For this week’s Woodshed Wednesday, we’re going to talk about the about the absolute best way to learn music: Transcription.
Transcription is the act of learning a recording note for note. Through transcription, musicians learn not only the right notes on a recording, but also to emulate the time feel, articulation, and tone of the masters.
Here are 10 songs that make excellent transcriptions for beginning and intermediate guitarists. Some of these are fairly popular, others are not, but there’s something to learn from all of them.
10 Easy Guitar Transcriptions:
“Sunshine of Your Love” by Cream from Disraeli Gears
“Cissy Strut” by The Meters from The Meters
“Runnin’ Down a Dream” by Tom Petty from Full Moon Fever
“Oh, Pretty Woman” by Roy Orbison off Roy Orbison – 16 Biggest Hits
“Folsom Prison Blues” by Johnny Cash off The Best Of The Sun Years
“Something” by The Beatles from Abbey Road
“Dig a Pony” by The Beatles from Let It Be
“Sweet Child O’ Mine” by Guns N’ Roses from Appetite For Destruction
“New Slang” by The Shins from Oh, Inverted World
“Pet Sounds” by The Beach Boys from Pet Sounds
To get the most out of transcription, first learn a passage by ear, then write it down. Both of these steps are very important for guitarists because more often than not, we learn music by simply being shown where to put our fingers. When we do that, we memorize physical movements on the instrument that produce sound. I believe this turns the guitar into a physical barrier between the music in our head and the music that we actually play.
Through transcription, we learn to break down that barrier. When we have to figure out a guitar part by ear, we must first really hear the notes being played, then find them on the guitar. By the time we can physically play the passage fluidly, we’ve already internalized the music mentally. Eventually we’ll be able to play our own musical ideas more immediately. Improvising becomes less about the licks your hand is able to play and more about playing the melodies in your head.
Writing the transcription down is also very important, for two reasons. First, you’ll learn every note on the guitar and start to recognize common melodic and rhythmic patterns. This helps tremendously with reading music. Second, it’ll be easier to learn the relationships between the melody and chords. This relationship is the foundation for improvisation in all styles of music. If you want to be a lead guitarist, you have to know what scales to play over each chord.
All along we learn to play like our favorite guitarists, adapt some of their style, and gradually create our own sound. Every great musician that has ever lived began by transcribing their favorite musicians. If all you do is transcribe, you will have everything you need to be a great musician. With the help of a good teacher, you can connect the dots a little faster and understand why guitarists play what they play.
If this is your first time transcribing, here’s a tip: Pause the recording immediately after the note you’re trying to figure out. Sing the note back, then find it on the guitar. You may have to go one note at a time for a while, but eventually you’ll be able to hear 2, 3, or 8 notes and play them back. It’s just a matter of honing your ear.
Whatever you do, avoid searching for the TABs online–not only will that defeat the purpose of transcribing, but they are often incorrect. It’s ok to make mistakes as long as you try to do it all yourself!
If you found this post helpful, please see my other guitar and mandolin lessons on this blog. I am also available for private guitar and mandolin lessons in NYC or via Skype.