Here are some ideas I put together for students wanting to learn difficult solos onto their instrument. This is a thorough, precise method that really works if you want to get the most out of your transcriptions. It may take time but the rewards will be huge!
- Listen to the chosen solo over and over until you are able to sing the notes with all the articulations and nuances. (You can also consider searching for different arrangements, artists versions, stylistic variations, etc but it is not imperative – just listen to the tune as much as possible at this stage).
Learn the tune
- Find a chart for the tune – Learn the melody and the chord progressions OFF BY HEART. Be able to play both chords and melody together (where applicable). Play as written or verbatim (i.e. see the composers ‘intent’) and also learn to play the head as your chosen artist does, or interpret with your own rhythmic and melodic inflections. See the free lesson “My Romance”
Work out the underlying chords
- If you can’t find a chart work out the lowest note (usually the bass note) of each chord. Work out whether the bass is playing the tonic, a relative chord tone (3, 5, and 7), an extension, a decorative note or a passing note – as is common in jazz music. Define the top note of the voicing in each chord change and if the chord type isn’t easily assignable, use trial and error to define the rest of the chord extensions where possible.
Check for substitutions!
- If you’re finding it hard to work out the chords listen to the soloists notes or the melody notes over this set of changes – you will usually be given clues to the chord types if (s)he is strongly outlining chord tones or resting / accenting certain tones over chords. Comp along to check if you are right. Often an accompanist on a recording will be substituting new chords to support the soloist or provide interest so this may prove tricky – stick with it though; if you have the bass note, there are only so many combinations of notes it can be.
Work out the actual arrangement of the solo form
- Once you have the chords outlined, work out the form of the tune and any special arrangements – consider that the artist may have extended certain sections into vamps, created longer or shorter bar measures or played the tune in an uncommon meter.
Learn it by ear
- Learn the solo onto your instrument in sections and take your time if new to the process of transcribing; for difficult passages slow the tune down if you have the software to do so, take time working harder passages up to tempo and most of all; repeat, repeat, repeat. Do not omit any passages. Do not write it out yet.
Write it out with ALL the nuance of the original
- Once the solo is learnt note for note, write it out and include all dynamic / textural markings – take care to play just as the artist does; slurs, glissando, legato, loud / soft, pushing and pulling the time, H.O’s / P.O’s (for guitar). Some players choose to write as they learn a solo – I don’t.
Learn the artist’s sound, feel and voice
- Emulate the tonal qualities, intonation and sound of the transcribed artist where ever possible. Take extra care to listen for the FEEL of the transcribed artist – not just the ‘what’ (s)he plays but the ‘how’. This is where great players define themselves – how you can tell them apart – by their nuances, their tone, their distinctive ‘voice’ – a mark of character and individual flavour that (s)he adds to each note.
Listen to your self playing it.
- Record yourself playing the solo to backing tracks, and over the SAME RECORDING as the artist themselves. This is where you can critically see if you’re picking up on those nuances – pan yourself just off centre and listen to yourself right next to them – see if you’re truly doubling their notes in unison. You may have it worked out note for note but are you playing exactly HOW they play. This is the key to transcribing well – use the techniques listed above to learn a solo then focus on seeing the X factor, the magic of the artist – not just the notes.
The final step is in my opinion, the most important.
Extraction and application of learned ideas
- Extract what you have learned and put it to use. Not just in the same song over the same chords at the same time (as in where the original soloist played it). Instead, extract the chords and lines, and look at how they work together. Look at plural usages of the linear information you have transcribed – perhaps that minor 9th line would sound great over a Lydian chord a major 3rdup??? Extract the underlying principles or conceptual ideas for improvising that they are using – what are the rhythmic devices they are using – displacement? Rhythmic variation along a theme? Retrograde? Embellishment? Are the quoting the melody in parts, playing close to the melody?The underlying concepts in a solo are actually the most important aspect of transcribing – if you’ve learned these and tried to apply them in a different harmonic and rhythmic way or over different tunes or using plurality or some kind of permutation; then the process of learning how to get the most out of your transcription has only just begun!
What are your thoughts and questions? Do you need me to clarify anything for you personally? Please post your comments, questions, feedback or rants below…
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