Transcribing. Part 1. The "Why" of Transcribing

The most popular article on the entire site so far has been the transcription of Autumn Leaves, by a factor of 2x over any other article. In fact, 9 of the top 10 most-viewed articles up here are a transcription of something - Whims of Chambers, or the ii-v's post, (which were all transcribed by David Baker from some recordings), or even a pop tune like Let's Dance.

Bass people like them some transcriptions it seems.

But rather than being at the mercy of my seemingly endless supply of generosity and witty thoughtfulness, what if there was a way, some way to have all the transcriptions you could ever want, a vast, unending supply of vibrant and illuminating musical documents spilling over upon and about ones self. And what if these were all basically free. Without cost, forcing you to re-numerate no man and expand your musicality as you saw fit. What a paradise that would be. Heavy Sigh. But alas, this can only be some twisted crazy fantasy utopia, the rantings of a mad dreamer, I should dare not to even speak of such things openly, it surely can't be possible. As many transcriptions as one could ever want? Of anything? How, how could it be? Where? Tell me more, you say, where is this never ending supply of transcriptions??? Dare you dream with me???!!!

Yea, see that pile of CD's on your floor, and that long list of mp3s in your Itunes playlist?

There they all are. Just waiting for you to write them down.

YOU. Yea, that's right - YOU.

You are the best source there is for transcriptions you like.

I mentioned in the Autumn Leaves post I would be happy to talk more about transcribing, and lo and behold, someone, oh lets call him "David Frank", sent me an email:
Dear Mr. Ridiculoso,

thanks for your efforts, particularly the Autumno Leaves transcription. You threatened to write more about the process of transcription. I'd be interested to read your deeply considered and carefully worded thoughts!



Now, obviously Mr. Frank is a man of intellect and refinement and recognizes fellow greatness when he steps in it. And far be it from me to ever succumb to the more base and carnal impulses of my oh so human nature by responding positively to direct flattery and attention, but how can I resist such a poignant and scholarly request. I cannot, I say.

So then, my flock, join me and we shall follow that crazy crazy dream and during this two part article you will learn how YOU, yes, YOU are going to be able to transcribe anything it is you want to learn from and become so overflowing with ridiculoso you will talk funny and no one will even care.

I started writing this and the post kinda exploded, so I am breaking it into two parts - this first one is WHY transcribing is so great, and then the second post will be on how to actually do it, with a real tune.

Now, It seems a bit silly that in some quarters the idea of transcribing is not understood to be beneficial, but apparently that is the case. We shall start there and decimate that feeble myth quite convincingly and then we shall speak no more of such foolishness.

The Why of Transcribing

We don't really need to go over how important and fundamental transcribing is to learning how to play and develop as an improvising musician do I? What?? Really?

Oh man....Uh, Branford, you want to take this one for me, sir?

Oh Mr. Gourlay, you have a few things to say on the matter as well, based on your own personal first hand experince?

Hmmm I don't know, I mean, that sounds great, and kinda makes sense and all Rob, I guess, but I don't know, man, but how do I know it works?

Oh. Okay. Never mind.

If any knucklehead out there tries to tell you, hey man, he doesn't transcribe because, you know, "he doesnt want to sound like anyone but himself", just tell him great, have fun talking in your own private made up language that uses words no one but you understands, freak. Enjoy the musical equivalent of muttering to yourself in pretend speak on stage, cat lady.

In fact, for most of the history of the human race, a process that is basically the equivalent of transcribing has been the ONLY way people have been able to learn how to make music. Think about that.

Only for the last 100 years or so with recording technology has learning from "records" been possible, so that is a 20th-century-only option. For the entire history of human music making before that, if you wanted to learn how to play a piece of music you had two and only two choices -
  1. Have a person who already knows how to play what you want to learn, play that piece for you and then you imitate it. As many times as it took until you got it.
  2. Starting around ohhh the year 1000-ish or so, the option of looking at some kind of musical notation started to become an option. But considering that only about 2% of the earths population could read, you know, WORDS at that point, there were not very many folks reading music for several hundred years. So you are back to using method 1, which is basically, you got it, - transcribing. Hearing something and figuring out how to play it by imitation.
Today, even some drummers can read small words if they sound them out, we let them go to school and everything, so we add the step of writing down the notes as well since it it much more common. But the core skill is about hearing and repeating, which, for the vast majority of the time our species has been banging on hollow logs, or singing, or plucking on things, has been the only way humans ever learned how to play something.

DVD's, play-alongs, chord scale theory, Omnibook, all that stuff is great but...it is the complete opposite of the way that humans learned music for centuries.

If you are going to get in a fist fight with evolution over how you think music should be learned, uh, my money is on evolution. It ALWAYS wins.

Humans didn't learn scales or theories or note relationships first and then Caveman Ogg showed Caveman Grog how to do that neat thumpity thumpity on the hollow brown thing that was not a rock. No, Grog sat down and imitated Ogg as he banged on the hollow brown thing that was not a rock until he learned how to do it to and then they banged together.

Just like all the players you probably dig now learned how to play, via imitation. A lot of the players whose names we all know did it exactly the same way. And that's why we know who they are. Sure, some of them also went and got all book learned at some fancy-pants music school, and learned words like "semi-demi-hemi-quaver", but that also is a relatively recent phenomena in the big time scale of humans playing music.

Quotes about transcription

A small sampling and examples from some seriously good players, not all of them jazz guys either. These say a lot.

Marcus Miller (Miles Davis, Chaka Kahn, David Sanborn, everyone under the sun)

From http://www.jacopastorius.com/features/marcusmiller.html

"I was around 15 years old and a drummer friend of mine told me I had to check this record out. It was Jaco's first album. The first thing I heard was "Donna Lee". I have to admit, I didn't quite get it. It just sounded like some cat playing whatever notes he felt like. I was just learning about jazz and hadn't progressed in my own development to where I could even begin to comprehend what Jaco was doing. But this guy was obviously good so I got the record for myself and began to really listen to it

It stayed on my turntable for around two years. (Note: in another interview Marcus said he would just put other records ontop of Jaco's record, it never came off his turn table)

I slowly began to appreciate what Jaco was doing. I was studying music pretty intensely then and it seemed like each step I took in my development allowed me to appreciate that Jaco album more. I'll never forget when, just for kicks, I decided to walk the changes to "Donna Lee" on my bass while Jaco's version was playing. This was probably a year into listening to Jaco's album and I had finally learned "Donna Lee" at school. I was still assuming that, once Jaco stated Charlie Parker's melody, he pretty much was playing any ole' thing that he wanted and that it had nothing to do with the changes. Well I'm walking the changes under Jaco's melody and continue the changes under Jaco's 'crazy solo' and of course realize that it's not crazy at all! I realize that he's playing the changes -- and not just playing them. He was creating harmonies and lines that were so amazing it was sick! My appreciation of him grew so much that afternoon."

Think Marcus has internalized some of Jaco's licks through repeated listening and transcribing? Yea, maybe.

Scott Henderson (Electric Band, Zawinul Syndicate, GIT Instructor, Tribal Tech)

"If I had any words of wisdom, I would just say that transcription is really the key to everything. I mean, some guys think, “Ok, I’ve gotta go to music school, and I’ve gotta spend a lot of money to do this, or to do that, or to learn that.” Music school really is just about communicating to other people what to call this, or what to call that. It’s never gonna substitute for doing the work of just sitting down and learning stuff from your records. That’s how ninety percent of the great musicians today have learned how to play — by listening to other players, copying them at first, but discovering your own voice later. You copy from a lot of different people and keep your range as wide as possible — that’s really the key to getting better, faster. The more input there is, the more output there is."
Janek Gwizdala (Mike Stern, Pat Metheny, Randy Brecker, Airto, Hiram Bullock, VV Brown, Bob Reynolds, Solo Artist)

When asked about transcribing on a TalkBass thread. Some of the solos he started with.

I was inspired to play the bass by a Welsh bass player named Laurence Cottle. He's a monster bass player and really great human being. I saw him in a pub one sunday lunchtime in London and decided that was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I went out and bought a bass and hit the shed. I haven't stopped ever since. That was in about 1995 as far as I remember. We lived close to each other and he took me to all his gigs. I used to record them all on a small tape recorder and then, when he dropped me home after the gig, would transcribe all the stuff on the tapes and learn it note for note. This was a great basis for trying to build my own sound upon.

So, to your specific questions.

1. yes, I always learn stuff on the bass that I'm transcribing. Don't forget that I normally transcribe at the piano so I'm working it all out on piano up to speed too. It's time consuming, but it makes all the difference. You bury these things that you're transcribing deep into your mind and your subconscious. And that's where it should stay, until it surfaces as something original in your own playing and sound.

2. It doesn't matter that there are only 24 hrs in the day. How do you think Trane came up with those solos for all of us to transcribe? he was in the shed! all day, every day. It's a life-long commitment, and something that you have to be totally focussed on to get to the next level. If you're going to do it, and you love what you do, then work as hard as you possibly can. Put in 10hrs a day if you really want to get the most out of what you're doing. ....

I rarely transcribe a complete solo these days. I started out with about 200 complete solos in the first few years of transcribing. Now I find small phrases that interest me, that I can take and develop and make my own. This is very important for creating your own voice. Don't just stop at learning these peoples music, take it and make it your own. Build your own ideas and vocabulary from what you are taking from all these records.

Fun Fact: Here is the guy Janek shadowed and transcribed. Monster bass player is putting it mildly.

Ed Tomassi (Professor of Ensembles at Berklee)

On what he has his students do: "I have them do a lot of transcribing."

So you can pay $40,000 a year to have Ed tell you to go transcribe some stuff...or you can just do it. You owe me $40,000 now by the way.

Snippet from Eddie Van Halens first ever interview in 1978.

Guitar.com: What guitar players were you most influenced by?

Van Halen: That's a toughie, really. But I'd say the main one, believe it or not, was Eric Clapton. I mean, I know I don't sound like him.

Guitar.com: You're more like Hendrix or Blackmore.

Van Halen: Yeah, I know. I don't know why, because Hendrix I like, but I was never into him like I was Clapton. And Clapton, man, I know every solo he ever played, note-for-note, still to this day.

Guitar.com: You memorized them?

Van Halen: Oh, yeah! I used to sit down and learn that stuff note-for-note off the record. The live stuff, like "Spoonful," "I'm So Glad" live, all that stuff. But Hendrix too.

Guitar.com: What advice would you give a young guitarist who wants to follow the route you've gone?

Van Halen: You just have to enjoy what you're doing. I mean, you can't pick up a guitar and say, "I want to be like him, I wanna be a rock star," just because you wanna be a rock star. You know? You have to enjoy playing guitar. If you don't enjoy playing guitar, then it's useless. I know a lot of people who really want to be famous or whatever, but they don't really practice guitar. They think all you do is grow your hair long and look freaky and jump around, and they neglect the actual musical end, which is tough. To learn music is like going to school to be a lawyer. But you have to enjoy it. If you don't enjoy it, it's a waste.

Miles Osland (Professor at University of Kentucky). His Micheal Brecker transcriptions have been published in Downbeat magazine.

During his master class at the University of Kentucky, the question of the practicality of the study of transcribed solos was posed to Michael Brecker. His answer was that he is aware of the advantage that younger students have with the use of improv and transcription books. He did not have access to the many volumes of transcribed solos that are available today, and he completed all of his transcribing the old fashioned way: with concentrated listening and the destruction of a lot of grooves in the old vinyl LP’s. He wants to make sure that students never lose their curiosity and enjoy the magic of listening to improvisation. In his words: The problem is if you rely on the books too much, it seems to me that you’re stamping out your own individuality and it makes it harder to erase the information from your subconscious. I’m glad, in a way, that Coltrane didn’t explain everything that he did because it left a lot to my imagination. "

Joshua Redmond (Tenor Player, jazz soloist, played with everyone)

From his website FAQ when asked what solos he would recommend transcribing

"I would recommend learning any solo (or chorus, or phrase, or lick) that you find compelling. If it speaks to you, if it moves you, if you dig it, then by all means transcribe it. And you may find that the actual process of transcription is just as important as what, or who, you choose to transcribe. I would also recommend, wherever possible, trying to learn solos by ear and memory, without actually writing them down (transcribing without the "scribing"), as well as learning them in multiple keys. Now, there are hundreds and hundreds (thousands!) of solos that I love, by musicians of virtually every conceivable instrument, era and genre. So for every one that I have listed here, there are countless others that I could (and probably should!) have mentioned. You'll notice that for the sake of focus (and sanity!) ....when it comes to learning solos, "difficulty" can be a rather relative and subjective concept. The Dewey Redman solo, for example, might seem fairly straightforward to transcribe from a melodic and harmonic standpoint, since much of it is based on a "simple" G blues scale. But try to master all the nuances of tone, inflection, rhythm, phrasing, feeling . . . well . . . that could take a lifetime!

I could probably have 3000 other quotes from guys that you all know saying more or less the same thing, they copied and learned the licks they liked off records from players that inspired them. Jaco did it, (check out his instructional video where he plays a bass line that Jerry Jemmot, the guy interviewing him played on a BB King record), Jeff Berlin does it (he does crazy things like Keith Jarret piano solos and stuff), Janek, you name 'em he/she probably learned that way.

So, the prosecution rests. If you still are reticent and don't get it...well, my knucklehead paisan, you are loco da capo. Head crazy. Nuts. Bonkers.

And now, as a final gesture, I shall resort to shame and ridicule those still not convinced....I mean, its perfectly okay that you don't think transcribing is important, sure, its up to you, I mean, I guess you want 13 year old girls that invest the time and do the work to play better than you can....hey, you know, its your choice, thats cool.

She gets it. Could you play something like that 9 months after you started playing? Gee, she can. Weird. I wonder why.

1 comment:

Houston said...

Hello Basso,

In this article you promise Transcribing, Part 2 where you are to spew genius pearls upon the "how" of transcribing. Would you please post a link to that article?

This is the best bass-based site on the web. Thanks

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