Start Transcribing Today
If you’re frustrated with your lack of progress but are practicing your butt off night after night, then you might want to keep reading! I’m going to show you a really simple yet powerful idea you can start using today to transform your guitar playing.
Although this is an advanced concept, there is no reason why you can’t try this, even if you’re a beginner guitarist with the basics nailed.
What is Transcribing?
To me, it’s this –
“The ability to hear a piece of music, figure it out and then write it down”
Why Do We Need To Transcribe?
If you’ve ever gone looking for a TAB and couldn’t find, then learn how to transcribe it will help you solve this problem once and for all. Plus if you’re able to write it up, you can share it with the world using one of the many TAB sites.
I use it to work out everything from whole songs to guitar solos, even down to individual licks. It means I can play along with songs I currently liked or steal an idea from someone.
I actually couldn’t teach without it, as I teach my students concept and idea using other people’s songs.
A lot of the gig’s I have done professionally, were artists who gave me MP3 (or a CD) and left me to get on with it! You see I had to be able to transcribe in order to take the gig.
Also once you get seriously good at it, you’ll be able to do it on the fly. Just imagine being able to trade licks with the keyboard player, by playing something really similar back just in your own style!
This is just some of the ways I use transcribing. And so can you.
How Do We Transcribe?
I’m going to walk you through the progress that I go through. I’m picking a song but you could follow the steps below to work out a guitar solo or even a lick.
Step 1: Listen
I will listen to the song a few times, maybe as high as 10 or as few as 2. But I will give my full attention to it.
Step 2: Structure
I’ll listen again and note down the structure and the sections of the song. Does it start with an Intro? Is there a guitar solo after the third chorus?
I’ll note this down on paper, using a pencil, so it’s not permanent – in case I’m wrong. I always write the structure in the margin, down the page, allowing enough space to write out the bars contain in that section. If it’s a simple song, I can usually get 8 bars per line, whereas if it’s complex with lots of weird chords – I only might fit in 4 bars.
At this stage get a rough idea of structure noted down, don’t worry too much about getting it perfect.
Step 3: First Note
Next we need to find the key of the song. The best way to do this is to pick up a guitar, make sure it’s in tune!
The chorus is usually the best place to start as the chords are more likely to be obvious and the guitar part could be easier to hear and therefore easier to work out.
Over the chorus, I will try and find the first chord or two. I’ll start with bass notes, any random one will do. How does it sound? Not right?! Try another one.
At this point it’s just trial and error. It could take a few times round the chorus for you to find the first chord’s bass note.
When you’ve got it make a note, just a single letter will do. This is where you need to know what the notes are called on the fretboard.
Step 4: Second Note
So, you’ve got the first chord’s bass note, that’s great! You now need to think about the second chord and it’s bass note. Are we moving down, up or staying put? If down how far down are we moving? Are we moving down a string? If, instead we’ve moving up, how many frets? Once you’ve got it, again, write it down.
Step 5: Finishing Off
Keep going until you have what you think are the bass notes for the whole of the chorus section. Don’t worry too much if some are wrong – over time you’ll hearing will improve and it’ll be easier.
Step 5: Actual Chords
Now that you have the complete bass line for the chorus, it’s time to work out what the chords actually are. Think in terms of triads – why? It’s the simple form of chords we have. Simple is always better!
So using triads we have four types: Major, Minor, Augmented and Diminished.
You will probably only use major chords and minor chords.
Try playing ever chord major to begin with. What chords work vs. what sounds off? If it works, than just leave the bass note as you have it – just now it’s a chord. If it sound wrong, it’s either a minor chord or it’s a wrong note.
The only way to find out is to try. So play through the chorus again, trying with this chord as a minor with the rest as major. If it sounds right, it’s a minor, and so you’ll want to write a little m next to the bass note to indicate it’s a minor chord.
However, if it’s a wrong note, stop there and just listen to it a few more times. Usually after a couple of times through you should be able hear it and be able to correct it.
ADVANCED – if there’s a guitar playing, try to find out the chord voicings they are using. Tricky!
Step 6: Timing
Next up, you need to think about timing. Are we playing four note per chord – this means we have a chord per bar. Or do we have two chords per bar. Are we playing a passing chord on beat four? Is that second chord being pushed so we play it on the + of the 2, rather than on beat 3?
Again, have a go – write down the timing for the chorus.
I generally use slashes to note simple rhythms like one chord per bar or two chord playing two beat. I only ever write out the full rhythm if it’s a critical part of the song, for example I would write out the full rhythm of a chic riff as what Nile Rodgers is playing is the hook of the song. If I’m going to play the song properly, I need to nail the exact rhythm Nile is playing.
Step 7: Verses
Following the steps above, work out the chords for the verses, again it will take some time.
Then go back over and listen for the timing – try to get a rough idea written down, so that you can come back to later and get it perfect.
Step 8: What’s left
Next up is the sections that are left. You might have a solo or a Bridge or a pre-chorus. Whatever you have left, this is the time to work it out.
Step9: Write it up!
You should have a rough chord chart, with the correct timing, written in pencil by this point. If you have, well done! You’ve done great.
You now need to try it out, if there’s a wrong chord or two, now is the time to fix it.
When you’re happy it’s completed, time to write it up in pen and make it look pro.
Step 10: Try it again!
Start another song, something a little bit harder, more complex. Test yourself. Keep trying and you’ll see the improvement in your playing.
When Should We Transcribe?
You should try it today. Try it now!
If you’ve followed the steps above, then you’ve transcribed a whole song. The best thing to do is to share it with another guitarist and get some feedback. How you share is completely up to you but go ahead share!
Have you started? What was the first piece you tried?