Why You Should Learn to Transcribe Your Favorite Songs on Guitar
How many times have you listened to a song and thought “If only I could create music like that”. It happens all the time and we go searching for answers only to be told you must practice the guitar every day and do all these practice routines so you get better and THEN you’ll be able to create music like that.
I’m here to tell you that there’s a much more enjoyable path and one that will lead you to become a better guitarist at the same time.
Transcribing a song is the process of figuring out how to play it from just listening to it and recording the notes and chords on paper so you can play it back later. Unfortunately that’s as far as a lot of guitarists go with the subject.
A better approach is to figure out what you like about the song, roughly figure out how it’s played and mix in your own ideas and interpretation to create something new based on what you like.
The end result is a piece of music that you are proud of and in the style you like.
Today I’m going to give you some tips on how to get started, some things to remember as you’re doing it and a few tools you can use to make it a whole lot easier.
How do you make a start transcribing music?
Well, there are a few things you’ll need: a pen, paper (blank sheet music/tab is a good place to start), your guitar (or voice if you’re an accomplished singer), a metronome and a high quality recording of the song. It’s also helpful to print out the lyrics for the song so you can note down chord changes above the word where the change occurs.
You don’t need perfect pitch to transcribe by ear, you just need patience and the ability to hear if the note/chord you play on your guitar matches the note/chord played in the song.
It also helps if you’ve been doing some basic ear training as part of your practice, especially in identifying major, minor and seventh chords. A great little routine is to play the chord and write down how it sounds to you, the common things people write about a minor chord are “moody, dark, sad etc…” but you’ll write down your own under the heading “minor”.
Do the same for major and seventh chords, just play a few different chords on your guitar and write down the results.
How do you transcribe a song?
The basic process goes a little something like this:
1. Find the tempo of the song
2. Figure out the first note or chord of the song
3. Use musical intervals to figure out the next note, or circle of fifths to figure out the next chord
4. Repeat step 3 for each section of the song
As you’re starting out choose songs that are going to be easy for you, and go for chords over notes. You might need to listen to the first chord … I don’t know… 20 times before you actually figure it out.
Justin Sandercoe from JustinGuitar.com gives this great tip on the subject: “The last thing you hear, stays in your ear”, so just before the chord changes stop the track and the chord will be resonating in your ear, this is the time to start trying different chords on your guitar to see if you can match it.
Now as you progress through the song (remember you’ll be going really slowly to start with) start playing along to it, and see how those chord changes sound, are they right? Does it match what you’re hearing?
It’s also helpful to start with some easy songs, check out Trouble by Coldplay, Seven Nation Army by White Stripes and Gone by Jack Johnson.
Why else transcribe music for yourself?
You want to figure out how to play a song but can’t find the tab online, or you suspect the tab is incorrect.
You want to use it as ear training practice so you can one day learn to play by ear
You want to learn how the song was put together so you can create music similar to it
You’ve found a great lick that you’d like to start using in your improvisation
Using Inspiration to Change it up
Once you’ve got the basics of the song down think about how you can change it, where do you want to add your own expression? What would sound better after the bridge, is there a part where you can improvise over the backing track, does the bridge need to be deeper, darker and moodier?
Try transposing the music into a different key, play different chords using the same pattern, try changing the strumming pattern for the same chords, add your own licks before chord changes. The options are endless, but the name of the game is to start from a strong foundation and then start messing with it, as opposed to starting with nothing and trying to get that perfect song from scratch.