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Transcribing 101: Learning to Fish

Transcribing is the process of transferring recorded music onto your guitar and/or the written page by means of listening. If you have ever thought, “I wish I could play like…”, then transcribing is the next best thing to taking a private lesson with that player, but it’s not just about copying licks - transcribing is how you learn style, how musical patterns work, and how experienced musicians think.

In an era of pervasive on-line tabs and tutorials, transcribing may seem like a task ripe for outsourcing, but the fact is that blues has always been and remains an “ear thing.” Notes are only the beginning - blues is built on deep qualities like touch and swing, and your ears are the only means for accessing them. Learning to transcribe is one of the best investments that you can make in your musical development - to paraphrase the old adage, “learn to fish and you’ll eat for a lifetime.”

There are no real secrets to transcribing, but if you’re new to the process here are some tips to help you get started and overcome common hurdles.

Getting Ready

Matching pitch

The basic skill of transcribing is matching pitch - that is, hearing a note and matching it with your voice and guitar. The major scale is the universal measuring stick for melody and harmony, so practice singing the major scale in numbers (1, 2, 3 etc.) and use it to analyze the structure of scales (e.g. minor pentatonic = 1, b3, 4, 5, b7), chords (dominant seventh = 1-3-5-b7) and progressions (1, 4, 5).

Practicing

Traditional blues is based on a fairly limited set of rhythms, chord progressions, and melodic phrases that are combined and expressed in different ways, so the best overall preparation for transcribing is to practice and memorize standard patterns - the more you already know, the easier it is to hear new things.

Tools

Vinyl may have retro appeal, but it’s miserable for transcribing. Software that allows you to pinpoint, loop, and slow the tempo without changing pitch was the stuff of science fiction when I started out (see the Blues Guitar School Forum>Ask Keith>Transcribing for more discussion) but even simple audio players like YouTube and iTunes are far more manageable than records. Headphones are helpful for hearing details; otherwise all you need is your guitar plus maybe a pencil and some staff or tab paper (see below). 

Notation

The ultimate purpose of transcribing is to capture music in your mind and on your guitar, so writing music is not essential but I have learned that I memorize phrases more effectively when I write them down. If you don’t currently read or write music, I recommend that you learn tab combined with rhythm and use it as a sketchpad; you don’t need to write everything down, but just when you want to capture a tricky rhythm or melodic phrase. 

Tabs

Referring to existing tabs is fine if you get stuck or want a second opinion, but I have seen many inaccurate tabs (and created a few myself) so just because it’s printed doesn’t mean it’s correct. Aside from that, the subtle nuances of blues are very difficult to notate and read, so blues tabs can be more confusing than illuminating. One of the main goals of transcribing is to develop a reliable and self-sufficient ear, and that requires doing it yourself. 

Choosing Material

Start with something you know well that’s within your general range of capabilities (not necessarily solos - rhythm parts are equally important) and set short, manageable goals, like transcribing four bars a week or memorizing a one-chorus solo to perform at jam night a month from now.

If you don’t know where to start, an excellent source of blues material is Freddie King's early '60s recordings on the King label. The instrumentals were compiled on the album "Just Pickin'" and his vocals on the album "Freddie King Sings," but the tracks can all be found separately on line. Together, they form a bible of classic blues phrasing with simple, clear themes, concise improvised solos and tight rhythm arrangements. Mastering Freddie’s touch is a long-term project, but that's why we transcribe - to get inside a great player's head, look around, and come back out with ideas and techniques that we can use in our own playing.

Research

Research the player and particular tune before you begin transcribing - for example, does the player use an open tuning or tune to a pitch other than E? Use a capo? Play left-handed/upside down? Pick with a thumb pick, fingerpicks or bare fingers? All of these variations are common in blues and not knowing about them can lead to frustration. Great players also have a personal style which is defined by repetition of certain phrases and techniques, so listen to a variety of recordings by the same player to familiarize yourself with stylistic trademarks.

Getting Started

Key

The first priority is identifying the key, or “one,” which is usually intuitive; listen, hum the note that sounds like it’s at the center of things and match it with your guitar. If there’s any doubt, the last note in the melody and/or last bass note in the progression is almost always one. 

Groove

Identify the groove before you start transcribing melodies or rhythm parts so you understand the feel of the phrasing. In blues, grooves are based either on triplets (shuffle, swing) or straight eighths (funky, Latin, rock & roll). If there’s any doubt, count straight eighths and triplets out loud while you listen and see which one matches. If it’s a shuffle, you can notate phrases in straight eighths for simplicity but play them ‘swung.’ 

Form

Traditional blues is usually based on familiar progressions like 12-bar and 8-bar, but if the progression doesn't sound familiar, listen to the section you want to transcribe and sketch out bar lines (every four beats) on staff or tab paper so you can see the overall form. I

Chords

In blues-based music, the bass player almost always plays the root of the chord on the downbeat of each change. If the changes aren’t familiar, listen to the bass and match pitch with the roots in order to sketch out the harmony.

Next, figure out the chord types. Chords are identified by their quality, or structure; general qualities are dominant, minor, and major; specific qualities are dominant seventh, dominant ninth, major sixth etc. To identify general chord quality, sing the bass note, then sing the first three notes of a major scale and hold that note while you listen to the chord. If this note (the major third) fits the sound of the chord, it’s dominant (the most common chord quality in blues); if not, it’s minor. Knowing general qualities is enough for most transcription purposes; the best way to learn to hear specific qualities is to expand your repertoire of standard chords and rhythm styles. 

Melodies

Listening to phrases, rather than individual notes, is the most musical and efficient approach to transcribing melodies. The basic process of transcribing a phrase is to listen to it and sing along until you memorize it, then match the notes you’re singing with your guitar (use notation as desired). It’s simple enough in principle, but in practice, until you gain experience and develop your vocabulary you may need to take a more analytic approach. 

Start by humming the melodic rhythm of the phrase while tapping your foot - what beats does it start and end on? Where are the rests? Sketching it on paper helps you to see it as well as hear it. Next, add the notes, one at a time if necessary - listen, sing, and match pitch with your guitar. You don’t have to go in order - if you’re only sure of the first and last notes, go back and forth to fill in the ones in between. If you get stuck on a certain phrase, move to the next one - often, a blues solo contains similar phrases with slight variations that shed light on the tricky one. 

After you rough out part or all of the phrase, play along with the recording to check your work. Repeat the process as needed - depending on the complexity, you may need to listen to a phrase dozens of times as you peel back the layers and really ‘hear’ it, but it does get easier the more you do it. 

Positions

Deciding where a phrase is located on the neck is subject to a number of variables. The most obvious choice usually winds up being best, but there isn’t always a single correct answer and your opinion may change as your listening and playing skills develop. For example, since I first transcribed “Crosscut Saw” by Albert King decades ago, my opinion about where to play it has changed several times as I learned more of his solos, improved my skills, and thought about it from different angles. While I never play it note-for-note, I learned different ways to skin the cat that I use all the time. 

Touch

When you have captured the notes and rhythms of a phrase, the next challenge is touch - vibrato, dynamics, blue notes, tone, and all of the other techniques that give the phrase its depth. These are the essence of personal style, and they take much longer to master than the notes themselves. A transcription is a living entity - it keeps evolving along with your playing and hearing skills. 

Memorization and Application

Even after you finish transcribing a solo, the process is still not complete. The next step is to memorize and play it from end to end, going deeper each time - qualities like flow, dynamics, and swing emerge only after many repetitions. Tear it apart, pull out phrases that you can use elsewhere, and give it your own spin - you earned it, so you own it. The goal of transcribing is not to play a solo note-for-note - it’s to unlock the ideas and touch of a great player and use that knowledge to develop your own voice. 

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keith wyatt - blues guitar teacher at ArtistWorks

Keith Wyatt teaches blues guitar online at ArtistWorks, click below for more info and free sample lessons!

Learn more about blues guitar lessons at ArtistWorks

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