Transcribing Solos and Making Them Your Own

My goal in this post (and others) is to teach you how to learn for yourself. So instead of just teaching you specific things I aim to teach you how to go about the process of learning. This will allow you to develop a learning system. Here we are talking about learning the language of jazz through the music itself.

Transcribing music is the most direct path to learning a style, such as jazz improvisation. Imagine trying to learn French from a book rather than imitating real French people. But if you’ve already transcribed an entire solo and even learned it note for note you might be wondering how this will help you improvise your own solos. I’ve been able to play amazing solos at high speeds but that didn’t translate to improvising my own solos. While transcribing a whole solo will develop your ear, the trick is to take one phrase and work with it for a while until it is fully absorbed into your playing. We often bounce around to different topics and so nothing new gets into our playing.

The basic steps I follow for transcribing are:
-find a solo I like for a song I am working on (eg. Roland Kirk’s version of Blues for Alice)
-transcribe a phrase (one you like or one over a trouble spot in the tune). I highly recommend and own Transcribe! software (affiliate link)
-sing (even if you’re a bad singer like me) and learn how to play the phrase on your instrument. Sing at a slower tempo if it’s really fast.
-understand how the phrase works (more on this below)
-take the idea and use it in different songs and over different chords
-twist the idea and make it your own (more on this below)

Here’s Blues for Alice by Roland Kirk. The first 2 measures of the solo at roughly 0:40-0:43 will be analyzed.

Here’s the phrase transcribed:

Understanding How the Phrase Works

When I analyze a phrase I look at the chord(s) and for starters what notes are on the strong beats (beats 1 and 3). Sometimes these are anticipated (on the previous ‘and’ beat, eg ‘and of 4’). Sometimes there are no notes on the strong beat. In this case we have no note on beat 1, but the next 3 notes are a descending scale fragment that targets C on beat 3 (the fifth of F6). This is a perfect example of Forward Motion by Hal Galper. I have that book and highly recommend it (affiliate link).

Next we have another 3 note fragment starting on ‘and of 2’ and approaching the E of Em7(b5) on beat 1 of measure 2. From E we play D (minor 7th) and then the C# over the A7 (major 3rd). This is another common device and strong harmonic movement – a ii V moving from the min7 of ii to maj3 of V which is a half step movement.

Then instead of descending from C# down to Bb (b9) Roland Kirk transposes it up an octave to the Bb then descends to G (min7) then up chromatically to the A, at which point we’re on the Dm7 on beat 1 of measure 3. Hopefully you’ve followed me during this analysis as it’s pretty straightforward.

How to Make it Your Own

There are a variety of things you can do to use these ideas in your own soloing. You might come up with some of your own:
-target other chord tones besides the 5th (C) over F6 using a 3 note descending approach
-try ascending to the chord tone C (and others) instead of descending as Rolank Kirk did
-Use the E, D, C# (root, min7 over ii and major 3rd over V) idea over other ii V ‘s
-anticipate the chord tones (play one eighth note earlier than strong beats)

Transcribing has other values as well, as you learn to imitate your idols even every nuance, develop technique, develop your ear and so on. When you find yourself frustrated with your progress, try to remember to get back to the basics – imitating the master’s and twisting the ideas for your own purposes.

Transcribing is a much more direct path to learning than many other methods (scales, arpeggios, etc) and is incredibly inspiring. Looking for shortcuts to learn guitar can be a sign that you’re not willing to put in the required work, or it can be a logical desire to seek the most efficient path.

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