Jazz Language: Using Transcriptions

I don’t know about you, but I’m tired of people insisting that you can’t become a good jazz musician without following whatever methods or rules they happen to favor. As with so many other endeavors, there are many valid paths to achieve the results you desire. (At least, that’s the philosophy I favor!) That said, I think there is general agreement among most musicians that using transcriptions is an integral part of learning how to improvise. I’ll save a discussion on why this is so for another time. For now, just keep in mind Clark Terry’s famous and widely accepted jazz education dictum: Imitate, Integrate, Innovate.

What are transcriptions, anyway? They can take more than one form, but transcriptions are essentially the “records” of the performances of other musicians. There are two main components to working with transcriptions: creating them and learning to play them.

When you learn a lick, a melody, a bassline, a comping rhythm, a drum groove, or all or part of a solo, you are transcribing. You can transcribe by memorizing or by writing down the chunk of music you’re working on. Creating your own transcriptions is undoubtedly the most thorough and beneficial way to emulate the playing of the musician whose work has captured your interest. Unless you have extremely advanced ears, transcribing involves repeated, detailed listening. Spending time with a passage of music allows you to absorb all of the subtleties that go beyond the notes and rhythms. Tone, texture, dynamics and the other unnameable qualities are the aspects of the music that are only available to you by this kind of concentrated listening.

On the other hand, not everyone has the inclination or time to put into creating their own transcriptions. If you fall into this category, but want to take advantage of the benefits of studying the work of the artists you admire, there are many transcriptions done by others you can acquire and learn from the page. This, of course, assumes that you are able to read music (or TAB if that applies to your instrument). You have to be wary of mistakes or misprints in published transcriptions. Remember that there is an imperfect human doing the transcribing. The best way to use other people’s transcriptions is to do so in conjunction with the specific recording. This way you won’t have to do all of the notes and rhythm “grunt work” but you’ll still be able to hear the music in context (and check for mistakes).

The following is an annotated list of online transcription resources.

Before I give you the list of resources I want to mention a couple of recent discoveries that might be of some value to you. First, there’s Jazz Advice, a website run by two young musicians who have put together some provocative suggestions for aspiring improvisors. Their take on using transcriptions is HERE. And there advice regarding jazz play-alongs is HERE.

Then there’s a relatively new site, also run by some young guns, called So Killing Man. This is a transcription site, and they seem to be concentrating on more comtemporary artists. The name of the site (if you don’t already get the joke) is taken from the Jazz Robots video that’s been making the rounds for the past year or so. If you are one of the few folk who haven’t seen it yet, scroll down to the end of this post and have a good laugh.

All of the following websites (except one) offer you the opportunity to freely download transcriptions of jazz solos by a wide variety of artists. 

  • Bert Ligon, jazz pianist and educator, has a nice collection of transcriptions

  • Bruce Saunders’ site has a ton of guitar solos

  • Lucas Pickford has a wide variety of solo transcriptions for many instruments

  • Jazz Trumpet Solos is self-explanatory

  • Digital Trombone ditto

  • Colin Campbell’s site has an emphasis on contemporary players

  • This is an excellent site in French, but music has no language barriers, right?

  • Sax Solos is the only pay site on this list but there are some free samples, and he offers custom transcriptions for very reasonable prices.  

  • Leave a Comment

    Your email address will not be published.