BY TOM WAKELING
It is important for students of jazz music to gain a jazz 'vocabulary', a
collection of jazz melodies and solo ideas. It is also important to become
familiar with the different playing styles of the great jazz players. One way to
do this is by transcribing solos, tunes, and arrangements from recordings
(learning the music by ear and then writing it down). Following is a step by
step, organized way to approach transcribing.
1. Begin with short forms, simple solos.
2. Look for a tune for which you know the progression when possible, or try to
find the progression in a jazz fake book.
3. Check your turntable/cassette deck with a piano or tuner to assure proper
pitch and key.
4. Tape your selection in order to make re-listen- ing to a particular phrase
easier to do.
5. Re-play problem (or fast) passages at 1/2 speed (7 1/2 to 3 3/4 IPS on tape
or 33 to 16 1/2 on a turntable). This lowers the pitch one octave and reduces
6. It is best to use your own instrument to transcribe with, rather than a piano
(unless you are a pianist). It is sometimes helpful to use a piano to solve
questions about the harmony.
7. On a sheet of manuscript paper, mark off the number of measures (using double
bars to delineate sections if you desire) and write the chord changes above the
measures. Use slash marks to indicate where chords fall in measures where there
are two or more chords. During this process you should be listening to become
aware of the form of the tune, identifying "guideposts" (number of
bars in each section, recurring rhythmic figures, recurring phrase patterns,
etc.) which might help you as you progress to the "note by note"
process of the transcription.
8. On a separate sheet of paper begin your transcription of the solo line. Begin
by putting the pitches in each measure or phrase using only note heads; fill in
the beams and stems (rhythms) after completion of each few bars.
Be sure to refer back to your chord/form sheet (*7 above); knowledge of the
harmony might be helpful in identifying "mystery pitches" in the solo
9. If you encounter problems in identifying the pitches in order, it is a good
idea to identify the most easily heard pitches in the bar or phrase first,
filling in the harder to hear pitches after identifying those which are more
apparent. Many times, identifying the more easily heard pitches in a measure or
phrase will make the mystery notes easier to find.
10. Play back phrases or sections at regular speed to check for accuracy; play
along with the recording.
11. Play along with the whole solo many times, preferably without the music. If
you have used your own instrument to transcribe the solo you will be surprised
at how easy it is to play the solo from memory.
Baker, David. A New Approach to Ear Training for Jazz Musicians. Hialeah,
Florida: Studio P. R., 1976.
Coker, Jerry. The Jazz Idiom. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice Hall,
Note from Geoff Peters:
I received this article on a sheet of paper from Tom Wakeling when I
attended the New West Jazz Clinic quite a few years ago. I have found it very
useful, and I typed and posted this article on my web site in the hopes that it will encourage
more people to transcribe jazz. It is not my objective to profit by posting this
article! I will promptly remove it upon the author's request.
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