A Guide to Transcribing Jazz Solos

Solo transcription is a vital part of learning how to play Jazz. Learning how to play the solos of important improvisers note for note is a long-standing tradition in the community and one that builds a number of critical skills for every musician (even musicians who are not interested in playing “Jazz). However, this process can be intimidating for the newly-initiated. In this article, I’m going to break down the steps of transcribing a solo and offer some tips along the way.

Step 0: Play a lot of solo transcriptions

Before you embark on your own solo transcription project, I highly recommend studying other people’s solo transcriptions. Observe what kinds of information they include, how they notate difficult rhythms, and how notational practices vary from transcriber to transcriber.

Not sure where to look first? I have a lot of solo transcriptions available on my website for free!

I also recommend searching for a transcription book of one of your favorite player’s solos. The Charlie Parker Omnibook is a popular starting point for many saxophonists. There are comparable books like this for a number of players (and not just saxophonists).

Back to transcribing a solo yourself…

Step 1: Listen to the solo, a LOT of times

Become incredibly familiar with the solo. When you know it well, no sections or notes should sound surprising. Be able to sing along to the solo. This doesn’t mean you need to be an amazing vocalist or have 100% pitch accuracy, but do the best you can. This level of familiarity will help you be able to transcribe the solo faster and retain the information better.

Plus, if you are able to tolerate listening to it that many times, you must really love the solo. Transcribe solos you love and want to emulate. Don’t choose a solo only because you feel like you are “supposed” to transcribe that solo or player.

Step 2: Figure out the form

How many choruses does the soloist take? Does the soloist start playing at the top of the form or have a short solo break leading into it? What tune is the soloist playing on and how many bars are in each chorus? What are the chord changes?

Answering these questions can help you map out the solo so you can fill in the details later. It can also help you divide the solo into smaller chunks to transcribe.

Step 3: Rhythms and notes

This step is perhaps the most daunting. There are a few ways to make this process a little easier.

If you’re stuck, transcribe the rhythm first. Write down the rhythms without any pitches. Make sure you have the correct amount of beats for the time signature. Then assign pitches to the rhythms. If you have too many pitches to fit in the rhythm, then reevaluate the rhythm you transcribed. It is a tedious process, but it helps to isolate one part, the rhythm.

Don’t be afraid to slow down the recording. This is not cheating. People have been doing this for a long time, and in this day in age we are fortunate to have technology that makes this incredibly easy! Here are a few things to try:

  • Audacity – free software for your computer, make sure you “change tempo” instead of “change speed” to keep the pitch consistent
  • Amazing Slow Downer – phone and computer versions, exceptional sound quality maintained even when substantially slowing down the recording
  • Transcribe – a powerful computer software designed specifically for transcribing music
  • YouTube – If you are transcribing a live performance that you can only find on YouTube, it is possible to slow down the speed of the recording in the settings at the bottom right of the video display.

Loop sections of the solo. If you have an audio file of the solo, loop a small section (even 1 bar). Play the recording, then try to play it on your instrument. Go back and forth until you get it. It is tedious, but there is really no way around this hard work!

Step 4 (optional): Write it down

I personally think there is a lot of value in writing down a solo. It allows you to observe the solo on the page in addition to experiencing it aurally. More perspectives = more knowledge.

Some transcribers like to learn the entire solo on their instrument before writing it down while others prefer to write down the solo as they learn it. I have used both of these methods and found that I can learn a solo faster by writing it down as I learn it, but will retain the improvisational vocabulary if I learn the whole solo on my instrument before writing it down.

Some rhythms are difficult, if not impossible to write down using our limiting music notation nomenclature. One common work around for this is using words such as “lay back” over sections that are behind the beat or “rush” for sections on top of the beat. There are many variations on theses phrases, and you might need to make up your own!

There are two main options for writing out the solo – pencil and manuscript paper or a music notation software. I personally like to write everything out by hand first and then entire it into a software. I usually use Archives paper because it is thick and the off-white color is easy to stare at for a long time.

There are wide variety of music notation softwares. I use Finale, but if you are just getting started with music engraving, I recommend trying Noteflight. It is very intuitive and will give you all the tools you need – and more – to get started with transcribing. Plus, you can start with a free account.

Some more advice

Here are some more pointers for your transcribing journey.

Learn the tune that the soloist is playing on, especially if it’s a standard. Learn the melody and the chord progression. Better yet, learn the lyrics (if applicable), or at least read through them and know what the song is about.

Play along with the original recording. This helps you check for note accuracy, but, more importantly, it helps you emulate the nuances of the performance – time feel, vibrato, articulations, etc.

Record yourself playing the solo (alone, with the original recording, with a backing track, all of the above). Listening back to the recording will give you a more objective way to determine what you’re nailing and what needs more work. This is true for practicing in general, not just solo transcription!

I mentioned this previously, but I will say it again. Transcribe what you love. The saying goes “you are what you eat.” The same thing applies musically; you will begin to start sounding more like the people you transcribe. Don’t transcribe something just because you think it will make your teacher happy or impress your friends. Choose something that resonates with you.

I hope you found this guide helpful! How do you approach transcribing solos? Who are your favorite musicians to transcribe? Let me know in the comments.

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