Solo Transcription
Posted by Chase Sanborn

As hard as it is for an author to admit, you can’t learn to improvise by reading a book or a magazine column. You learn the jazz language the same way you learned your first language: by listening and imitating. For most jazz musicians, this happens through the process of transcribing jazz solos.

Solo transcription is one of the most important of the Jazz Tactics Four Ts (Tunes, Transposition, Theory, Transcription). Figuring out what one soloist played, at one time, over one set of chord changes, accompanied by a specific rhythm section, teaches you more about improvising than hours spent practicing scales or patterns. Vocabulary is only the beginning. As you listen intensely and repeatedly, trying to figure out the notes, you absorb additional information about how the notes fit into the overall harmonic and rhythmic structure. For example: Each note occupies a position in the chord. Whether it is a root, fifth or flat nine, there is a specific sound associated with the note’s relationship to the chord. When you hear that chord played in the future, your ear may lead you to one of these melodic choices. This is the essence of improvising over chord changes, when harmony suggests melody. Transcribing solos will also teach you about time feel and tone quality, two things that can only be discerned by ear, yet cut to the core of being a musician.

In short, solo transcription focuses attention on the sound, rather than the theory that explains the sound. This is not only more effective, but also more pleasurable and satisfying. This is not to say that transcribing solos exempts you from understanding music theory, but it makes a lot more sense to put a label on a sound than vice versa. It helps you develop the ability to play what you hear, but equally important, to hear something worth playing.

Solo transcription may not fit naturally into the practice schedule, since it does not seem like practicing in the usual sense. It is generally a relaxing activity for the chops, so it functions well as a warm down at the end of a practice session. Devote a certain amount of time each day, rather than setting out to transcribe a predetermined amount. Stop before your ears get tired. Always have a solo ‘on deck’, so that you don’t waste time searching for the next one to transcribe. Keep your ears peeled for potential transcription material.

Start with solos that appeal to you but sound like they would not be too difficult to transcribe; achieving success early on will encourage you to continue. I generally do not assign specific solos to my students; searching out material is an important part of the process. Two trumpet recordings that provide a wealth of highly melodic yet technically undemanding solos are Kind of Blue by Miles Davis and She Was Too Good To Me by Chet Baker. It makes sense to check out solos from other instrumentalists and vocalists to expand your musical palette, but most players will focus on their own instrument. This makes particular sense when the solos are used as practice material. Piano solos generally don’t lay particularly well on the trumpet…

Start by listening to the entire solo several times. Ideally, you should be able to sing along with the recording before you try to figure out the notes. Determine the time and key signatures. You might want to create a manuscript template, placing bar lines to indicate phrases or sections.

Once you start to figure out the notes, focus on small sections or phrases. Digital technology simplifies replaying small sections of the solo, unlike the tribulations faced by your analog forebears. When you stop the track, figure out the last note you hear first. This gives you a target. Then work on the phrase leading up to that note. If there are notes that you can’t hear or phrases that are too fast or complicated, skip them for now. Don’t fret that the transcription may be incomplete or inaccurate; it’s the process that’s important. The more you do, the easier it gets and the more accurate you become.

Writing down the solo is not essential but provides several benefits:

• After investing time and energy into a pursuit it’s nice to see a tangible result. My thick pile of hand-written solo transcriptions is clear evidence of many hours of work, the better to convince students that there are no shortcuts.
• Writing down the solos you transcribe improves your reading: the better you are able to notate what you hear, the better you will be able to ‘hear’ what you see on the written page. The accuracy of your notation doesn’t matter as long as it makes sense to you. You could even put down just note heads indicating pitches without worrying about the rhythm. Once you’ve figured out the notes the rhythm will be ingrained; you’ll probably be able to play the solo just by looking at the pitches.
• Writing down the notes helps you to remember what you have already transcribed and may allow you to work quicker. Conversely, there is benefit to memorization. Try lifting a complete phrase before you write it down.

Once you have transcribed the solo, you can extract maximum benefit by using the solo as practice material. In essence, your transcribed solos become your personal jazz etude book. Here are some suggestions for working with your transcribed solos:

• Work out the technical challenges as you would an etude: slowly and carefully. Don’t be satisfied with fluffing your way through the hard parts.
• While listening to the recording, finger the solo without playing it. Don’t ask your lips to play something that your fingers are still struggling with.
• Play the solo with a metronome set at the performance tempo. Also try it at a slower tempo; this can be surprisingly difficult.
• Play along with the recording. The closer you get to the original soloist, the more information you have extracted.
• Play along with the recording and at some point deviate from the recorded solo, improvising on your own. I call this ‘running off the cliff’, like the cartoon character that continues running in mid-air until he looks down. Once you really have a solo under your belt you may be able to weave in and out.

Some jazz musicians argue against solo transcription in pursuit of an original approach. For most, however, solo transcription plays a vital role in learning the language. The idea is not to become a copycat but to learn from the masters. In any case, you are a unique entity and your musical style will ultimately reflect that. No matter how much you try to sound exactly like someone else, you will not succeed. That’s a good thing.

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