An aural tradition has always been part of learning how to play jazz guitar, because along with learning tunes and playing with other musicians it’s one of the most effective ways to get better as a musician.

There’s no doubt about it, all the masters paid their dues by slowing down old 78’s and taking down licks and solos, but as essential as transcribing is, it can also be quite tough, overwhelming, and frustrating when it’s not done right.

After having transcribed countless solos and licks over the years I have discovered several ways of how to transcribe guitar make this process easier and faster which I will be sharing with you.


transcribe guitar



Listen First, Pick Later


You have to listen to transcribe, but far too often it is simply too easy to grab your guitar and hit every note under the sun before arriving at the right one.

There’s nothing wrong with guessing what a note is, but the art of transcribing really comes in being able to hear the note in your head before you play it on the guitar.

Learning to hear notes is a valuable technique that will make you a better musician because playing great guitar is all about connecting what you hear onto the fretboard.

If it’s a single lick keep looping it until it’s firmly in your ears, then try to sing it before playing it which brings me to the next point.



Learn To Sing It


Besides George Benson not many jazz guitarists feel too confident about their singing skills, but the voice is a connection between our minds and our fingers, as well as being a very useful transcription tool.

Take as long as you need to pitch each note of the phrase you are trying to work out before moving onto to the next one.

If the melody is too high or low you can shift it up or down an octave to make it comfortable for your range.

By completing the first two steps in this article you will have got the phrase you want to learn into your ears and ingrained into your language already, pretty cool huh?

Not only does learning to hear and sing notes mean that you can transcribe without your instrument, but it also means that when you pick your instrument up it’s much easier to apply the material because you already know it how it sounds.



Slower is Harder


Now days there seems to be more transcribing software tools than ever before and with a few clicks anyone can easily slow down almost anything on the internet to any tempo they want.

Although this might seem like an easier way to get the job done, it doesn’t benefit you as much in the long run.

Yes it maybe quicker to get down that fast eight note lick you’ve been working on, but if you never attempt transcribing faster lines you’ll never be able to do it.

Think about when you’re on the bandstand trading fours on a fast tune with a sax player.

You need to be able to hear what he’s doing at real time speed, there’s no slow downer button in those situations.

Slowing down will also change how the lick sounds, and make it trickier to remember the rhythms when sped up again, the entire skill of transcribing is hearing and being able to work out phrases, not just the notes.

Although, I am not a fan of slowing down licks the ‘loop’ functions within transcription software are highly recommend and useful, as well as the pitch transposition functions.



Analyze This


Transcription without any kind of analyze is almost entirely useless, because without it all you have is something that sounds cool with no application or knowledge of how the lick works.

Every lick, chord, melody or tune you learn should be analyzed as soon as possible so that you have a practical use for it straight away.

Once you know what a chord, lick, or melody works over you will often find that it will have multiple purposes.

If it helps you can also write down lines in dots to analyze them on paper as this sometimes makes more sense.

When I first began transcribing I never notated, but you’d be surprised how much affect this has on your musicianship and it’s good to have a physical collection of your transcribed work that other musicians can read and that you can refer back to.



Think Big By Learning Small Chunks


One reason that transcription can be frustrating is because we attempt to learn multiple choruses and licks at once.

It’s better to have one chorus of a solo down and firmly understand every lick rather than 10 choruses and only using two licks.

To further that point it also better to have 3 licks that you can have maximum mileage from and use in a variety of situations that 20 stock licks.

Almost every jazz guitarist ranging from Pat Martino and Grant Green have small parts of lines that they get a lot of mileage from.



Other Points To Consider


  •  Make It Your Own: Like everything in music, imitation is part of the process of learning to play but after a while jazz guitarists should experiment and try to come up with their own ideas using what they have transcribed.
  • Transcribe Everything: Sure it’s great to learn a ton of great licks and tunes by ear, but why stop there? Almost everything in day to day life has pitch and rhythm, so why not challenge yourself and develop your aural skills.
  • Feel: At some point or another every guitarist gets bogged down with harmony, but what makes the harmony sound great is the feel from a particular player. It could even be the space that certain players use.


What Should I Transcribe?


Perhaps you’re new to jazz guitar and transcribing is a new thing so you’re not quite sure who to transcribe.

If this is the case some great and easy jazz guitarists I recommend to start with are Kenny Burrell and Grant Green

Both of these guitarists are great for beginners; not only are the lines easy to take down they are also very accessible and rich in feel, groove and easy to apply to practical situations.

Although I recommend starting with guitar transcribing is by no means limited to jazz guitarists.

Every guitarist should be familiar with Miles Davis’ solo on ‘So What’, and most of his early improvisations can be picked up by ear without too much difficulty.

I hope that these points will help make transcribing easier for you. They have certainly made the process easier for me over years, but with all things considered you must practice and transcribe a lot to progress.

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