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LJS 90: How to Get the Very Most Out of Your Jazz Solo Transcriptions

Welcome to episode 90 of the LJS Podcast where today we are answering a question from a listener who wants to know how to analyze solo transcriptions to get the most out of them. This episode discusses what you should look for, and how you can break the solo down to identify the most important parts. Listen in!

Listen to episode 90

Back in episode 88, I talked about my LIST process for learning jazz solos by ear. By using this method, you will learn a solo properly and internalize it to a high level. That’s what we are after when we learn jazz solos.

But how do you go further to make sure you’ve extracted everything you can before moving on? That’s the exact question a listener had, Cormack from Detroit, Michigan, when he emailed about this. He wanted to know how to analyze his solo transcription.

Analysis is important when observing jazz language. Learning material by ear is great, but it can be helpful to pair that with trying to get inside the mind of the musician you are transcribing.

So what exactly do you look for? That’s exactly what I answer in today’s show. A lot of time and energy gets put into learning an entire jazz solo, and I want to make sure you get everything you can out of it.

Here are some of things I talk about in this episode:

  • Writing down the solo, and what to do if you don’t know how.

  • Analysis: what should you be looking for?

    • Common chord progressions

    • Uncommon or difficult chord progressions

    • Phrasing- use of space and length of lines

    • Solo development

    • Chord tones and extensions being targeted in specific licks

  • Taking parts into all 12 keys.

    • A particular lick or phrase

    • If you’re really ambitious, and entire chorus

So much can be learned from doing this and so I hope you take action today and spend the extra time to analyze a solo you have learned.

Important Links:

5 Sonny Rollins Licks Over “Tenor Madness”

Read the Transcript

All right. Welcome to another episode of the LJS Podcast. My name is Brent. I am the jazz musician behind the website, which is a blog and a podcast all geared towards helping you become a better jazz musician. Thank you so much for being here today and hanging out with me, listening in. Whether it’s your first time ever listening to the show or if you are a returning listener, I really appreciate you being here.

Today I’ve got a great show for you, and it’s all inspired by an email I received from a listener. His name is Cormack. He’s from Detroit, Michigan, and he wrote me an email that says, “Hi. Could you please do a podcast or a blog post on how to get the most out of transcriptions of solos after you’ve transcribed them? How do you analyze a solo so that it can be of most help to you?”

This is a great question, especially because back in episode 88, just a couple episodes ago, I talk about my LIST process for learning jazz solos by ear. LIST is an acronym. It stands for Listen, Internalize, Sing, and Transfer. So if you haven’t listened to that episode, I encourage you to go back to episode 88 and check that one out. But today, I’m going to talk about, after you’ve done all that work … because it is a lot of work, whenever you’re learning an entire solo, it’s really a time investment, a lot of efforts and energy’s put into it, especially if you followed my LIST process. But how do you go further than that? How do you make sure that you’ve gotten the most you can possibly get out of that solo before moving on to the next one? So I’m going to dive into that and give you some options to help you understand how to analyze the solo and really grab the most you can out of it.

I was really glad to have on our guest on episode 89 last week, Dorota Piotrowska. That was really awesome. We have some more guests coming up, but man, it is episode 90 today, which means we only have 10 more episodes till episode 100. I just can’t believe how far this podcast has gone, and it’s all thanks to you. It’s all thanks to you, all of you who have been listening from the beginning, or even just for a long time. So again, as I always say, I really appreciate you. We’re going to be doing something really cool for the month of episode 100, which is a big mile marker, through episode 104, which is our two-year birthday of the podcast. I’m really looking forward, that’s going to be the month of February 1018. We’re almost to the end of the year, guys. It’s crazy.

All right, that’s enough of that. Let’s jump into today’s episode talking about getting the most out of your jazz solo transcriptions. All right, now as I mentioned back in episode 88, a lot of times when jazz musicians say “solo transcriptions”, they don’t always actually mean they wrote it down. They just mean that they actually learned the solo. So whether you did write down your solo or whether you just learned it by ear, it’s time to take things to the next level. You’ve already got this in your ears by now. Keep all this in mind. If you go back to episode 88, you’ve already accomplished a multitude of things, and sure that you have internalized this solo, that you know it really well, and this is very much so a memorization and ear accomplishment.

So you have all of this down already, but now we’re going to take it to the next level, because like I said in the intro, you really want to make sure that you’ve gotten everything you can get out of this, to honor your time and the effort that you put into this. What it really starts with is analyzation, being able to analyze it. We’ve got this in our ear, but it’s now time to turn on our left brain a little bit and really try to understand what the artist, the soloist that you transcribed or learned by ear, what they actually are doing.

The very first step is to simply write it down if you haven’t already. I know by saying write it down, and I mean notating it on … whether you have Finale or Sibelius, or whether you just write it down hand notation on a piece of staff paper … I’ve lost some of you already, because some of you listening can’t even read music. Honestly, that’s okay. This show’s for everybody. This is not just for people of a certain musical level, this is for everybody, and everybody can get something out of this. So if you can’t read music or even if you can’t notate music, there are things you can do. But if you can, write it down first. Try to notate that solo out. I think you’re going to learn a few things just from writing the solo out that could be really helpful. You don’t have to do this every single time, but it can be helpful, especially when it comes to the analyzation process.

Again, if you can’t read music or if you can’t notate very well, you just haven’t had a lot of experience doing that, then what you can do is at the very least get out a chord chart or write down the chords for the particular tune that you’re transcribing. Let’s say it’s a jazz standard like “Autumn Leaves”. Make sure you have a chord chart in front of you, a visual representation, a map of the song, because that’s really what we’re going to be doing here, is mapping the song out. We want to know where we’re at in the song, and what we want to do is go measure-by-measure through the solo, listening through it and trying to identify what exactly is happening there. So again, writing it down, notating, is really a lot easier to do that, but if you can’t, at the very least have a chord chart and go through all of this by listening to the solo bar-by-bar and going through this analyzation process that we’re going to go through next.

Once you’ve got your solo written down, or once you’ve got you chord chart out, what are you going to be looking for when you’re analyzing this? What are you going to be trying to get out of all of this? The first thing I would do is look for common chord progressions. Look for common chord progressions throughout the song. I’m talking about ii-V-I chord progressions. In the key of concert C major, that would be a Dmin7, a G7, a Cmaj7. Hopefully, you understand a little bit of that roman numeral theory behind harmonizing scales. That’s really important stuff to be able to know. But other common chord progressions would be a I-vi-ii-V chord progression or maybe a minor ii-V-i chord progression. These are chord progressions that come up time and time again in jazz standards. Therefore, you want to make sure that you have some language over top of those chord progressions that you can play, or that you get so familiar with those chord progressions that you can start really learning how to improvise over them.

You’re going to want to be checking out what does the artist, the musician that you transcribed, what are they doing over top of those kinds of chord progressions. So what I would do if I had a piece of paper out, I would go ahead and just start circling them right there: ii-V-I, ii-V-I right here. There’s a ii-V-I right here. Minor ii-V-i right here. Circle that. Okay, here’s a turnaround, a I-vi-ii-V-I. Circle that. Do your circling. Once you circle those up, you find those common chord progressions, start taking a look at what they do. How do they actually approach those chord progressions?

The next kinds of chord progressions you want to look at are ones that you would consider areas of difficulty. For example, let’s think of a really tough song, a jazz song. So “Fee-Fi-Fo-Fum” by Wayne Shorter. That’s a really tough song. It moves very chromatically, doesn’t always move in a strick diatonic sense. It does some key center changes. It’s a pretty tough song to improvise over, so you may personally feel like the first four bars or so of that song are pretty difficult, and you’d be right to feel that way, too. In fact, what is that, E-flat 7 sharp 11, then to a D7, Gmin7, A-flat maj7. That’s weird, right? That’s like chromatic descending, then to a Gmin7 and a chromatic ascending. How do you improvise over that? So if you learned a solo over top of “Fee-Fi-Fo-Fum”, I would specifically circle that with a different color pen or highlight it, whatever, and just be like this is a difficult area. I want to know what does this artist do over top of that. So I’d go ahead and circle that.

Really, that should pretty much cover a lot of what’s going on there. That should really cover a lot of the difficult areas. Now I’m going to set that aside for a second, and you probably already noticed all this stuff from when you actually learned the solo, but I want to look for development now, because this is an important part of improvising a great solo, is developing a solo. So I want to look from the beginning of the solo to the end of the solo, how does he start out? Or she, how does he or she start the solo out? Is it sparse, is it light, is there a lot of long tones in it? Where’s the climax of the solo? How does the artist climax that solo and lift it to the next level? How does that all work? So I’ll be looking at things like that, too, just analyzing how does that build and are there any kinds of techniques that they use to build? How do they build that energy? Pay attention to that stuff. That’s very subtle stuff. It’s not very theoretical stuff, but that’s stuff to pay attention to. So I’d be looking at that as well.

Look at the use of space versus the use of rhythms and filling in long lines of notes. This is where writing it down can actually be really helpful, and again, if you can’t write it down, maybe if you could even find a transcription of the solo online, that could be helpful too, because then you’re really going to be able to visually see where a line starts and ends, and over what bars does it start, and where does it end? That’s important to look at, because some amateur struggles for jazz musicians are playing too many notes or having very broken-up phrases. Guilty as charged. That’s happened to all of us. So what you want to look at is how does this artist phrase things. The phrasing is really important. Is it a long phrase, short phrase, but then how do they tie those phrases together? Where is the space?

Who is it, Miles Davis and I’m sure a lot of other people, said something about it’s not about the notes that you play, it’s about the notes that you don’t play. So you want to look at where do they place space between their phrases or in different parts of the solo. Are there even parts of the solo where they just kind of let the rhythm section talk back to them before they go ahead and say something else? So all this is very looking from a bird’s eye view of this solo at what they’re actually doing, how they develop the solo, how they phrase, rhythmic varieties that they add in the solo. That could be helpful if you have it written down, you can view all this stuff.

Now let’s go back to the chord changes. Let’s go back to that stuff. You’ve identified common chord progressions such as ii-V-I. You’ve also identified very difficult spots in that solo. Now you want to take a little bit of a deeper look at this stuff. Let’s say we’re zooming in on a ii-V-I chord progression. You’re like hey, what’s going on with this chord progression. What’s this person doing on this? You look in on it, and you play through that line isolated, not with the rest of the solo. You just isolate that line. You know it already, it’s just a matter of playing it from that aerial view there. Now you start asking a different set of questions. It’s a ii-V-I, so how do they approach that ii chord? Let’s say it’s in the key of concert C major. So they have this Dmin7 chord starting. What part of the bar do they start? Is there an approach tone going into what? Are they outlining the arpeggio? Are they zooming in on a specific extension like the 11th? What are they doing there? Start really analyzing the chord tones. So that’s the next thing you do, is start analyzing what do they play over isolated chords within a chord progression.

For example, the V chord, this is where a lot of musicians start altering chord tones and adding those alterations into there. So we got a G7 chord, what alterations does the artist play, if any, if any at all? Is there a flat 9 in there? Is there a sharp 5? Is there a sharp 11 even in that chord, and how do they connect those with other chord tones, the 3rd, the 5th, the flat 7, and do they have the 9th in there? There’s all kinds of things you can do, especially over a dominant 7th chord. And then very importantly with a ii-V-I chord progression, how do they take that V chord or any alterations that they’re targeting in their line and resolve it to the Cmaj7? Do they resolve it to the 3rd? The 3rd is a very common note to resolve to. Or is it the 5th? What chord tone is it they end on? What’s the target note at the end? So you can start really analyzing that stuff.

By analyzing this, you’re just understanding it better. You can already hear it, you’ve already internalized those sounds, but now you’re just trying to intellectually understand it better, and that can kind of fill in those blanks for you and kind of expand your brain a little bit, wrap your brain around a little bit more of what they’re actually doing. So that’s super important.

Another thing to look out for: is the artist, the musician, going outside of the chord changes at all? Are they adding different harmonic chord changes or more chord changes than there are on the original sheet music? That’s an important question to ask. In fact, I have a great example of that. I’m going to leave in the show notes today a blog post, a lesson that I did on the blog. The show notes, by the way, you can find that at So go there. This is called “Five Sonny Rollins licks over Tenor Madness”. He takes this awesome solo over “Tenor Madness”, and in this lesson, what I do is I go and I notate … what did I say, five licks … yeah, five licks over, in his solo that he took.

There’s actually one really cool lick where he actually goes way outside of the changes, but is very clearly outlining a different set of changes. But it sounds good because it’s very intentional. The pianist and the bass player, they’re not playing that. They’re just playing the original changes, but he’s outlining something different, but it works so well and he resolves it so perfectly. In that post … again, I encourage you to go check that out … in that post, he really outlines that really well. And it’s interesting, when I notated it out and when I listened to it and really tried to dissect what chords is he exactly playing over and trying to discover what those were, it was really enlightening for me to do that.

This is how this analyzation exercise outside of using your ears can really help. It can really be like, “Oh, so I can do that over those chord changes, even though those chord changes aren’t even in the song.” All kinds of interesting stuff that you can do. So I would analyze are there any areas where there’s a chromatic ii-V-I situation going on? Are there any areas where the artist starts just going into a different place or even playing outside of the chord changes completely? So analyze all that stuff.

Now, analyzation process is mostly over. Obviously, this is an express version of all this. You spend way more time diving into all this stuff, analyzing it. I’m just kind of giving you a little bit of a checklist of things to go over to cross off your list before moving on. Here’s the next thing you need to do. Once you’ve analyzed all this stuff, find maybe two or three lines, licks, ideas out of the solo … and you already know what they are, because when you learned them, when you learned the solo, you were like, “Oh man, I love that line. That line rocks, and I want to be able to play it like that.” Bingo, you just found a line to use.

What you’re going to do, is you’re going to take it into all 12 keys. Yes, all 12 keys. I preach this like crazy, and you know this if you’ve been following our podcast or our blog for a while. I always preach learning things in all 12 keys. Why? Because if you can play something in all 12 keys, not only will you have internalized it way better, it proves that you can play that in any different situation, harmonic situation. You’re going to internalize it further. You’re going to open up the technique on your instrument. For example, if you have trouble playing in concert B major … you’re good at B-flat, because a lot of jazz tunes are in B-flat, but you’re not good at B, that’s going to really help you out. And even in playing situations, say if you play a lot with singers … I’ve been playing with a lot of singers lately … and you play things in weird keys, it’s going to help you be able to improvise in those keys better in general. There’s a plethora of other reasons. In fact, we have an entire podcast episode on that.

You’re going to be taking a line or lines, licks, through all 12 keys, super important practice. And again, you’re isolating specific pieces of jazz language from this solo now. You’ve already learned the whole entire scope of it, the entire thing. Now you’re starting to hone in on specific parts that really stood out to you, or again, maybe difficult passages that you really don’t know how you would improvise over that normally. Now you’re really going to lock that in and get those notes under your fingers. Again, I’ll use “Fee-Fi-Fp-Fum” for example. Wayne Shorter, how does he approach, if I learned Wayne Shorter’s solo on that song, how does he approach those first four bars? Those are tough bars.

The answers are there. The answers are always in the recordings. So you can figure that out there and take that through all 12 keys, and that might really help you, not necessarily that you play it verbatim in an actual playing situation, but that’s going to open up or enlighten you in some way, that you’re able to understand improvising over that chord changes a lot better.

If you’re a crazy guy like me, and you’re just nuts, take an entire chorus of the solo that you like through all 12 keys. I actually did this before. You may have heard me talk about this. I took John Coltrane’s solo of “My Shining Hour”, the jazz standard “My Shining Hour”, I took the first chorus of that through all 12 keys. I learned the whole thing, took the first chorus through all 12 keys. It was nuts. It was a really big project, very obsessive. But I’ll tell you what, it really just expanded things a lot for me. It just helped me navigate may instrument better, furthered my internalization of that solo. I don’t even know how to play that solo anymore, but I just feel like when I was doing that, it really opened things up for me. So that’s like if you want to go above and beyond and you really like a particular chorus, feel free to do that, but that’s kind of like an obsessive nuts thing that I did. So don’t feel like you have to do that.

Honestly, I would leave it at that. Analyzing all that stuff, maybe file away the paper, the sheet that you had that you analyzed it. File that away somewhere so you can revisit it again sometime. Taking some stuff through all 12 keys, that’s great. You can maybe review some of those licks that you’ve been working on. But the next thing I would just say is after you’ve done all that, you’ve already gone through the LIST process for learning the solo, you’ve already just analyzed it and gone further with taking lines through all 12 keys, it’s time to move on. You’ve done enough with this solo. You don’t need to wear it out.

There’s only so much you’re going to be able to get out of each solo.
So then move on to another one, or maybe even take a break for a second from learning a new solo, just take a break altogether and work on something else that you need to work on in your playing. Move on, okay? At that point, you’ve definitely worn it out. It’s like you’ve worn out the record. You’ve just moved the needle too many times. Leave it be. You don’t need to do too much. I like to try to keep things simple. That’s why I had that LIST process for you. Very simple, this is what you do. Steps one through four. And then after that, this is what you do. You analyze the song like this. You don’t have to overdo it. You don’t have to overdo it. This is maybe in your mind already overdoing it. Who knows where you’re coming from? This is a lot of stuff, but you don’t need to go crazy over this. Just move on to the next one and call it good.

That’s basically the process. So I really encourage you to do this. This is a great way to take these transcriptions to the next level for after you’ve learned them, and doing this will really help you, especially this analyzation process opens up that left brain. I really think it’s going to help you benefit as a musician.

All right, that’s all for today’s show. I want to thank you for listening. Thanks for tuning in, and I hope you take some of the stuff I’ve been talking to you about, about transcriptions, into action, because we can talk about this stuff all day long, but if you don’t take action, nothing’s going to happen, nothing’s going to change. And so I encourage you to take the steps necessary today. As I always say at the end of the show, if you appreciated what you heard today, if you learned something or if you get something from this podcast in general, leave a rating and a review on iTunes or your favorite podcast listening service. It really helps other people find the show and spread the word. It just takes about a minute or two of your time. So go to iTunes, leave a rating and a review.

Next week, I’m very excited, because we have a very unique show. We have a special guest coming on, Joe Agu, and he is a percussionist, he’s a educator, and he really is an historian of sorts about African music. He’s from Nigeria originally, and he lives in the Bay Area in San Francisco. He has so much amazing stuff to say about African music and how it relates to jazz. It’s really an important episode, so I hope you listen to this. It’s really important to understand where this music comes from. In fact, it’s something we don’t talk about enough, and so I’m really excited to have Joe Agu on the show next week. I look forward to seeing you back then. That’s episode 91. Have a good week.

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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