The Secret Art of Transcribing
It’s important to study music theory and do technical exercises, and it’s fine to learn riffs and solos from tab and teachers. However, if you are not also transcribing, or learning to transcribe, you are missing a crucial part of your development as a musician! Getting started can be intimidating and developing this skill requires time, practice and patience, but the payoffs are well worth the effort!
Early transcribing was done by playing vinyl records at slow speed. The needle had to be manually lifted, moved and returned to the spinning disc. The process was cumbersome but it was the only option at the time. As reel-to-reel tape machines became available, guitarists could still cut the playback speed and it was a little easier to stop and rewind sections. Later, cassette decks with half-speed playback were offered for transcribers. In all of these cases the pitch would drop an octave at half-speed, making leads somewhat decipherable but turning lower riffs and licks to mud. The digital age brought us much better tools for sampling small sections, looping and filtering them. Please see the end of this article for links and resources.
Two essential tools that have not changed over the years are the pencil and eraser. You will want to change things as you work and it will be messy if you use pen. I like to use a mechanical pencil as it never needs sharpening. Finally, headphones will let you hear better than playing through your amp and listening to the source material through your stereo speakers. It’s helpful to have the guitar and the music you are trying to transcribe coming from the same source, either headphones or speakers.
Think for a moment about how you open a bag of chips, for example. Your hands grip and tug at the bag looking for the weakness in the structure. It would be silly to try to rip a hole in the side! We can apply this principle to choosing a piece of music and a part of that music for our transcription efforts. You may want to learn a solo by Steve Vai, but you will probably fare better with a simple riff from a classic rock band. It’s much easier to work with something that is very familiar then with new music that you haven’t heard many times already.
Before you get to work on a riff or lick, it’s a good idea to determine the tuning of the guitar in the recording. Listen for the lowest note in the song. It might be an Eb, in which case you’ll need to tune down to match it- probably to Eb standard. Depending on the style, it could also be D. This might indicate D standard or drop-D. Heavy music will use even lower tunings. If you don’t want to drastically change the tuning of you guitar you can use “drop-pedals” which will make your guitar sound as if it’s tuned to different pitches.
After you have selected a short passage (a handful of notes at most!), use the balance control to isolate parts in the stereo mix. Sometimes a solo is panned to one side more than the other, or there may be two different guitar parts panned left and right. In addition to using the balance to hear a part better, you can try EQ and filters to boost and cut frequencies as needed to make the solo or riff more prominent.
Where is the part played?
One thing to remember is that a phrase sometimes may be played in more than one position on the guitar. Listen closely for clues like pull-offs, slides and open strings to decide where the guitarist originally played the part. You may find that you have transcribed most of a phrase, but then you find a note that cannot be reached from that position. Stop and figure out how the part should be arranged so that it becomes possible for you to play it. If a phrase is flowing seamlessly, you don’t want a big position shift in the middle! If a part is really difficult, loop the smallest section possible and listen to it over and over. If I have slowed a part to half speed and I’m still having trouble, then I use the “transpose” function to take it down a few steps. I know it is out of key, but I might be able to hear it better at the slower speed.
Notate the Rhythms
After you get the notes and positions, go back and notate the rhythms. Listen to the drums to hear where the beats are. If the drums are doing something fancy, maybe there is a keyboard playing steady quarter or eighth notes. If the guitar is playing sixteenth notes, this job is easy. If it is using some slippery blues or rubato phrasing (rhythmic fluctuation), this can be hard to notate.
Once you get practiced at copying by ear, you will find that you cannot trust most tab! Even the highest quality transcriptions often have typographical errors, like a note on the wrong string but the right fret. It is clear that the transcriber had the note right, but it was printed wrong. If the tab is accompanied by standard notation, the note might be correct there. Worse is when you realize the transcriber just plain got it wrong! Actually, the first time you realize that you are correcting a printed piece of music, you will probably feel victorious.
Working with Guitar Lessons
Finally, if you find that even the “slow” examples in your instructional videos are not slow enough, listen to them at reduced speed and with filtering (if needed). You might discover that the examples played at tempo don’t match the slow demonstrations. When Yngwie made his instructional video for REH, the producer would say, “now play it slowly,” and Yngwie would say “that was slowly”!
DigiTech Drop Polyphonic Drop Tune Pitch-Shift Pedal
The “Morpheus Drop Tune” has been discontinued but it’s easy to find one used.
(I’m not affiliated with Sweewater but I do shop with them!)