On Transcribing…

I recently dug up the transcriptions I did back in high school, digitized them, and then realized that within them was also a good story.  Not only are they early evidence of my anal retentiveness (immaculate ruler-guided hand-written notation…this is pre-notation software folks) but they are also a glaring example of how seriously I was taking my craft at a young age.  My teachers told me that if I wanted to really learn to improvise I had to completely immerse myself in the playing of those whom I most appreciated.  Before my own hand-written projects, I learned a lot of stuff by ear.  David Gilmore of Pink Floyd was probably my biggest case-study from the ages of 13-15.  I pretty much learned every solo he ever recorded.  I was learning lots of other stuff at that time too, Satriani, Zeppelin, Hendrix, Van Halen…but Gilmore to me was such a melodic and lyrical player that his few notes carried just as much weight as the flurries of 32nd notes those other guys play.  So already I was starting to immerse myself in what it FELT like to play great, even if I wasn’t ultimately the originator of that greatness.

Transcription as a musician’s path:

What I’m really talking about here is the next level: learning a solo by ear (and when I started, this meant working with a cassette on a radio shack tape-recorder), writing it out on paper, ANALYZING what is going on, AND being able to play it with all the subtle details.  This next level came to fruition for me when I began studying jazz more seriously.  So the first few projects I did for my own enrichment were solos by Joe Pass.  I had my tape recorder, a ton of patience, and quick fingers on the play/stop/rewind buttons.  Soon though, I was doing transcriptions as class assignments and I extended my OCD-fueled skills to learn stuff by Dexter Gordon, Phil Woods, Cannonball Adderly, and later on in college, more ambitious transcriptions of John Coltrane and Branford Marsalis solos  (all with the same Radio Shack tape player).  I REALLY liked saxophone players because they were playing things that I thought sounded so AMAZING  and few guitarists really went there for me.  All of this work went hand-in-hand with my heavy practice regiment of scales, patterns, arpeggios, and theory/harmony (I was playing on average 4hrs/day).  In addition to that I was playing in as many rock/jazz bands and jam sessions that I could…a lot of times it was just me and another musician playing into the morning hours…or often times just listening…and listening…and listening…

Now I hear people say all the time that they don’t transcribe because they don’t want to just become a carbon-copy of a certain player, but that’s only if you don’t FOLLOW THROUGH with the work.  If you just learn a bunch of licks and regurgitate them time after time, you’re not really improvising anyway.  I think that as a true improviser, one has to STUDY what is going on underneath the cool licks or patterns and over time assimilate those things into your own playing.
Another common excuse I hear is, “I want to find my own musical voice” but again, you can try to reinvent the wheel, musically, but you’re just going to end up sounding amateur a lot longer than players who are transcribing, analyzing, practicing, and assimilating.

As a teacher, there’s only so much theory, technique, and Zen of music I can pass on to my students.  At some point, if you want to get to the next level, you have to DO THE WORK.  You absolutely must find the kind of playing that most inspires you, learn it, become it, and ultimately weave it all together in a way that is completely and uniquely YOU….which takes TIME.  Find the players who can point you in a new direction (or not and just learn the same Claption/Hendrix/SRV licks that a hundred million other guitarists have learned).   You will become those choices eventually…so choose wisely.

The analogy I like to tell my students who are embarking on this journey is that its like planting an orchard.  It’s going to take a solid 10 years for your playing (the fruit) to get really good.

Transcription as a personal path:

Here’s where this gets really interesting to me though…  I’ve been speaking here of how to use transcription as a way to achieve mastery or greatness as a musician, but why not use these same concepts to become a great PERSON?  Why is that not even a familiar concept?  People who have a spiritual discipline probably come the closest to this concept  although I am absolutely not suggesting you to blindly following someone’s beliefs or patterns.   I’m also not encouraging you to put aside your innate knowledge/ability/intuition and just do what you THINK someone else might do.  History has proven to us the potentiality for that to go horribly wrong.  What I am saying here though, is that there is a process of work/discipline/assimilation that has the power to transform us and our abilities so that we might reach 10 times higher than we would’ve on our own.

So how would this work?  Take someone who utterly inspires you…someone who you could only dream to be like:  From religious role models like The Buddha, Jesus, or Ghandi, to more relevant folks like Alan Watts, Terence Mckenna, Eckhart Tolle, or Bill Hicks.  Find a passage that they’ve spoken or written and memorize it, recite it, take it apart and try to find ways to fit pieces of it into your daily life.  Practice putting their actions into your own reportoire of interactions…work on it…try new things…try to assimilate…fail miserably, look like a dork, and then work on it more the next day.  That’s what musicians do.  After 10 years, imagine who you would become?  Imagine the effect you would have had on countless people in all kinds of unknown and mysterious ways.  Imagine the courage you’d display…imagine how it would catch on and inspire others around you to either just soak up the beautiful work you’ve taken on in your life, or even choose a similar path for themselves based on what they’ve seen in you.
Who would you transcribe?  Who do you want to become (when you grow up)?

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One Response to On Transcribing…

  1. Jason says:

    Once again, great insights — transcription as a path to self-betterment!

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