The 13th Fret

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Transcribing: The Musical "Wonder Pill"

Hello HMS-ers! Spring is upon us, and it promises to be a busy season! With completing the recordings for PRISMIND’s debut album plus a myriad of other musical ventures, flowers aren’t the only things that will be popping up soon. Let’s get to this month’s topic at hand… transcribing!

The art of transcribing seems to be a one that is viewed as practical for some, and almost “mystical" for others. We’ve all seen the sheet music found in books in a music store, or printed in guitar magazines. In my formative years as a young guitar player (starting at age 9), I was under the impression that the musicians THEMSELVES offered up the sheet music to their latest hits, for inclusion in guitar magazines and other publications. Obviously, this is far from the reality. In fact, very few players in the modern rock/metal/etc. world would possess the skills necessary to render accurate and functional scores that could be viewed as "industry standard”. This is not a knock to those players; their job is to put out their best audio efforts... not be asked to capture it in manuscript form!

Why then are we talking about this? Well, there are many compelling reasons to embark on the journey to become a transcriber (or at least, one who can do so when needed). Indeed, the skills and insight you will gain from venturing into transcribing will lead you to believe that it may the single best thing you could do for your playing and musicianship….all in one activity. Let's pinpoint a few notable gains, and examine it a bit closer.

First and foremost, you can be sure to see advances in your ear-hand coordination. The simple act of listening to a note (or group of notes) and working to locate that note on the fretboard is not only the essence of what transcribing is about, but the base-line building block of things. After all, even the most complex piece is still a series of single notes strung together. It all starts with one... which is where you should start as a beginning transcriber. What happens after some experience with this (even if seems to be a slow process) is a notable ability to visualize WHERE something is played upon hearing it. Clearly this is a valuable asset and can help guide the overall job at hand. The side benefit of this is somewhat of a reversal; you’ll hear something in your head and begin to visualize where and how it will be played.

This is where the true benefits will take hold in your creativity!

The other aspect of this which is equally important, is the notational skills involved. This is where most players stumble, and for good reason. A large number of great players have no real concept of the language of notation, and in particular, RHYTHMIC notation. Even if you use TAB as your “go to” source, the picture is simply not complete without the information that rhythmic values provides. Certain publications such as Guitar World have in recent years stripped away “standard notation” and affixed the rhythmic values directly onto the TAB. This was a smart move on their part for several reasons...not the least of which was a streamlined format and a reduction of paper use. The point is, seeking an education into the study of rhythm and it’s notation is immeasurable in it’s benefits. You’ll not only commit things to paper more accurately, you’ll also be able to communicate with your drummer more efficiently. I highly recommend taking even a few lessons on this, if you find it to be a weak area.

“ may the single best thing you could do for your playing and musicianship... all in one activity.”

There are a few other pluses that you’ll discover in the transcribing process. The sheer amount of repetition that you’ll do in firming up a particular section will benefit your technique. You’ll also find that you’ll start to HEAR faster when working out quicker runs and licks. It’s common wisdom that you can’t accurately play fast if you can’t “hear" it at that tempo. Also worth mentioning is the fact that you’ll no longer be a slave to availability (or lack thereof) of tabs/scores for your favourite songs. No more will you shy away from learning your favourite song, simply because you can’t find the tabs.

At this point, I should mention some of the inspirational material that got me interested in transcribing in the first place... and made me want to explore it further. Being awed by practically everything Steve Vai did back in the late 80’s-early 90’s, I was particularly struck by his tales of transcribing for Frank Zappa. The unfathomable task of writing those guitar solos out, under the laser-focus scrutiny of Zappa must have been insane, and I certainly was enchanted by the premise. I managed to find a copy of The Frank Zappa Guitar Book (transcribed by Steve Vai) years ago, and it still sits on my bookshelf as a reminder of how far the art can be taken. Inspirational.

Another piece of writing that always stayed with me was an article written by fusion master Frank Gambale. Found in a late 80’s issue of Guitar World, he detailed the self-inflicted task of transcribing every instrument of a Steely Dan song; not only the guitar parts, but the vocals, keys, drums, and even the horn sections. All for the purpose of learning the role and function of every instrument. Now THAT is a musicality bootcamp! As extreme as it may sound, this is the kind of thing you may want to embark on if you truly want to understand your art at the highest level. After all, we learn our spoken language in much the same way, in order to master it.

Since getting involved with transcribing many years ago, I’ve taken on quite a few interesting and varied projects. My first transcription was of a solo from a Humble Pie song that I had on vinyl. I once transcribed a mistakenly recorded and heated (yet totally hilarious) exchange between my bassist in PRISMIND, Justin and his mom, years ago….taking every syllable and finding the note and inflections….much to her disapproval (haha!). Writing out the guitar/sax unison lines of the Mike Stern tune, “Chromazone” was a fun challenge. My first full transcription was “High Speed Dirt” from Megadeth, all guitar parts included. Years later, I actually developed a rapport with a former Megadeth guitarist, because of a solo of his that I had committed to paper and sent to him. The list goes on and on... all valuable learning experiences.

This clearly was not a “how to” lesson on transcribing, as doing so would take up much more space that we are allotted here. The goal of this column is to perhaps spark an interest in transcribing, and inspire you to look into it further. Hopefully you do, as the gains are innumerous! As always, if you have any questions, feel free to drop me me a line at my Facebook page.

Kelly Kereliuk, HMS

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