Transcribing Jazz Solos

I’ve been playing guitar from an early age (but with many years spent without playing or practising at all).  Many, many years ago when I was around 9 or 10 years old, when I wanted to learn how to play something I liked on guitar, I’d listen to the tape and learn it by hearing and copying what I heard.  I didn’t do this because musicians said “You have to transcribe”.  I just did it as that seemed the obvious method to me.  There was no internet in those long gone days and music books were relatively expensive.

I remember when I got my first electric guitar one Christmas (a sun burst copy of a Fender Stratocaster).  I also got some cassette tapes as well, one of them being the Shadows’ Greatest Hits!  I really wanted to learn how to play the classic Shadows tune Apache.  Although I was listening to a lot of loud rock type of guitarists around then such as Jimi Hendrix, Angus Young of AC/DC, Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top and early Eric Clapton when he was in Cream, I also really like Hank Marvin’s playing in the Shadows.

So one day, my Dad and I sat in my room in Wrexham listening over and over to the tune Apache, crouched over the cassette playing with my gleaming, new guitar.  We managed to get the first bit and then my Dad left and I stayed up there all day learning the rest.  I found listening to clear concise melodies as played by Hank Marvin, a good start to transcribing.  I then transcribed lots of Jimi Hendrix, Angus Young, Eric Clapton and then  all the Nirvana songs when Kurt Cobain broke onto the music scene.

Anyway, the years passed and I barely touched the guitar for well over ten years.  When I moved to Brighton, I started to develop a keen interest in jazz.  There was so much jazz music to see in Brighton so I used to go out and watch although I didn’t understand what the heck they were doing.  I ended up doing the Chichester Jazz course, a rite of passage for many of Sussex and Brighton’s jazz musicians.

When I started learning, I had no idea how to improvise or practise or how to improve at playing jazz guitar.  I ended up investigating chords, scales and arpeggios and developing methods of using them to improvise.  I did listen to some jazz lines to gain some concepts but never transcribed whole entire jazz solos.  I became a professional jazz guitarist and started loving it doing all the gigs.  I was improving loads.  Throughout this time, musicians were always telling me to transcribe – like the great legend jazz musicians did!  They went straight to the source and learned jazz solos note for note from their heroes.  I heard lots of talk of them dropping the needle on the record so much they’d wear them out.  Everyone was telling me that all the answers you have to jazz improvisation are in your music collection at home.  Yes, I thought..but I was too damn lazy!  I tried it now and then but just get frustrated that I couldn’t hear the notes so I’d give up each time even when using slow down software.  I asked the amazing Brighton trumpet player Gary Kavanagh (since moved to Holland) for a lesson and he said “To be honest, you don’t need to come over –  just transcribe!”  But me being lazy and wanting it all on a plate, I went for 3 excellent lessons with him and discovered how much of a dedicated transcriber he is and where he gleaned his outstanding bebop jazz vocabulary for his fantastic improvisations.

I still didn’t bother with transcribing though!
About 6 months ago, I was playing at the night I run every Tuesday, the Brunswick Jazz Jam in Brighton & Hove.  I hated the way I played.  I got home thinking that I’m not improving, I sound rubbish so I made a decision there and then to start transcribing.

I read on Matt Warnock’s guitar website that one of the solos he transcribed first was a jazz guitar solo by Wes Montgomery on the tune Movin’ along.  I gave it a go, and by the end of the week, I had done a chorus.  I went and did a gig with Jack Kendon (an avid transcriber) and George Trebar at the Albion pub in Hove.  Something happened in my playing and I could feel myself breaking out, loosening up and playing jazz solos in a more confident manner with a more concise and succint phrasing.

Now when I played at the jam, the same thing was happening.  Although I wasn’t playing the exact same jazz guitar lines that Wes Montgomery did, something was definately happening and I was playing with a similar phrasing to Wes and even small fragments of his melodic jazz lines.  I thought, hmmm, maybe those musicians were right afterall.

I next transcribed Aaron Parks, a great young American jazz pianist who I saw perform with Kurt Rosenwinkel at Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club, London.  The great young virtuoso Brighton Jazz pianist Dave Drake actually took some lessons with him then.  I transcribed Autumn Leaves and again my playing started to soar.  It was bascially like stepping into a great jazz musician’s shoes and approaching improvisation over a jazz standard the way they do.

I thought “What to transcribe next?”  By the way, by now I was getting slowly addicted as I could see the benefits and it was getting easier and easier as my ear was getting better at picking out the notes.  Transcribing is great for ear training.  Don’t bother with formal exercises, just transcribe and get added practical benefits!

So back to what I decided… Moments notice by John Coltrane is a mighty hard tune with loads of chord changes and 2 5 1’s all over the place.  I thought I’d see how the composer, John Coltrane approached this tune.  I spent ages and transcribed his solo.  I wasn’t even practising improving on the tune or trying to nail the changes.  Only his solo.  But last night I had a quick jam of it with bassist Terry Pack.  I could actually improvise over the chord changes!  Immersing myself in the John Coltrane’s solo over Moments Notice had also had the added benefit of my learning and internalising the chord changes.

So this morning I got up and thought what other tune has ridiculously difficult fast moving chord changes?  Oh yes, Giant Steps!  Also by John Coltrane.  I’d already had a bash of Coltrane’s solo a while back and gleaned some of his patterns so I started on Michael Brecker’s solo which he does on the tune with sax player Bob Mintzer on the album twin tenors.

It’s great fun and now I’m thoroughly addicted to transcribing and looking forward to hopefully being competent at playing and improvising over the classic jazz tune Giant Steps.

The funny thing was, before starting all this transciption, I’d thought I’d never done it before and thought that it was only for musicians before the days of internet, youtube lessons, jazz education, colleges and books full of transcribed solos.  But when I sat down and started on the Wes Montgomery solo I realised, hey, I’ve done this before and memories started flooding back of my transcribing the Shadows Hank Marvin’s Apache!

So the moral of the story is – Transcribe, Transcribe, Transcribe!

The first tune I transcribed. Apache, The Shadows

The tune I’m transcribing now! Giant Steps, Michael Brecker

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