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Transcription: Going from ‘Good’ to ‘Great’

Remember when you were a kid and you used to get yelled at for taking things apart? Maybe it was a remote control, your Nintendo, or your mother’s vacuum. Humans seem to have an insatiable desire to know how things work. The best way to learn how something works, much to the dismay of wives and mothers everywhere, is to simply dismantle it!

It’s for this reason that I don’t understand why people have such an aversion to transcribing music. If you studied music at a post-secondary level, chances are you had some crotchety old professor who attempted to instill the value of transcription on you.

Maybe there were more to his ramblings than you thought.

Let me ask you a question: if you were charged with the task of improving the design of an engine what would your approach be? Would you chose to read volumes of published material on engine design (of which only a fraction may deal with your specific set of problems), or would you take apart a similar engine to see how it works? Ideally you’d be able to do a limited amount of reading, but the most effective solution would be to get your hands dirty and dismantle the engine and put it back together.

So why are we so hesitant to apply this idea to music?

Well, for one, it’s difficult at first. Like many guitarists, you may struggle with writing the difficult syncopated rhythms that are associated with popular music. Even simple catchy melodies can be difficult to notate rhythmically at times. Secondly, if your teacher is a bit of a drill sergeant (like yours truly) he may expect you to begin transcribing different or more difficult music as you progress. Not only that, but he may have you transcribing vocal melodies and melodies played by your non-native instrument!

The method behind the madness of transcription is that it seems to enhance both one’s conscious and unconscious understanding of what is being transcribed. By ‘dismantling’ these pieces, you will get to the nuts and bolts of how the piece works. The rhythmic structure will be more clear, as well as the harmonic relationships between the melody and accompaniment. Transcription may also assist your understanding of expressive techniques such as dynamics and vibrato. I would contend however, that much of the learning that takes place when you are transcribing is somewhat unconscious. I have found that the melodic ideas my students learn via transcription tend to work themselves back into their playing immediately. I believe this tendency has to do with the fact that during the transcription process it is often necessary to try a number of variations of what you may think a melodic idea consists of before actually figuring it out.

In this way, the act of trying to transcribe a melody works sort of like an etude. A number of very skilled and successful teachers advocate creating etudes out of challenging or interesting licks. In doing this a student can explore the melodic possibilities of a lick more fully. The act of transcription has us trying numerous ways of playing a single lick or melody, which in turn feels a lot like playing an etude. Furthermore, if you are anything like me, once you play a melody you immediately begin trying new possibilities and melodic directions.

Ideas for Implementation

Transcription has a bit of a learning curve, but is extremely worthwhile. You will, however, get very good at transcribing and eventually need new avenues for exercising your ears. Here are some ideas:

Transcribe Simple but Catchy Guitar Hooks

These could be simple riffs, maybe something played by the Edge or the Strokes, or your favourite new techno-hip hop synth hook (kidding – I assume most of you hate T-Pain). Any simple lick that you find catchy is a good place to begin. Feel free to imagine variations of the same lick.

Transcribe Vocal Melodies

In my masterclass on phrasing, I explain how vocal melodic phrasing is the prequel to instrumental melodic phrasing. Listeners have been conditioned to unconsciously compare instrumental melodies to vocal melodies and expect to hear similar phrasing, breath, and tools for repetition/variation. Now that you know this, take advantage of it! Become the guitarist everyone wants to hear by internalizing vocal melodies through transcription!

Transcribe Melodies Played by Different Instruments

Jazz guitarists spend hours transcribing sax lines. Transcribing melodies played by different instruments can take you out of the box. Brett Garsed and Allan Holdsworth both have both given credit to the sax players they listen to for inspiration, and they are only two popular examples. Many more professional guitarists have done the same, from shredders to jazzers to blues players.

Transcribe Uncomfortable Music

Try transcribing music that is outside of your comfort zone. Perhaps this means transcribing a very challenging piece, or a genre that is unfamiliar to you. Here is a challenge to my fellow shredders out there: transcribe one of Brad Paisley’s solos. Sure, maybe Brent Mason plays faster, but Brad’s solos are full of delightful subtleties that are not easy for most to discern.

Wrapping Up

Transcription may be the most powerful learning tool in existence, but people still refuse to do it because it’s difficult and frustrating. Just as many people would feel infinitely better if they ate half as much fast-food, you will feel infinitely better about your guitar playing if you work some transcription into your weekly routine!

Now go transcribe something so you can roll with the big boys!

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  1. Paul V says:

    Shevy rocks my socks. I don’t know anything about music anymore since I quit mid-way through my Grade 2 classical guitar, but Shelvock would be the guy I’d launch a comeback with.

    Good — no, GREAT article.

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