Jim Hall, Charlie Christian

It is usually best to choose to transcribe a solo by a musician who plays the same instrument you do at first. Most of us hear pitches played on our own instrument easier than on other instruments.

The Next Steps
Once you’ve found a solo you enjoy, can learn from, and feel that is not too far above your ability to hear and play you need to start the actual transcribing. There are as many methods of doing this as there are musicians transcribing solos, and many people will change their process from solo to solo. The recommendations below work well for many, but eventually you will develop your own way of getting it accomplished.

Before you even figure out one lick you should sit down and listen to the solo several times in a row. Once you’ve heard it a few times start to sing along with the solo. You aren’t trying to be a great singer here, just learn to sing to correct pitches, rhythms, articulations, and style. Being able to sing along will allow you to slow down complicate licks on your own and work out the precise pitches and rhythms later. Once you can sing the entire solo with the recording practice singing it without the recording. If you have a play-a-long recording with that tune you can practice singing the solo with a rhythm section. But once you can sing the entire solo with the recording accurately you’re ready to move on to actually figuring out what is being played.

Some musicians will learn to play the entire solo before writing a note down. Others will figure out the solo phrase by phrase and write it down first, then learn to play and memorize the solo. It really come down to a matter of personal preference and what you are trying to get out of each solo, but at first I think it’s best to start off by writing it down as you go.

Take some staff paper and mark off four blank measures. Your goal the first time you start transcribing should be just about four measures or so. If you can do more without getting frustrated, go ahead. If you can’t even get that much, that’s all right too. Just set a reachable goal for your abilities.

Figure out what key you are in. Sometimes this is simple but other times can be quite a challenge. Figure out if the tune is in a major or minor key. Listen carefully to the first and last chord of each chorus and see if they are the same. Sing what sounds like the tonic pitch of the key and use that unless you decide later that it is in a different key. Also mark in your time signature.

Now listen to the first phrase again and sing along. Sing the very first pitch and then find that note on your instrument. Be sure to check this against the recording to be sure that you didn’t let the pitch slip as you worked out what note it was. Now do the same with the very last note of the phrase. Write those two pitches in the measures and on the beats you think those pitches fall in, but leave out any rhythms for the moment. Be sure to check to see if the first phrase starts as a pickup to the first measure of the chorus. You will have something that looks a little like this:

Now fill in some of those spots on major downbeats or points in the phrase that you can hear clearly. Sing the lick to yourself slowly to help. You still should not worry about rhythms just yet. In fact, for many people, figuring out the proper rhythms is the most difficult part of transcribing a solo. Your measures might now look a little like this:

Now here is where knowing what the chords are can really help fill in the rest of the notes. Write the chords above the measures, if you haven’t already, and keep finding pitches and marking in the note heads in the measures you think the pitches fall in. Again, singing the phrase to yourself slowly will help you find the pitches on your instrument.

You can see in this example how the notes in the phrase are almost all just notes that are present in the chord. Not every phrase will be this easy to pick out. If you know pitches that surround the notes you can’t hear you should be able to make an educated guess from there. What is the chord in that measure? Find the typical scale or mode that is played over that chord. Now decide the shape of the lick. Does it start by moving above the pitches you have and then move back down to the last pitch or does it go in one direction to get between pitches? Are all the notes a step away from each other, like a scale, or are they larger interval leaps. Figure out what you can, and then make an educated guess as to what what you can’t and fill them in. You can check them by playing along with the recording, If they aren’t correct, figure out which notes are wrong and try a different pitch until you think you’ve got it.

Once you’ve written down all the notes and you think they are correct, then go back in fill in the rhythms. Start by finding downbeats and other major points where you can easily hear the rhythms.

And then fill in the rest.

Once you’ve finished your goal for the day you can put it away and work on other things if you wish, or continue further if you wish. Continue working like this every day until you have the entire solo complete. If you can do four measures a day in just over a week you will have completed an entire 32 bar solo.

Sometimes you will get to a spot in an otherwise accessible solo that you just can’t figure out, no matter how hard you try. Instead of beating yourself up about it or going over and over that lick hoping that it will come to you in a flash of insight, skip it. Go ahead and move on to the next phrase and continue from there. When you’ve finished everything else you can go back and see if you can work it out. Otherwise, leave it in whatever stage of completion you can get that phrase up to. The recording isn’t going anywhere and perhaps after you’ve had more experience transcribing, in a week or month or year, you can go back and it will come easier. Or you can obtain a tape player that plays back at half speed or a computer application that will do the same. What you hear will be twice as slow and sound down an octave.

Lastly, go through and mark in articulations and other effects like scoops and falloffs.

Wrapping it up
Now that you have the entire solo transcribed you want to maximize the results from your effort. If you remember back, the reason we want to transcribe solos is to learn how to play jazz vocabulary so you’re going to have to learn how to play the solo. Hopefully you’ve just finished transcribing a solo that is within your ability to play, but you might just not be able to get through a double time lick or play in that extreme register. When you run into problems like that you should practice by taking phrases down an octave or simplifying the lick to make it playable. Practice passages too fast for you to play up to tempo slowly and gradually speed up the lick until you can play it comfortably.

Singing the solo will also be invaluable in learning to play it. Work on being able to sing along with the recording, as well as singing the solo without the recording. If you have access to a rhythm section, a play-a-long recording, or a sequencer you can program with the tune, practicing singing the solo along with that.

Be sure to practice along with the recording, and try to imitate every nuance of the solo you can. If the note is short, play it as close to the exact length as you can. Try to match vibrato, falls, scoops, and all the other subtle effects that jazz musicians like to use. Remember, the notes are only part of the vocabulary.

Once you can comfortably play the solo along with the recording you should try to practice this with a rhythm section. If you don’t have access to a rhythm section who can practice with you, see if you can obtain a play-a-long from a source like Jamey Aebersold or other series. There are also computer applications, like Band-in-a-Box, that will allow to create your own computer generated rhythm section.

If there are certain licks in the solo that you particularly like, learn to play them in all 12 keys. Don’t be afraid to play those licks in your own solos. Even if you don’t want to sound like you’re copying another player you have to take the first step and be able to successfully imitate other players first. Eventually you will develop a vocabulary of your own.

Lastly, take your time and realize that this is a lifelong endeavor. Just as you can’t expect to be able to play your instrument with the same technical mastery as a professional who has been playing for 30 plus years, you can’t expect to be able to transcribe complicated solos in a couple of hours. Just like instrumental technique, it is always better to do a little bit every day than to try to complete it all in one burst. The more you transcribe over time, the better you will get at it.

Good luck!

5 thoughts on “How To Transcribe: Some Advice for the Beginning Jazz Improviser

  1. Great article!
    I neglected transcribing for so long as I thought it hard. I’d start and then just get so frustrated that I couldn’t get the notes.
    But now, I’m addicted! John Coltrane on Moments notice n Brecker on Giant steps, I can’t get enough and it’s changing my playing 🙂


  2. How can I learn to transcribe jazz when I feel I’m dyslexic with syncopations? This problem is driving me nuts and I can’t find a teacher. I play in two jazz groups and others in the reed section can blast through hard syncopations while I’m just mystified. If I hear a music passage the music makes sense, but that won’t help with sight reading. Can you suggest a way out of this dilemma? I’ve always been more of an ear than a note reader and I’m too old to change I fear.

    1. Thanks, Dave, and over a year later I still struggle with complex syncopations and haven’t transcribed. For ex. I have problems with quarter notes and their shortness. Why are they played short and why are rests in swing notation often cheated? I played bass horn in high school and never got syncopated stuff, and never much complexity. Now as an older man I just struggle reading and kick myself! It’s so much easier to hear a rhythm and duplicate it than to write it.

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