I was asked a great question about transcribing music and, effectively, why is it something I need to do?

Additionally, I would say the question was whether it was something you should do, and how you might go about doing it.

First and foremost, transcribing is basically the art/science/magic of listening to a recording (over and over again, and then over and over a bunch more times, and then over and over a bunch more times after that) and writing down what you believe the artist on the recording played.

So let’s start with the obvious – that sounds really hard and why would you want or need to do that?

When I was a new guitar player, yes, it was hard. I simply did not know enough about music or guitar playing, in general, to be able to decipher what my guitar heroes were doing on those records…

Now, it’s usually pretty quick and painless for me, for 2 very important reasons:

First, I’m not using my ear as much as my brain. I don’t have perfect pitch and never will, but I have experience and music theory which help more than my ear ever did.

Second, it’s a skill like any other, and the more you do it the better you get at it and I’ve done it A LOT.

Why have I done it so much, and why might you want to try to do it?

Simple… you want to learn a song and you can’t find an already existing transcription. Now, back in the days before the internet, this was a serious issue because transcriptions were not plentiful. The modern version of this is, because you can’t find a transcription that sounds correct.

(I won’t go on that rant now, but I have yet to find an online transcription from a website that was correct and I’ve gone through thousands in my life.)

It might not be a full song, it might be just a lick or phrase or riff, but it doesn’t matter, the end result is the same.

Do I have to write it down? No, but if I don’t, I’ll forget it and have to re-figure-it-out tomorrow!

Sometimes, I even transcribe bass or drums or horn lines to make charts for my band members or to help make jam tracks for my students, but that’s not typically why I transcribe things, and I doubt that most of you will need to do that either.

Should you try doing some transcribing?

It can be a great way to find your weaknesses when it comes to writing music down. You don’t have to use traditional music notation, though you can, but you do have to write things down in such a way that you can read them back tomorrow, or face the task of re-learning something, which is frustrating.

Like anything else on guitar, it’ll be really frustrating at first, but it gets better as you get more experience.

How would you get started with transcribing?

The most important tools I use are:

  • Software/Hardware to manipulate the audio/video clip and, ideally, slow it down and isolate sections (looping.) I use Video Surgeon mostly, but sometimes I also use a Vidami pedal. You don’t need anything, but if you do it a lot, you’ll find these new tools helpful.
  • To write things down I use pencil and paper, but then I transfer it into Sibelius, my notation software. Many people use Guitar Pro, but for publishing I need some of the additional flexibility that Sibelius offers (and I’ve used it for 20 years, it would be hard to change.)
  • The old gray matter! Honestly, most of the time I’m making deductions and guesses about how things will go. Transcribing a lick from a blues in A? It’s probably in the A blues scale, so start there, don’t try to find the note out of thin air, it’s almost impossible.

One of the hardest parts is trusting yourself and your own ear. You might think you have something right, but it might not be quite right, and that’s ok. Do your best and move on to the next thing.

Later in life you may return to this particular thing and hear it with more educated ears and it’ll be obvious how it goes, so if it’s hard now, don’t worry. You’d be amazed at how many solos I figured out in my teens and early 20s… only to hear back years later and realize I’d gotten them incorrect!

But that’s part of the process and part of the journey so don’t be afraid of it.


    5 replies to "A Little About Transcribing Music…"

    • Don Hall

      Thanks for answering my question about transcriptions. I just kind of wondered about the “professional” transcriptions you sometimes mention, and those I used to see in the guitar magazines, and who wrote them? Did they come from the publisher, the label, the artist themselves? Who owned the rights? How much to buy the rights…curiosity mostly. I appreciate your going down the rabbit hole with me on this one!

    • Allyn

      I find that with a bit of practice over the years, picking up melodies has gotten easier but things like background vocal harmonies or chord voicings on guitar are still difficult. I like free tools and use Audacity for slowing down, transposing, etc. I found that some work with a free ear training app like “Beginner Ears” was helpful in getting chord progressions right with fewer tries. At least I think it helped. I find that with licks, sometimes transposing them into my voice range and singing them slowly can help with learning. Anyway, as an amateur at transcribing I can vouch that it can be hard work at the beginning.

    • Keith Roberts

      Back in the day, we used to wear out our records because we would pick the stylus/needle up to repeat a riff over and over until we figured it out!

    • William Storey

      In my experience, back in the day before the emphasis on the guitar, most piano/ guitar sheet music was produced with the guitar chords as an “after thought”. The piano score varied in quality from very rudimentary to relatively good for the pianist, the guitar chords generally were basic suggestions in which the chord was placed within the measure where the chord matched the notes/chord played by the piano. Typically the key was chosen that better suits the piano than the guitar. Pianists prefer flat keys, if just strumming along, guitar players prefer “open” chords which are a lot easier to play .

      Fortunately things have improved as the interest in guitar has blossomed, but to Griff’s point, 95% of online tabs are inaccurate. Griff’s tabs are terrific! He always includes the musical notation above the tabs which compensated for the weakness in most tabs, namely the duration and rhythm of the notes. Learning standard notation is not mandatory (a lot of very good guitar players cannot read music at all), but learning to read provides an insight into the music that otherwise be very difficult to attain.

      So, if you are a student of the blues, studying with Griff will take you where you want to go!!

    • Don Brumback

      Years ago before modern guitar inscription as a kid I would buy music books that were written for both guitar and piano. It would show the guitar chord then both the notes for both treble clef and bass. I learned to read the music notes and time signatures pretty well but I never understood the chord structure with the notes given-that is it would show a chord and then a series of the notes then another chord etc. My problem was how to incorporate the chords with the notes. Did it mean to play the chord then the notes then play the series of notes before you played the next chord? Strum the chord once play the notes then the next chord once? I never understood how to incorporate chording with notes off of sheet music. This has always puzzled me. Thanks.

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