Jazz Improvisation - May 8, 2005

Learning to improvise - transcription


I was going to include the following in my "Listening to Jazz" feature, but decided it would probably be best to make a separate document. The two topics are closely related, however, as they both pertain to listening to music closely in order to understand what's being played.


Transcription is the act of writing down the notes and rhythms to a piece of music, or in this case, to a jazz solo. When transcribing you have to figure everything out on your own, using your ear to tell you which notes are being played. The final notation should be rhythmically and melodically accurate enough that someone could read the transcription and sound (somewhat) like the original solo.

There are several books and websites that offer pre-transcribed solos (see the end of this page for links), however it's often recommended that students do transcriptions on their own. In both of the music schools I attended, for example, we had to transcribe at least one or two or jazz solos each year. Students are encouraged to transcribe solos because there is the notion that if you do it yourself, you'll learn more about the solo. I agree with this point, as you'll no doubt listen to the solo dozens of times closely following every note and rhythm. Additionally, there's the thought that you'll gain valuable ear training skills from the experience...


While the act of transcription can strengthen your ear, like anything else, you won't get noticeable results unless you do it often (at least a few times a week). If you are looking to transcription for ear training benefits, make sure that you use your ear to concentrate on the pitches rather than simple trial-and-error. I've noticed in my past transcription activities that it's tempting to rely on the rewind button. Instead of slowing things down and/or hitting the rewind button 50 times, I suggest that you take the solo in short sections, learning each section well enough to sing it perfectly. Once you can sing a section, try to transcribe from your singing. This will ensure that you are really internalizing the melodies and rhythms while using your ear to find the notes. Honestly, though, I don't think transcribing is the most efficient way to train your ear because it takes too long to write everything down and figure out the rhythms. When it comes to ear training, I prefer dedicated ear training tools.

The remainder of this document pertains to transcriptions whether or not you actually do the transcriptions yourself.


You can certainly learn about a jazz solo through repeated listening, but it's often easier to understand what's happening when things are written down. I first noticed this benefit during my freshman year of college. Until then, I had never transcribed a solo, nor had I even seen one that was already transcribed. I was also fairly stifled in my concept of what notes should be played over which chords. For example, if I saw a C7 chord, I thought I was only supposed to play C, D, E, F, G, A, and Bb. When I finally did my first transcription, I was absolutely stunned to realize that the soloist might play any note over that same C7 chord, even so-called wrong notes! It was then that I learned that any note can sound good if preceded or followed by the right note. I'd later read a Miles Davis quotation which echoes this sentiment: "When you hit a wrong note it's the next note that makes it good or bad." This revelation about note choice is just one of the many things I've learned while examining transcribed solos.


For many beginners, it's difficult to develop a good jazz sound. This includes everything from the basic swing feel, to phrasing, articulation, and accents. The best way to learn these things is through imitation. Having a transcribed solo allows you to play along with a recording without having to figure out which notes to play. Instead, you can focus on sounding exactly like the soloist. Try to capture every inflection, dynamic, and accent until your playing is nearly indistinguishable from the original. Then record yourself. When you listen to your recording, does it sound like the original? If not, why? Maybe you didn't swing as hard as you could have, or maybe you're accenting the wrong part of the beat. Whatever it was, you now have the capability to isolate the differences and work on them.


An offshoot of imitation is influence. While imitating a solo, you can't help but become influenced by what you hear. One of my favorite jazz improvisation exercises begins with me playing a transcribed solo or two by a single jazz musician, such as Charlie Parker. If I hear a section of the solo that I really like, I'll play it a few times, listening closely to the specific elements that make the solo sound good. Once I've gotten a good feel for the solo, I start to branch off from the written solo and improvise my own solo. Having thoroughly absorbed the sound of the written solo, my improvised solo becomes influenced by the sound of Charlie Parker and I find myself playing ideas that I normally wouldn't play. These new ideas are often better than anything I might have played on my own.


In jazz, the term "lick" refers to a short pre-learned phrase that you can basically plug into your jazz solos. Transcriptions will show you that just about every great player has at least a handful of licks that pop up in several of their solos. This is true, even in the solos of great innovators like Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, and Miles Davis.

The learning of licks is especially useful for beginners who may otherwise struggle to come up with ideas in their solos. I like to compare licks to pickup lines. Pickup lines like "do you come here often?" and "what's your sign?" are filler and (hopefully!) starters for real conversation. In other words, you gotta' start somewhere so it helps to have some stock-material to get the conversation going. Similarly, having a healthy repository of jazz licks that you can play in any key will give you content to insert into your solos to either connect improvised ideas, or to get your solo off the ground.

Transcriptions make it easy to isolate the licks that you like and to learn them note-by-note. Just be sure that you don't fill your entire solo with pickup lines ;-)


There are a lot of transcription books out there, containing transcribed solos from every legendary jazz musician. When picking your first book to purchase, you could simply get a book dedicated to your favorite jazz musician, or you could get a book containing various solos by players of your instrument. In my case, my first transcription book contained solos by a dozen or so jazz trumpeters. The book was Ken Slone's "28 Modern Jazz Trumpet Solos" and it was recommended to me by my college jazz trumpet teacher. I've since purchased several other books containing jazz transcriptions and I've looked at dozens of transcriptions online.

In my opinion, there is no better book of jazz transcriptions than the "Charlie Parker Omnibook." Every student of jazz, regardless of instrument, should have this book. I didn't get a copy myself until 2007 (I got the Bb version), and boy do I wish I had bought it years ago. Page after page, it's the ultimate masterclass of how to play jazz. It's also relatively easy to play. There aren't a lot of complex rhythms, nor are there a bunch of high notes that I can't reach. It's just jazz at its finest.


Comment by Ben Elliott

i think this website rocks, it deals with all the troubles that i am dealing with. it gives you hope to know that other people were and are struggling with the same problems

Comment by Vince

Hi again,

on your comment about CP's Omnibook, in order of difficulty, what are some of the "easier" (if there is such a thing) tunes to start off with?


Comment by Rick

Hi Vince,

I guess you could simply thumb through the Charlie Parker Omnibook and pick out any tune that is primarily eighth notes (many of them are). You'll probably find that they're all pretty easy , though, if played at slow tempos.

Rather than focusing on which ones are easy or hard, I'd recommend that you simply take one solo at a time, starting at the beginning. Play through it a few times. When you come across a particular passage/lick that you like, circle those measures. Once you've identified sections that you particularly enjoy you can dedicate practice time to studying just those sections. You might decide to memorize the licks so they become part of your repertoire or you can use those licks as the basis for new licks that you develop (I'll write more about this aspect in my upcoming article about jazz licks).


Comment by Vince

OK, since I have started to go through the book it is like an encyclopedia of lines! The thing to remember is how well they sound rather than trying to analyze them (IMHO) - and might I add they can be a little diabolical for string players!

Comment by David O. Kemp

Great website and resource!!!

Comment by Yv'Albert

Awesome website with informations for those who love jazz improvisation but cannot attend Jazz school (in Africa almost none ). Thumbs up.

Ok, these resources are very good. I have a strange problem though. I don't know if this is common or it's something very troubling to me anyway. I no longer have trouble with playing back the intervals and so on when the first note is shown. I memorized them thoroughly a while ago now. I then moved on and even got to some 4-note melodies and beyond! But only with a reference note. Without the reference, I am basically lost at sea. I can't remember the last notes.

Comment by Stuart Wilson

this is a great website and it's helped me a lot with some of my improvisation problems. i'm starting out transcribing now as well and i really enjoy it but the only problem is all the trumpeters i listen to are crazy so a beginner transcriber has almost no chance of working it out. i was wondering if there were any particular solos or tracks that you could suggest to me for starting off with? cheers

Comment by Rick

Hi Stuart,

"Kind of Blue" by Miles Davis, has several tunes that make good first transcriptions. I'd suggest starting with "So What" or "Freedie Freeloader." Additionally, you could slow down any solo so it's at a tempo that you can manage. Software like Audacity (http://audacity.sourceforge.net/) and the Amazing Slow Downer (http://www.ronimusic.com/slowdown.htm), can help.





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Jazz Improvisation

I practice and hone my skills with the goal of becoming a better (dare I say "good") jazz improviser. In this section, you can read about the methods I use to improve and you can listen to recordings of my playing. The recordings will help you determine if any of the stuff I'm doing actually works ;-)

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