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August 18, 2008

Improve your guitar playing by transcribing music

I receive many questions in email, as well as general feedback and comments. The question I get asked most often is how to play better. The same question appears in different variations; how to play better blues leads, how to play more interesting licks, how to not sound boring, etc.

Well, in my view, there is an easy answer. Transcribing. Transcribing, as I see it, is really just the process of copying. Yes, that is right - copying someone else's playing. Now listen, there is nothing wrong with this. Some people think this is a bad thing - copying someone else's playing? Isn't that stealing? Also, won't I sound like some other player then?

Those are good questions. However, let me clarify. When I say you should spend time transcribing, I mean take little pieces of musical ideas from a variety of sources. A variety of sources means you get a mix of good ideas under your belt. By doing this, you develop a larger musical vocabulary, a vocabulary from which you can draw upon in different situations.

Also, I recommend taking an idea and learn it inside out, but make your own version of it. For example, I may take a Stevie Ray Vaughan lick and change the rhythmic structure of it, or I may keep the rhythmic structure but change the choice of notes, or perhaps I play it over a completely different chord progression than the original, etc.

We should not be afraid to learn from others. Learn licks and lines from many different players, and not only guitar players either. Learn from piano players, horn players, heck even tuba players if you want!

Compare it to reading books. The more you read and learn through reading, the better your vocabulary becomes and so does your reading skills. From this, you will likely become better at expressing yourself. The same goes for guitar playing. The larger your musical vocabulary becomes, the easier you can express musical ideas at any moment.

Practically speaking, this process of transcribing means listening closely to a set of notes, a chord, a rhythm, etc - until you know it by heart. If you like, you can write it down in notation if you know how, but I wouldn't bother. The point is to learn it so you can play without having to think about it.

If you have never done this before, try with a simple blues lick by one of the blues greats. Maybe there are 3 notes being played from the pentatonic scale, but for some reason it sounds better than your own blues licks. So, you listen back and forth, you try to copy it verbatim at first, and you play along with the volume set so you can clearly hear both yourself and the original source. I like using WinAmp for transcribing ideas like these, because when you hit the arrow key on the keyboard, it jumps back 10 seconds, which is perfect for learning licks and shorter lines.

Repeat until you get it. From now on, try using this lick in several kinds of blues tunes. Change it around a bit, timing-wise perhaps or something else, so that you make it part of you.

The more you transcribe, the more you will sound like you. You can't help it - it just helps you improve overall and you will inevitable develop your own voice by this process.

Another very important skill you will improve as you do more transcribing is ear training. You will "force yourself" to listen closer to music, and after some time, you'll realize you can actually figure out what chords and notes people are playing by just listening to them play. This is a great skill to have. I can learn simple songs extremely fast, because I can hear what chords and grooves are being played, often without even picking up a guitar. The reason for this is all the transcribing I've done over the years. If I can do it, YOU can do it.

Finally, I want you to know about a tool that makes this whole process easier.
It is called Transcribe! - a very handy tool as you develop your transcribing skills.

» Get Transcribe! here

It is incredibly powerful, and I highly recommend it.

It is available for Mac, Windows and Linux.

Try it out - I think you will find it VERY useful. You get a 30 day trial of this program - just click the DOWNLOAD PRODUCT button.

Dweezil Zappa, from a Guitar Player Magazine interview:
"How do you learn [Frank's] tunes for the set? Do you read, or do you figure them out by ear?" "I'm not a good reader so I just listen. We use Seventh String's Transcribe! software to slow things down."

By Robert Renman - www.dolphinstreet.com


Posted by Robert Renman on August 18, 2008

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