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If You Ain’t Stealin’, You Ain’t Tryin’

Transcribe, transcribe, transcribe. Then transcribe some more. Listen to recordings. Watch jazz dvds and youtube videos. If you like someone’s solo, learn it! Learn to play with the recording. Write down if you want. But most of all, learn to play it.

The first part of this article deals with Macro-transcription. This is transcribing on a large scale. The second deals with what I refer to as Micro-transcription. We’ll explain the difference later. Keep reading.


I remember my first few attempts at transcribing. I spent 12 hours in high school learning a Bill Evans solo piano version of All the Things You Are. I lifted over 2-and-a-half minutes of the song. However, one day my mom came into our piano studio (she is a classical piano teacher) and mentioned that she didn’t think listening to a recording over and over again and learning to play a song bit by bit was the best use of my time. Since I didn’t seem to be any better at improvising than I was before I started the solo, I believed her. I love my mom, and she’s hardly said that wasn’t good advice, but she didn’t really understand what I was doing. Actually, neither did I, and so I barely transcribed anything else for the next five years.

The problem was that I did not understand why we should transcribe. I only knew that some good musicians said it was a good idea. It was not until Justin Nielsen, a fantastic jazz piano player and teacher at Arts West, an arts academy for grades 6-12 in Eagle, Idaho (and one of the top jazz schools in the Northwest) showed me how to do it. As a pianist, he had me learning trumpet solos by Miles Davis, etc., and then adding my own comp to the solo, to make it more realistic to what a pianist would do. This seemed to be a more effective use of time, and seemed to have an immediate effect on my improvising. Of course, I could learn the right-hand of piano solos also, and add my own comp. Every once in a while it’s good to learn the left hand as well, but I think that it’s better in general to only worry about lifting the right hand lines.

If I were a horn player, bass player, guitarist, or vocalist, then I wouldn’t have to add my own left-hand comp. I could just learn the solo and play.

Another light bulb went on one year at the Port Townsend jazz workshop. I saw one of the best clinics I’ve ever seen given by a jazz musician. Also saxophonist Jaleel Shaw told a room full of aspiring jazz musicians about his practice routine. It was very telling. If my memory serves me correctly, he broke up his routine into scales/long tones (long tones for the horn players), transcribing, jazz etudes, learning tunes, learning licks, and composition. I believe he was advocating spending an hour on each of these every day, for a total of six hours.

Then he demonstrated how he transcribed. He took a saxophone solo (I don’t remember what it was) and listened to a few seconds. Then he moved the “needle” back a few seconds on the iPod, and when the solo started he played it EXACTLY right. First time. Then he listened a little more. Moved the needle. And then he played the first and second part, EXACTLY. Repeat ad nauseum. Immediately I thought two things:

#1 Jaleel Shaw has GREAT ears!

Jaleel Shaw on alto saxophone, playing “Invitation”

#2 Oh, now I get it. This is like an etude.

I thought about it later, and I now know that we transcribe for the following reasons:

#1 To improve our ears.

This is a huge benefit. If you want to hear like Jaleel Shaw, you’ve got to put in the time listening and learning. Most of us can’t transcribe complicated lines as quickly as he can because he’s put in WAY more time than most. Of course, having great ears is extremely helpful for a musician for many reasons, not just transcribing.

#2 To improve our technique.

If you learn to play someone else’s solo, you are getting playing their ideas. Not your ideas. This means that it won’t be as natural to most improvisers as playing your own solo. It will help your chops, like an etude would.

#3 To improve our ideas.

Your articulation will improve, and so will your lines. You should take the time to analyze, in terms of numbers instead of notes, the ideas that you learn. Take one lick, and analyze it. Move it to all 12 keys. Internalize it. You could do this with the whole solo, if you’re up for a big challenge! Learning a transcribed solo in all 12 keys is GREAT for your chops. Start with learning one easy solo in the original key first, though. You need to crawl before you can walk.


Now that you understand the benefit of learning a whole solo, here’s another idea. Instead of learning all of a solo, just learn one lick. Transcribe a lick, learn how it fits in the context of the chord changes, and then learn that lick in all 12 keys. Learn to play it at many different tempos. Internalize it so you can do it in your sleep, so that it becomes a part of you. It will come out in your improvising. I missed the idea of Micro-transcription when I tried to tackle the Bill Evans solo in high school. My playing did not improve because I only thought on the Macro level. I learned the big picture, but I didn’t examine, analyze, and transpose ideas into chunks I could use. I wish I had started smaller so that I would have stuck with it earlier in life. It’s better to transpose smaller ideas and REALLY learn those well that to learn a whole solo and never be able to use anything from it. Ideally, you will learn whole solos AND take small chunks to internalize as well.

Here are two more suggestions for transcribing:

#1 Buy software to help you.

I noticed that even Jaleel Shaw could have done it faster if he hadn’t needed to rewind quite so much. He got the ideas instantly, but he wasted a little time just getting to the new phrase. A good looper software, like the Amazing Slow Downer (for cds and mp3s) or the Ultimate DVD Player (for dvds), will save you time rewinding. They also have a function where you can slow down the music or even change keys! However, I recommend learning most everything at the original tempo except where you really need to slow it down. It’s better for you to learn solos as they are played, not at a quarter tempo. Ultimately, these programs will save you time, and will allow you to do more solos in less time. Here’s a link to their site:

#2 Don’t be afraid of playing other people’s transcriptions.

You should do more transcribing on your own, but learning a solo someone else lifted is never a bad thing as long as you do your own transcriptions as well. Analyze the Micro as well as Macro, and pull out licks and ideas to transpose into other keys to help your improvising (for more on transposing see my article on transposing).

Ultimately, stay at it. Transcribing becomes easier the more you do it, just like anything else. I know great players who mostly transcribe whole solos, and I know other great players who mostly transcribe licks, and then internalize those licks. I also now great players who use both approaches consistently. Find the approach that works best for you, and go steal some ideas! Nothing will help you find your own sound faster than figuring out what worked for others. If you ain’t stealin, you ain’t tryin’!

Camden Hughes
Camden is a working jazz pianist, multi-instrumentalist, and music educator currently living near Boise, ID. He teaches music at the Idaho Arts Charter School, and is the jazz adjunct professor at Northwest Nazarene University. Check out his music at



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