2.16 Transcribing Solos

When you hear that great piece of music on the latest addition to your jazz collection, it might take your fancy to try and play it yourself. It's a great talent to be able to translate what you hear into manuscript - the only permanent record of how to play a piece of music that exists. Scott Fultz, who has transcribed an incredible amount of sax music, writes the following:

"Transcription of jazz solos is an inexact process. The nuances in rhythm, pitch and phrasing are too subtle to render precisely in western notation. That said, someone doing solo transcription can let go of spending too much energy trying.
If the goal is to emulate a player, the best exercise is to memorize the solo and learn to play it along with the recording. I try to work in chunks of complete phrases with a goal of one complete chorus per practice/transcription session. I don't always make that goal, and you won't either (unless you're one of those rare lucky freaks with phonographic memory). It's good to acknowledge this to avoid some of the inevitable frustration this effort can bring. Also remember that the players you are transcribing are human. They will play things that range from "wrong" notes to gibberish.
When a phrase gives me trouble, I deal with the rhythm by itself - where in the bar the phrase starts and what the note values are. I try to determine the notes that occur on rhythmic landmarks (such as the beginning of the bar). If I can't play a solo up to the tempo on a recording, I set a metronome and lay the it slowly in time. After I've got the solo, I put it to manuscript. I sure can't remember every solo I've learned and it's good to have a document of the work.
I've also transcribed directly to the page. This process, for me, involves a combination of idiomatic phrase recognition, pitch interval recognition and theoretical assumption. Again, you can get to a point of diminishing returns trying to figure out what a player "meant to say" in a given phrase.
Either transcription process leaves you with an "etude" that allows you to experiment with all the elements of execution that make jazz such a wonderfully varied and individual art form. One last bit of advice - crawl before you walk before you run. Pick solos you can accomplish and build gradually to more complexity. The rewards are worth the work!"
About the writer: Scott Fultz released a CD of original music entitled JUNKET (reviewed at and can be reached at [email protected] or you can visit his web site.

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