Transcribing in the woodshed.

October 8, 2008 11:10 AM

I'd like to use the act of transcribing to take my playing to the next level.

I'm slowly transposing Chuck Leavell's piano on a secondary version of the Black Crowes 'She Talks to Angels'. I'm a big fan of his playing, and I'd like to learn a thing or two. So far, I can play along with the first minute or two of the song. What I'd like to do is make up my own version based on his playing, not just replicate it note-for-note.

For anybody who's transcribed before, how best to improve your playing using transcriptions?

Bonus question: What other exercise(s) would you recommend to get to that elusive next level?

Thanks a lot!
posted by Bearman (6 comments total)

Keep working on the song. Learn every note. Play along with it until you don't have to think about the part. This is how you learn a style. After you've been working on the one song long enough you'll find things that stick out and work on their own. You'll probably be able derive a small musical vocabulary with phrases you'll be able to move around and then work in to other songs. The move on to other songs with Chuck Leavell on piano. You'll find subsequent songs easier and easier to learn and before you know it you'll be able to make up your own "Chuck Leavell" parts.

But remember, through this type of practice you'll be developing your own style, so be sure to mix in some other players' styles with the same practice technique. You wouldn't want to become the Kenny Wayne Shepherd of the piano now, would you?
posted by mexican at 10:26 PM on October 8, 2008

Thanks for you reply, mexican.

Leavell's great, and I'd love to be able to play exactly as he does, but I'm not that good, so it's not gonna happen. I do listen to other players too, so that's understood.

I find myself playing the basic chords to most tunes with slight variations in rhythm, and that's it. I'd like to move beyond that (soloing and accompanying). I can see the value in transcribing the players I like. I'm trying to improve my chops by making up exercises based on the licks I learn, and was hoping someone in mefiMusic would have some experience in this they could pass on.

Thanks again!
posted by Bearman at 10:21 AM on October 9, 2008

What do you mean it's not gonna happen? Do you think Chuck or any other non-savant musician got good by doing something other than practicing for insane amounts of time? Don't sell yourself short. And for exercises based on licks, here's one. Take one lick you've learned and play it in every key. Then try and play that lick over every chord in a song. This should show you that you a) know the lick b) know where it might fit in a song c) know where it doesn't fit in a song. Then you can move on to things like changing harmonic tonalities for each lick (major to minor, flat 7 to major 7).

If you want to learn modern rock or blues piano playing though, you might find it easier to start with less modern players. Find out who the players you like listened to and learn their stuff. When I wanted to learn to play guitar like John Frusciante I got a lot further learning to play like Catfish Collins and Jimi Hendrix than I did trying to play Red Hot Chili Peppers songs.
posted by mexican at 11:06 PM on October 13, 2008 [2 favorites]

I had something like that exercise in mind, mexican. I'll try it out.
posted by Bearman at 9:35 AM on October 14, 2008

Hi Bearman, I'm just starting the transcribing process in learning jazz piano. Currently I'm on a slow version of 'It ain't necessarily so' (Track 15 here) on a mission to aquire some bluesy licks. It's great to see your question. IANAT but sounds like you're doing it right. here's my .02$ on the subject of getting from 'playing it' to playing with it.

I imagine what Chuck Leavell is doing when playing a solo, is freely coming up with 'note choices': He's in the position of knowing which notes are his 'friends' in relation to each given chord & is able to, in no time, pick which one's best for the job & carry on to the next bar. Whereas you and I are, mostly, reproducing the 'licks' without being too deply aware of the underlying 'note choices', at least if all we're doing is playing the piano part along to the recording. When it comes to transcribing, all of my efforts are geared to leave time for my brain to not be totally engrossed in the activity of reproducing; which would be like flying on auto-pilot, like pushing the 'play' button is all I'm doing. I want to be in that position where I am inside the music, but - like a lucid dreamer - awake and fully in control. I am less trained but I can still do this if I start out considerably slower.

So what I do is break the tune/solo down into little blocks, chord progression loops that I can jam it out over (say the II-V-I's in the tune). Slow enough, and a couple bars at a time; using metronome or drumloop, or Band in a Box. Sometimes I get together with a guitar player who plays the chords & keeps time for me, or lets me play accompaniment. I get comfortable enough with each little block for being able to tinker with the phrases' inner workings. I've also taken easy piano pieces by Mozart (Trios he wrote when he was 11 etc) and Beethoven, and tried playing them in different keys, and that forced me to think about their inner workings more - again shifting the focus more from blind reproducing towards note choices. /derail Classical players do this, but somehow still have a reputation that they can't improvise for the life of them. However I've witnessed someone improvise a fugue once, three independent parts, motives, key changes and everything. Beethoven reportedly entertained visitors by improvising to them in the classical style for hours.

Writing it out is the most painful part for me. What inspires me is a guy I know who plays keys in the biggest Purple cover band in Germany; he has a whole attic full of shelves full of transcriptions in folders, they met the Purple and got their approval and everything, and he's a fucking beast on the keys. I'm just getting into a commercial software called Transcribe that slows down recordings without changing the pitch, haven't tried it enough to recommend or not ... At any rate at times I was desperate I used to time-stretch a bit of the song without changing the pitch using Audacity.
Another thing I try is to play the solo over a clicktrack in a recording software then record solo & practice playing accompaniment to this (& vice versa).

Apologies for length, I hope you found some of this useful. (Sure was useful for me writing it down. Thanks for posting.)
posted by yoHighness at 8:04 AM on October 18, 2008

Thanks, yoHi, I agree, it helps to get these things written down. I use Transcribe, not so much to slow things down as to listen to a difficult section over and over again to get it into my head. It's a good program, IMO.

I like what you said about note choices vs. merely reproducing. I find myself overthinking the note-placement ('where in the bar does this note sound good?', for example) when I should just jam it out for a while, using the same notes as Chuck did and learning what sounds good to me. Perhaps compose my own licks.

Thanks for you reply.
posted by Bearman at 11:28 AM on October 18, 2008

« Older Unknown songs that define a time for you?   |   Halloween lyric needs music Newer »

You are not logged in, either login or create an account to post comments