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Solo Transcription Tips
February 2001
Dan Higgins

TRANSCRIBING improvised solos by your favorite players has always been an extremely valuable way to improve one's improvising skills. Listening to the soloist's performance repeatedly and playing along with the jazz artist is a great way to get "inside the head" of jazz greats. Memorization of the solo allows one to develop and understand a sense of pacing, timing and space that is present in all great solos. Practicing etudes, licks and patterns can help with the language of jazz but doesn't allow for the breathing elements of solo composition. Keep in mind that the high points of the solo stand out because of their placement within the solo. What is played around these high points is just as important. Be aware of the preceding soloist as he sets a mood and leaves behind ideas that may be developed in the solo you're transcribing. All these elements go together to make up a great jazz performance.

PICK AN APPROPRIATE SOLO. Choose a solo from an artist you admire. Be sure to pick a solo that is at your skill level. This is especially true if this is one of your first attempts at a transcription. Try to pick a shorter solo so you won't be frustrated by the amount of time it may require. A medium tempo tune played by a straight-ahead player is a good place to start. Pick a solo that is on a tune you know. If you don't know the song, learn it first and get to know the chord changes before you start. Your solo may contain substitute chords and be in a different key than the fake book you have. Be sure to take the time to learn the melody and chords first. I suggest a solo that is based on a simple progression such as a blues. For a saxophonist, a Charlie Parker blues would be a great place to start. Dexter Gordon, Stanley Turentine, Sonny Stitt and Phil Woods solos are also very clear and concise - and cooking!

GETTING STARTED. Once you've decided on the solo there are a few ways to proceed. I prefer to put the solo on a cassette that has "cueing" so I can stay in the play mode and hit the rewind button to go back a few measures. My cassette player also has pitch control. This is important because tapes can vary slightly in pitch. Make sure it's in tune. CD players will also suffice but it is easy to hit the rewind button and have the track mistakenly begin again from the top. This can be frustrating when you're hot on the heals of a great lick. I prefer to use headphones as they allow a more present audio quality that allows me to pick up subtle gestures in the solo. Get some manuscript paper and pencil and you're ready.

START TRANSCRIBING. Get out the horn that the artist is playing, (such as alto sax in the case of Bird), and start to write down the solo. You may find it easier to stop the tape after a few notes and quickly jot them down. Pay attention to the notation and try to be as accurate as you can. Put the chord changes in as well. I play along with the solo as I write it down. When I'm playing and I hear a difference between myself and the soloist I know that I have written a wrong note or rhythm and I go back and fix the problem. Pay special attention to vibrato, bends, and other subtle points that define the player's style. Try to make notes of these elements on your manuscript and also mark in dynamics and articulations. These are the special items that you will inherit as you dig deep into the solo. Sometimes a passage will be hard to get so I suggest you move on to the next phrase and revisit that section later. Don't get stuck too long on one phrase. I like to transcribe solos in "real time" but there are hard disk systems that will allow you to "half speed" the solo without changing the pitch. I have used this method but I prefer to do my transcribing in real time.

NOTATION TIPS. Solos are not all metronomically accurate and perfect. These elements many times are what make them feel so good. I attempt to notate as accurately as I can but prefer to write down the player's intent. When a soloist plays a lick that comes out a bit "laid back" to the rhythm section I don't try to reconcile the downbeat with a complicated rhythm. Many times it is simpler to write out the notes and write "laid back" above the passage. Everyone has their own way of dealing with issues of inaccuracies. Try to keep it as simple as possible. More elaborate soloists such as John Coltrane and Mike Brecker offer up all sorts of notation issues such as false fingerings, harmonics, sheets of sound and double time patterns. Ballads are also tough to notate as improvisers "float" over the time making it hard to pinpoint distinct down beats. Don't tackle these types of solos until you have more experience.

FINISH UP. After you're all done try to make a neat copy of the solo either in hand or with a computer notation program. I don't do this part until I'm sure I have the solo correct in my pencil copy. Play the solo over and over with the artist and shadow its every move. Pay special attention to time feel, vibrato and articulation. By now you have the solo almost if not totally memorized. What a nice feeling it is to accomplish your own takedown. This task will only get easier as you continue to transcribe.

FINAL THOUGHTS. There are countless books on the market with notated solos. I have many of them myself and I refer to them often. I do think that it's much more effective if you take off the solo yourself and glean the intimate details of the artist's performance. Put all the solos you know on a tape or CD and incorporate them into your daily practice. Choose a variety of artists to transcribe, as emulating just one artist won't allow you to understand the great degrees of beauty and soul others have to offer.


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