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Home LJS Podcast Jazz Tips and Advice LJS 112: Mastering the Art of Transcribing (feat. Greg Fishman)

LJS 112: Mastering the Art of Transcribing (feat. Greg Fishman)

Welcome to episode 112 of the LJS Podcast where today we have on special guest renowned saxophonist and educator Greg Fishman. Greg shares his story of how he has developed such a successful career in jazz and talks about one of his secret weapons: transcribing. Can you guess how many solos Greg has transcribed? Listen in!

Listen to episode 112

In today’s episode, I’m welcoming on a very special guest, Greg Fishman. We go over his story of how he became such a successful and masterful jazz musician, as well as talk about transcribing, one of his practice room go-to’s.

If you aren’t familiar with Greg, he’s a renowned saxophonist who’s toured with the likes of Conte Condoli, Benny Golson, Clark Terry, Lou Donaldson and many more. But he’s also a great jazz educator, having published many books both through Hal Leonard and self-publishing his own.

Greg is a phenomenal musician, and you’ll learn a lot just by hearing his story and getting inside his brain. But he also talks a lot about transcribing, which is something he’s done a lot of (you’ll see what I mean!).

Here’s some of what we talk about in this episode:

1. How Greg got started into music and jazz.

2. How many jazz solos Greg has transcribed (hint: it’s a lot).

3. Some tips and tricks for effective solo transcription.

4. Greg’s new membership course and how it can help you.

I know you’re going to love this interview with Greg Fishman and get just as much out of it as I did. Prepare yourself for inspiration, awe, and tons of value bombs along the way!

Be sure to check out Greg’s membership course at the link below.

Important Links

Greg’s membership course and jazz books

Read the Transcript

Brent: Hey, hey, what’s up, everybody? My name is Brent, I am the jazz musician behind the website, which has a blog, podcast, and videos all geared towards helping you become a better jazz musician.

Welcome to episode 112. On today’s show we have a very special guest on, it’s saxophonist, recording artist, and jazz educator Greg Fishman. Greg is a masterful musician who’s played with the who’s who, who has an incredibly accomplished performing career, but not only that, he is an incredibly great educator, though. That’s why I’m especially excited to have him on the show today, and Greg today talks a lot about just his story, and goes through how he became this incredible musician that he is. And I know that this is gonna be so enlightening for you, just to listen to his story. I know I got a lot out of it myself.

Now, specifically today, Greg talks a lot about transcribing and how that was such an important part of his jazz education and still is today. And what I want you to do, I want you to guess right now how many solos Greg Fishman has transcribed, okay? Make a guess right now, keep listening to the show. You’re gonna find out exactly how many solos that is, and you’re gonna be blown away. Okay, so make that guess.

You know, specifically I want to clarify this as well, in the past we’ve had other guests on the show that have talked about transcribing, but transcribing in jazz is sometimes used as an over-encompassing terminology just to mean you learn a jazz solo by ear. But Greg Fishman literally means writing it down. So just to keep that in mind as well.

Now, if you want to check out Greg’s website go to He’s also gonna talk a little bit about a special membership program that he’s got near the end of the show. So stick around for that. All right, let’s not waste any more time. Let’s jump into it and get on Greg Fishman.

All right, welcoming on the show is renowned saxophonist, educator, and D’Addario woodwinds artist, it’s Greg Fishman. Greg, thanks for being on the show today.

Greg: Great to be here, Brent, thank you.

Brent: So I’m really excited to have you on, because, I mean, you are a phenomenal saxophonist, a very accomplished saxophonist, you’ve played with the who’s who, you … I mean, you’re the real, real deal. And not only that, though, you’re an incredible jazz educator, which I don’t think they always go hand in hand, by the way. And so you come out with tons of books, you teach lessons, you’re just an amazing teacher. So I’m very excited to have you on, I’m very honored to have you on and just to share your knowledge with my audience today. I think what everybody wants to know from someone who’s so accomplished like you, is just how did you get started out? You know, how did you get started on this music thing?

Greg: Well, in the beginning, I was really into things from previous generations. So when I was a little kid I was watching old TV shows like Dick Van Dyke and The Honeymooners, things like that. And you know, the background music in those shows, it’s all jazz. It’s from the ’50s, ’60s, and at the same time I was, as a kid, really into audio equipment like stereo gear, like Nakamichi tape decks and Macintosh and all this kind of high-end audio stuff.

And looking back it’s kind of strange, but I was like an 11-year-old kid and my best friend at the time was this guy, he was like 25 years old, who repaired audio equipment. And I’d hang out with this guy, totally innocent, though. Like today I’m thinking “Oh, man, this sounds it would be a red flag.” But the guy was totally cool.

And I met the guy because, well, I would bring in my tape deck for repair to this place, and I could tell, even though I didn’t, I wasn’t a musician yet, but I could tell the speed on the recording when I played it in the car, it didn’t match. And I kept telling him the speed’s wrong. And he repaired the deck like four times, and I said “I want to see this guy who’s doing this.”

I was just a little kid, but so they let me meet him and they said “Come around back with me.” And he took me and showed me on like the scope that the speed was correct on this thing, and so we ended up getting to be friends. And I told him I was into stereo equipment and stuff, and he started saying “Hey, man, if you’re gonna appreciate your equipment, you gotta hear some acoustic music. And I was listening to, even then I was listening to kind of older stuff, but I was listening to older rock stuff, like … which still sounds great, you know, I was listening to Led Zeppelin and Yes and Beatles and, you know, who was big back then … who had just come out? Kansas, the group Kansas had just come out. Chuck Mangione had just released “Feel so Good,” okay, a very nice recording, “Feel So Good,” production-wise, was really good.

It was one of the harder things for me when I started getting into the more hard-core jazz, when I started getting into Charlie Parker, all of a sudden these weren’t high fidelity recordings. These were recordings from the ’40s now, it was all mono, and you had to get past that. I remember getting, I was really excited to get one of my Duke Ellington records, ’cause it was like Duke Ellington live in ’39 or something like that. I was expecting to hear some flashy, new, slick audio production, and no, it’s not like that. It sounds like an old radio, you know, when you listen to those old recordings.

So I had to get past that because I was used to such slick production level stuff of the day. But once I did get past that, man, the content, when I started listening for content and not only for how great the thing sounded on these stereo speakers that I bought but just listening to what they were doing, I got deeper and deeper into it.

And so around that time, I was around 12, I started playing clarinet. My best friend was in the school band and he invited me to come and sit and watch the band. I think he inherited a clarinet from his uncle or something. And then after school they had this jazz band that played, and I’d heard big bands before, but not live. And I heard it and I was just amazed at the saxophone section. Even just the look of the instrument was so cool to me, it had all these, you know, it was just a cool shape and it had all these buttons on it. I was like “Man, that thing sounds so cool,” and they’re playing like sax soli, and I was like “Man, I want to do that.”

So my dad, for eighth-grade graduation he got me a saxophone. And I remember getting the thing and … now if you’re a sax player, you never just order a saxophone. You have to try through a bunch of them, and you gotta try them out. He didn’t know anything, he just went to the store and ordered one. It came in, that was the one I got. And got the fingering chart, you know, real excited and went home, started figuring it out. And the next day I came to school with the thing, and the director let me sit in with the jazz band. And since I had been playing clarinet for about a year, sax was not that hard, ’cause the clarinet is way harder fingering-wise than the sax. They’re similar fingerings, but the sax is much easier.

So he let me play with the band and it was a big thrill. I remember they were playing “In the Mood,” the first song I’d ever played, ’cause we were playing with the big band at the junior high school. And I played on their last concert. And then that summer I just went nuts with practicing. I mean, I just started getting way into it. And my friend, we sort of had a friendly competition going, ’cause he would say, you know, “I practiced like two hours yesterday.” So I’d say “I practiced three hours.” And then we just kept one-upping each other till it got totally ridiculous, he couldn’t keep up any more, where I started, pretty quick, started doing eight hours a day. By the time I was through with eighth grade, it was eight hours a day for the next about 10-12 years.

Brent: I find that every, at some point every really successful … well, at least jazz musician, has had some of those crazy hour days where you’re just practicing. It really becomes this, I guess obsession, right? You just get so obsessed with it that it drives you to do that.

Greg: Right. It almost becomes like, to me it was almost like a religion or something like that. It was just like, it’s just all-encompassing. You get so into it, and it’s just the excitement of, the joy of discovery, I guess they would call it. It’s just, and when I got to my first really good teacher … now, I already was figuring stuff out on my own, and the first teacher I had, he was good in some ways. He wasn’t the greatest sax player, but he was, he did tell me that I had to learn a lot of standards. And so he, by the time I was 12 or 13 I had already probably learned maybe 40 or 50 melodies of standards by memory, which was really good.

His name was Rick Shock, and he … yeah, and he wasn’t like a wild improvising great or anything, but he knew a lot of standards, he played a lot of these gigs they would call society gigs, where you just play the melody basically. But you had to be able to play, you know, like a medley of 20 songs, like “Tenderly” and then “Moonlight Vermont” and then “Days of Wine and Roses.” Just one chorus of each, but you couldn’t read the music, you had to just know it.

And so that was a really good thing. And after I went to a guy named Joe Daley, Joe was a famous, kind of historic Chicago saxophone teacher, really tough teacher but really good. He taught Dave Sandborn, he taught Jen Clemmer. And I was about 16 when I went to him, and he … his lessons were really interesting, in that he would want you to be able to do things, and he’d say, like … with him, he’d say you gotta take, not only did you have to play standards, you had to play three standards a week in 12 keys, and be able to play on them unaccompanied and hit all the changes and keep the time. And if you weren’t making it, he would just say “Ain’t making it, baby, get out and pay me.”

Brent: Oh, my goodness. Whoa, rough.

Greg: Brutal. He was rough, he was totally old school. And I’d say, I remember once I said “How am I supposed to do all this?” He’s like “I don’t care.” He says “There’s no rules. Do whatever you gotta do to show up next week and be able to do what I’m asking of you. I don’t care if you have to transcribe it yourself or if you gotta get together with other saxophone players and figure it out.” He said “It doesn’t really interest me, I don’t care how you do it, but this is what you gotta be able to do.” So that was really … you know, that was very liberating, because when you’re a kid and you’re in high school, you’re sort of in this mentality of “Oh, I gotta wait till the teacher says I’m ready to do this next thing.”

And Joe took off all restrictions, and so you know, so I just started going nuts with transcribing. I was like “Okay, well, he wants me to play this song, let’s see what Dexter Gordon played on it, and then let’s see what Sonny Stitt played on it.” And then finally I started bringing a tape recorder into the lessons and recording him, recording Joe Daley, and I transcribed him too. And so I’d come back the next week playing sort of a combination of what Joe played as a demonstration and Sonny Stitt and you know, and Coltrane, and he’d say “Oh yeah, yeah, sounds good.” And he never asked me how I did it, and I never told him how I did it. So it was great.

Brent: Well, that’s … so wow, you were just transcribing like crazy, like you were just doing …

Greg: Oh, like I would transcribe all day. I would transcribe sometimes like eight solos in a day. I mean, we’d have like … I’d have a big pool table, I was in the basement of our house, and I’d start at the beginning with nothing, and then, you know, they were short solos, ’cause these were solos from the late ’40s or early ’50s. So most of them, the records were three minutes long like the song. So they were usually between two and four pages, but I’d transcribe one solo and then I’d push it back on the table, and then I’d transcribe another solo, push it back. By the end of the day the entire eight-foot pool table had nothing but transcriptions on it from top to bottom.

Brent: Okay, wow. So yeah, you’re hardcore, that’s awesome. So okay, I heard a rumor about you, Greg, so I’m gonna ask you straight up if this is true. ‘Cause if it’s true, mind is blown forever. I heard something that you have transcribed somewhere in the number of 600 or so Stan Getz solos. Is that fact or fiction?

Greg: Well, there were, I did them about, over 600 solos, but only about 200 of them, maybe 250 of them, were Getz.

Brent: Okay. I don’t care, that’s amazing.

Greg: So yeah, I did over 600 solos, yeah, I did.

Brent: That’s incredible.

Greg: Yeah, everybody, like Lester Young, Ben Webster, Colin Hawkins, Dexter Gordon, Wardell Gray, I mean, pretty much anyone who played the saxophone, I transcribed. Zoot Sims, Al Cohn, Coltrane, I did a lot of Coltrane stuff, Sonny Rollins, Brecker. Yeah, it’s just such a direct way to get … Sonny Stitt’s. Stitt and Getz are the two main guys I’ve done, I gotta say. Of those 600 solos, probably 200 or 250 were Getz and probably another couple hundred were Sonny Stitt. And then the rest were just kind of evenly split among the rest of them.

Brent: Yeah. Wow, so that’s, I mean, that’s incredible and it speaks to … I mean, pretty much every teacher … well, not every teacher, but a lot of jazz teachers will say, you know, you should learn solos and stuff, that’s the tradition of jazz music and that’s the greatest way to internalize that jazz language.

And it just goes to show that if you do a lot of that, I mean, wow, it just speaks for itself right there. A lot of my listeners might hear that you’re transcribing all of these solos, and are starting to have panic attacks here. A lot of them find that it’s tricky, right? Like they can’t hear it by ear and they get overwhelmed. Do you have any tips for them who are just struggling to latch on to that? Any tips for how you actually go about doing that?

Greg: Yeah, the mistake people make with transcription is they try to do too much at once. You have to transcribe it as little as one note at a time. And I’d just go back and listen to the measure again and add the next note. And you would figure out where … you know, the hardest thing about transcribing is not the notes, it’s more the rhythms. How do you notate that rhythm? That’s what always hung me up. I mean, I got the notes pretty fast. In my earliest days of transcribing, before I even knew how to do notation, which was when I was about 12 years old, when I first started trying to figure it out, I would just write letter names and just draw it, you know, without a staff.

And I would just write the note higher or lower, just to kind of follow it along. And it was a pretty crude method, but it did work. I mean, I was able to look at my notes and I knew what they meant.

So I didn’t … I was so determined to transcribe I didn’t let the fact that I didn’t know music notation, that didn’t stop me. I just wrote the letter names and drew circles around them, or I did something to indicate how long the note would last. And you could do that, too. If you’re not doing these to be published, you know, I ended up getting mine published through Hal Leonard and all this stuff.

But, and it’s best to notate them as accurately as possible, but if that’s hanging you up and if you have such … if you’re just kind of freezing because you can’t figure out how to notate the rhythm, don’t let that stop you. Just put your best guesstimate of that. And I even used to sometimes write that, I would write that … I would write the notes and I’d kind of write, if it was faster I would write 16th notes, if it was slower I’d write a quarter note. And I would just put a little notation over it that was just kind of a guesstimate of the rhythm, then we’ll come back and figure that out later.

If you’re really hung up like on one measure, or two measures are giving you trouble, just leave them blank and go on and transcribe the next part. Don’t let that stop you. Because you can start piecing the thing together later on, as you’re playing it. It might come in pieces. And sometimes you’re stuck for the longest time, and then it might be, I sort of thought of it sort of as, like you’re trying to break open a rock. And you hit the thing a thousand times and the thing is still not splitting open. It might be the thousand and first hit, but it might be the ten thousandth hit. But at some point it’s gonna break open, and you just gotta keep doing it.

Transcribing, it just really sharpens your ear. It’s such a vital thing to do it, because listening … now, just the process of doing it is of great value, because you start to focus on “Wait, what beat does he start that note on?” Where’s he starting? When you’re just listening to enjoy it, you’re like “Oh, man, that’s a great solo, I really like that.”

But when you’re actually trying to notate the thing you’re like “Wait, I don’t even know what beat he starts on.” And then you gotta figure that out. And then you start getting into these issues where you’re transcribing, like I always used to have this quandary of “Is he playing a 16th note or … is he playing 16th notes or is he playing a triplet with an eighth note after it?” Stuff like that, and you start to really say “Is he trying to rush forward or is he laying back? Is he playing a fast rhythm laid back, or is he playing a slower rhythm pushed forward?”

You start … and I even look at my old notation on some of these transcriptions from a long time ago, and I’ll have the word “push forward” or “lay back” over the notation, ’cause I had … you have to make these judgment calls as to how they’re … where their time is, if they’re laying it right on top of the beat, and just ’cause they’re on top of the beat does that mean that you should notate the thing as like … you don’t want to get where you’re notating something as a 32nd rest followed by like a 64th note or something like that.

It’s a feel thing. You say, okay, it’s, usually things break down to either a quarter note, you know, half note, whole note, quarter note, an eighth note, a 16th. You can get down into 32nd notes, but it doesn’t go, by the time it’s that fast, usually with the jazz stuff that I’ve transcribed, those are just, I would call grace notes or something if you’re getting that fast.

It could be on a ballad. You know, ballads are the hardest to notate. I’d say to people who are just starting to transcribe, don’t try to start with a ballad. Start with a medium tempo, don’t start with a burning-fast rhythm changes thing that’s at 300, and don’t start with a ballad that’s at like 40. You know, ’cause both extreme ends are tricky. Start with something medium tempo, I’d say somewhere in the 100 to 150 range or something, beats per minute.

And don’t feel that you have to … you could set small goals for yourself. Now, I was just insane. I transcribed the whole Giant Steps album, the Coltrane album, in like three days. That was in 1988, Thanksgiving weekend, and I was just like … I was just obsessed, and I was like “I don’t care if they find me slumped over this desk, just like passed out. I’m gonna finish this record, I’m gonna do it.”

Brent: Oh, my goodness.

Greg: I mean, my arm was so sore I couldn’t even hold the pencil any more. And I did do it, but it was brutal. I don’t know why I was beating myself up so much about … I made up these imaginary deadlines of when things were supposed to happen, and you know, I just, I don’t know, I was really tough on myself with that stuff. I didn’t … and it was good, maybe, I mean, I think people work different ways. Some people work better with deadlines like that, and other people work better with more of a relaxed, like open-ended approach. For at the time I was doing it, I would just seem to be saying “Okay, this album’s gotta be transcribed by this date,” and I would do it. But I did have fun doing it, but at that point I don’t even think it was so much fun any more, it was just I needed to prove to myself that I could do it.

Brent: Right, it became this sort of competition with yourself.

Greg: Yeah, exactly. I kept setting the bar higher, you know. It’s like these guys who go to the gym and they start getting into working out. In the beginning, it’s just for fun or just to get in shape, and then after a while, with some of these guys … I had friends like that. Now, I was never like that, because I’m not set up to go to the … I’ve got problems with my carpal tunnel and stuff like that. I can’t lift a lot of heavy weights, it messes up my wrists for playing. But I knew guys in high school who, they were just normal guys, and they weren’t in any great shape, but then they started getting into this working out thing. And this one guy, after about a year he’s like “I bench-pressed 350 pounds today.” You know, and I’d see him like a week later, he’s like “Man, now I’m up to 400.” You know, and it’s like …
Brent: Oh yeah, well, I transcribed the Giant Steps album.

Greg: Right, right. And then I had another kid who used to like race his car, you know, and he’d say “I drove up to 130 miles an hour last week.” You know, so everyone’s got their thing. My thing was transcribing and learning this music. So fortunately mine was not a destructive one. But you get really into it. Looking back also, I could have had a lot more balanced life. You know, I didn’t have any kind of real social life to speak of, ’cause all I did was practice and transcribe. And I mean, I was in the basement with no windows all day, listening to records and transcribing, and I was on a really weird reverse schedule. Like I would … if it wasn’t during school, but even during school, I mean I had a lot of all-nighters, pulling all-nighters, just practice all night.

But if school was out, I would practice a lot of time between like 10 AM … 10 PM to 6 AM. Like I was on a reverse schedule, and so I’d stop maybe at 4 in the morning and go out to a Denny’s and get some coffee and eggs, and I would take my transcriptions with me. And at the time I was also keeping this thing I called my practice journal. And, ’cause there were no computers, but I had a typewriter, an old IBM electric typewriter, and I would type up … I tried to do something where at least every day or two I would type these kind of thoughts about what I was learning, and observations about, like “I noticed Getz did this thing the other day, and I think this is what it seems like. It seems like he’s playing a B half-diminished chord whenever it seems like it should be a G7.” You know, what I didn’t realize, later on I understood that it’s … he’s just going three, five, seven, nine of the chord.

I had this whole system built on those types of observations. That’s a book that’s coming out in the future called The Brick System. It’s a way of stacking up different degrees of the chord, one, three, five, seven; five, seven, nine; five, seven, 11. I call all of these things bricks. And there’s all these formulas for all the bricks, and it’s a way … I didn’t know at the time, ’cause I would sometimes … I even remember back on like when I was playing with those play-along records, with the Aebersold, and I would see if … I was playing “Have You Met Miss Jones?” And I remember on the first chord it was F major 7, I would put in pencil “A minor 7” over that, and I didn’t know why, but I just knew it sounded cool if I played A-C-E-G over that. You know, ’cause the ninth sounds great. I didn’t know at the time.

And at the time I thought I was doing chord substitution, but it’s actually not, it’s just upper degrees, it’s just the upper extensions of the chords. So I wasn’t changing the chord, but I was just accessing higher notes in the chord, which really sound cool. So anyway, I had these practice journals, these typewritten journals, which at some point I might even publish some of them, because they’re really fascinating. Because I can see how I’m developing my listening skills, and I would take something that I had transcribed, and then I would actually try to break it down. I’d try to tear it apart, like “Here’s a line that Getz played that I really like. How did he come up with this?”

And I started to tear apart, like look at the intervals and look at the way the voice-leading hidden within the eighth-note lines, I started getting into this big analysis thing. I called it cracking the code. And it was like I somehow thought I was, like the whole bebop language, it was sort of like I must have seen some war movie of World War II where they’d have like … you know, they’d show some kind of bunker in England where they’ve got all these people with headphones on, they’re trying to decode like the secret Nazi transmissions or something like that. They’re trying to figure out what all the secret encoded stuff is, and I was like “Well, I’m trying to crack the code of the bebop language with these transcriptions I’m doing,” and it’s not enough to even just play these notes along, even though I did some like that, I wanted to get even past that and try to get into these, the voice-leading. It was like “Well, how come it sounds so smooth when these guys are connecting their chords, and how come it sounds so choppy when I’m trying to make up my own solo on these chords?”

And what I noticed was, it was the way they would connect. And oftentimes when it would change from one measure to the next measure, right at that point where the chord would change, the soloist would only move by a half a step or a whole step. And that was voice leading. And that’s something that was missing from my playing as a beginner, because even though I learned the chords, like a lot of beginners, it’s like you play each chord like it’s a separate, stand-alone thing, and you don’t really connect the notes from one chord in a smooth way to the upcoming chord.

And so what ends up happening is you have a pretty nice idea on one chord, but then you have to stop that idea and start a fresh idea on the new chord because you don’t know how to bridge the two together, how to make that idea kind of smoothly go into the next chord.

And those are things that I learned a lot by studying these transcriptions. And you know, Getz is especially smooth, he’s just a total master at that. There’s no one smoother at connecting chords to each other than Getz. But each guy had his way of doing it, and there were something in common with the way that they all did it, and I think a lot of it goes to Lester Young and Charlie Parker, those are two real primary guys that everyone took something from them.

Brent: Yeah. Just hearing you talk is just so insightful, just to … and I think you should publish these practice diaries, ’cause it’s so very, very interesting, just because to understand … I mean, you put so much work into this. And obviously it shows, I mean, it shows in your jazz education materials, it shows in your playing, your career, and just the dedication is inspiring. But just to understand, get inside your brain a little bit to understand that progression that you went through, and the transcribing, and just learning those lessons from the music, it’s just incredible. So I do thank you so much, Greg, for sharing your story.

Now, I know that speaking of jazz education materials, I know that you have a plethora of amazing stuff, and I also know that you have a new membership program going on. And I know that some people in my audience might be really excited. I mean, they’re listening to you talk right now and they’re like “Greg is the real deal and I want to learn from this guy.” Can you tell them a little bit about that?

Greg: Sure. This is a site that, I got the idea several years ago, I took a couple years to really get my head around how I was gonna format it. But I started making some educational videos that I posted on YouTube. That started about, maybe even 10 years ago, maybe even more than that. Just because people were asking me to explain something, and I filmed a video with my phone, put it up there, and got some good response to that.

And to go further than that, I was thinking these things really should have some notes. Like what if I were gonna take notes to go even further? So maybe the video, I’m demonstrating stuff, sounds cool, I’m explaining it, but then to go one step past that, what if I actually took notes like I was my own student? And I took notes, what I thought were the highlights of the video and what you needed to practice from it.

And I was like “This could actually be a course, sort of like an online lesson course for jazz.” And I was working with a web developer, and he was like “Oh, you should make it a step-by-step course, where you do lesson one and then lesson two.” But I’m like “I’m not gonna do that, because that’s not really the way that I learned.” The way that I learned, it was a lot of different parts of the language coming all at the same time. You know, like different aspects of it, like the chords and the vocabulary and licks, or patterns, things like that.

And putting it all together, it’s like maybe some people need to work on technique, for example, ’cause they just don’t have the chops to play something. Other people need to work on their ear and hearing voice leading, or hearing the chords, or singing intervals, and things like that. And so there’s different things people need at different times in their development. We don’t all develop in the same way at the same time. So I was thinking everyone who’s coming to this site is at a different location. They’re all working on things, and everyone, you need to be able to get what you need when you need it from the site.

So all the videos are great, but I have some videos on vocabulary, I have some videos on ear training, I have some video lessons on theme and variation, which is a thing a lot of people have a hard time getting their head around.

I have other ones that are more basic, just like here’s the chords and here’s how you spell the chords, or I have another one … some of these, some of them, a lot of them I’m playing and I’m explaining theory and I’m doing ear training. Other ones I film while I’m in the car, actually driving across the country. And my music theory ones while I’m driving, I just have the phone mounted in the car. And I’m saying “Let’s think about the note C. C is 1 in the key of C, right? C is 2 in what? It’s 2 in B flat. What would it be 3 in? It would be 3 in A flat. C would be 4 in G, and C would be 5 in F. C would be the sixth note of E flat, and C would be the seventh note of D flat.”

Do this for all the notes, and like, well, let’s talk about chords. C is the root of a C major chord, but what would C be the third of? It’d be the third of Ab major, and it’d be the fifth of F major 7, and it’d be the seventh of D flat major 7. It’d be the ninth of B flat major 7. You can keep going, you know, it’d be the #11 of G flat major 7. It’d be the 13th of E flat major.

So that’s more advanced, but anyway, so there’s all these things, and even … I’d say an intermediate player would even still get a lot out of the website. I would say even a beginner would get something out of it, but if you could basically just play your instrument, and even though I’m demonstrating everything on saxophone, I have a lot of guitar players, piano players, who have subscribed to the site, because you can play it, it’s just the jazz language. So like I play some piano, and I play some bass, and things that I play, I mean, you’re trying to train yourself to be a musician.

And to me, I’m a saxophonist, but that, whatever instrument’s in my hand at the time is my output device. I mean, as far as the way that I hear harmony and the way that I develop ideas, I can’t do it as fast on a piano, but I play similar solos. Or even if they just hand me a microphone and they say “Hey, can you scat a solo?”

Sure, I can scat. You know, if you’re hearing the language, you can’t be hiding behind your instrument hoping that the instrument’s gonna produce some great jazz solo for you. It’s all like, you know, you don’t get in your car and think “The car’s gonna take me where I need to go.” You have to direct that thing, you have to make every turn and it’ll get you there. So it’s sort of like that.

And as you can see from the way I speak, I use mostly analogies to describe things.

Brent: Right. I love that about you, by the way, your analogies. Like your book, The Lobster Theory.

Greg: And so that turned into my thing, right, I wrote a book called The Lobster Theory, which is a book of analogies. And you can check that out, you can do a search for it on YouTube and you’ll see some videos where I explain what the lobster theory is. We don’t have time to go into it here, but it’s really cool and it’s a fun thing. And it’s part of this whole approach that I call my non-academic approach. Now, I have a master’s degree from Northwestern in education and I have a bachelor’s in jazz performance from Depauw, but I don’t teach the way that those guys taught, and I didn’t learn to do what I do from those courses. I’m not saying they weren’t of value, I did learn some things from them.

But the main thing that I learned, the things that I play and the things that I teach, they came from those 600 transcriptions and they came from studying with Moody, James Moody, and Joe Henderson, and Dave Liebman. And I played with the Woody Herman Band for two years, and I played with Louie Bellson and I got to play with Phil Woods, and all these big-time guys, and Slide Hampton. And it’s like … Lou Levy and Conte Candoli, and hanging with those guys and playing with them, and I did a tour once of Japan, and we did a concert tour with Michael Brecker. And we did 16 cities together in 18 days, and though I never got to study with Michael, I got to stand next to him night after night on the same stage, not playing with his band, but we played after him. Or sometimes we played before his band. And just hanging with him and hearing him warm up and talking to him about music …

He actually got my whole book thing started, because I had written for Hal Leonard four or five books, and I was gonna put out my first etude book, and they rejected it for whatever reason. And this was around the time I was doing that tour with Michael, and he’s like “Let me check it out, send it to me when we get back.” And I sent it to him and he called me, said “Man, this thing is killer. Start your own company, I’m gonna give you an endorsement for the back cover, I’m gonna tell people about it. It’s really great for just bebop, straight ahead.” And he did, he told people about it, and it started taking off, and that started my … now I’ve got over 25 books out and they’re in 40 countries.

Brent: That’s amazing.

Greg: And now it’s this video lesson site.

Brent: Nice. That’s awesome. So that’s great, so I mean, where can people who want to get involved in this, where should they go to find your membership program and all your other stuff?

Greg: They should go to Check out the subscription site, if you like it, sign up for a month, and if you want to stay with it you can upgrade to the year-long plan. If it’s not for you, try it for a month, you’ll get a ton of great stuff out of it, maybe you’ll come back to it later. You know, but definitely check it out. A bunch of cool stuff on there. And you can find my YouTube channel as well, and there’s some videos on there if you want to hear me talking about the lobster theory and all that kind of stuff.

Brent: Awesome, so go to, check out his YouTube channel. Greg, I want to thank you so much for being on the show today. Thanks for just sharing all of your knowledge, all the things that you know. I appreciate it and looking forward to perhaps having you back on the show sometime again in the future.

Greg: Oh, that’d be great, any time.

Brent: All right, everybody, that’s all for today’s show. I want to thank you so much for listening, thanks for tuning in, and another special thanks to our guest, Greg Fishman. Make sure you go check out for more where that came from, all right? So thanks again, and as I always ask, if you got value out of this show, a really simple and free way that you can give back and support this show is to go to iTunes or your favorite podcast listening service and leave a rating and a review. Really only takes a couple minutes, jump onto your app, whatever you need to do, and leave that positive rating and review, really helps us out.

Now, next week on the podcast I’m gonna be talking about an interesting topic I haven’t really talked about before, and that is backing tracks and play-alongs. Are they good, are they bad, and I’m specifically gonna hone in some specific scenarios where possibly play-alongs could be hurting your jazz playing. I know, a little controversy? Maybe, maybe not, but hey, listen, if you want to learn more about that, and I guarantee you’re gonna want to listen to the show. Stay tuned with me for next week, and that’s what I’m gonna be going over. And I’m gonna be continually delivering value to you and helping you with your jazz playing. That’s my goal, that’s my mission, as long as you’re there I’m gonna be there, okay?

So see you in next week’s episode, 113.

Brent Vaartstra
Brent Vaartstra is a professional jazz guitarist and educator living in New York City. He is the head blogger and podcast host for which he owns and operates. He actively performs around the New York metropolitan area and is the author of the Hal Leonard publication "Visual Improvisation for Jazz Guitar." He's also the host of the music entrepreneurship podcast "Passive Income Musician."


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