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TR-101 • The Process of Transcribing

The Justinguitar.com Transcribing Course

There is a lot going on when you transcribe so in this lesson I have outlined the transcribing process and try and highlight the important elements on which you will need to focus.

In reality the process is rarely as structured as this but in the early stages you might want to stick closely to it so as to get a good routine!

Video Lesson



The Process of Transcribing

Let me start by discussing the required skill and techniques you should learn to get good at transcribing.

We're going to start by look at single notes because most people find them easier to start off with than chords. A similar chords course is already in development but I'll be getting through all this lead guitar one before releasing that!

1. Listening
The first thing to realise (and this is REAL important) is that transcribing is all about listening. Your ears are like muscles and need consistent training to work at their best. The more transcribing I'm doing, the faster my ears pick up the sounds and the easier the process becomes.

So the first thing you need to do when you decide you are going to learn a song (or solo or riff or whatever) is LISTEN to what you will transcribe. Over and over again. Listen 20 or 30 times to the song or solo and try and get to the point where you can hear (imagine) the song in your head when it's not playing. The better you get at this, the easier transcribing will be and the more benefits it will have when you can do it well.

If I'm doing a solo, I will usually do it in sections. Listen to a few licks over and over and get them in my ear, I try and sing them too (which I recommend you do too, even if you are a bit out of tune with it, trying will help you get it in your mind, and your singing will improve with time!).

So before you even start, make sure you listened a lot.

2. Tune Up
Absolutely no point trying to transcribe stuff if your guitar is out of tune, so make sure you spend a minute or two making sure you are properly in tune! Seriously - make sure you tune up every transcribing session (actually, every practice session for that matter!!).

3. One note at a time
Once you have the music in your mind (at least a little) we will start trying to figure out the notes on the guitar. We'll do this by learning to stop the track at exactly the right time because:

The last thing you hear, stays in your ear.

Very, very important that you learn how to pause just right. Once you have that skill, the whole thing becomes a LOT easier. For many people it is this that makes the difference and allows them to transcribe!

If you need to you can slow the track down or even loop one note so you can work it out BUT it's better to try and use the pause and keep the note in your "ear memory" if you can.

4. Write It Down
Once you have found the note you should write it down right away, I would recommend writing in TAB first (because it tell you where to play the note) and then later add rhythms. You can add notation too, but I don't recommend that as a starting point. To do this you need to be confident at writing tab and the various notation conventions used to write down guitar techniques such as bends, slides, rakes etc.

Be sure that you understand that what you write down, can (and most most likely will) change as you think more about note positions, bends, slides and other such complexities... as a beginner transcriber you should not worry about such things, it will make it too complex, so save some of that for later.

5. Rest
You will often find if you are struggling you might just need to give your ears a rest! Once they get saturated they can start playing tricks on you. I've found a number of times that I can hear things better first thing in the morning before other practice... so taking regular breaks is going to help you a lot!

6. Time To Play
Once you have it written down you should start to play it, it will help you check it too. If you can't play it at full speed then slow it down to play along :)

More experienced transcribers at this stage might think more about positions and which string a note may have been played on. This can be very difficult and should only be attempted once you are confident with the other aspects of transcribing.

As you get more into transcribing particular artists you will figure out their tricks or the way they naturally play stuff, positions, fingerings and techniques they prefer... an interesting relationship.

7. Check if you can or need to.
Checking your transcription is a great thing to do if you can. I wish I had been able to in my early days and think I would have got better a lot faster if that had been possible.

It can be VERY useful to check other people's transcriptions, I found many times I'd think it was one thing, see someone else's transcription and go yeah - that sound more like it and change mine... but perhaps as many times I've realised they they have it wrong and mine sounded more like the record!!

That is another good thing about this course is that you can check your answers, see where you went wrong and work on not making those same mistakes as often!

I still use other transcriptions if I can, especially jazz chord solos where it really is hard to hear stuff, I think checking is a good idea but ONLY when you have finished and put in something (don't leave gaps and then fill them with someone else's transcription) and unless it is the composers own work a transcription s just an opinion (in the this course I wrote and played the music so I KNOW it's right but say Hendrix transcriptions are often a little different and without the man here to confirm things we'll never truly know!).

8. Don't be put off by mistakes
I have a collection of transcriptions I did in my teenage years and they are terrible. Totally all over the place, wrong notes, wrong chords, wrong rhythms, wrong tunings - you name it, I made the mistake!! I can't comprehend how wrong some of them sound, but I thought they were fine at the time and I remember playing some of them along with the recordings and somehow didn't notice they sounded horribly out of tune!

So before you start, be ready for making lots of mistakes, feeling hopeless and thinking you will never be any good at it and wanting to give up. It's just part of the process and separates the men from the boys... you will need to be strong enough to push through the tough times, cos there will be times when you get frustrated and feel like you are not making progress.

9. Analyze This!!
And once you can play it you should try and understand it, using theory to dissect it, break each lick or phrase into smaller digestible chunks and learn how you might use the bits in your own playing.

This of course requires some theory knowledge and understanding of harmony - which is something I highly recommend to all guitar players!!

I may try and tackle some of the basics of the process in this course but may decide to make that part of a more advanced course in the future, undecided at this stage!

10. Enjoy It
You'll be amazed at what a difference this new skill will make to you as a musician, so enjoy it :)