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Digging Deeper: Transcribing Rhythms

Reading and understanding basic rhythms is easier than you think.

Chops: Beginner
Theory: Beginner
Lesson Overview:
• Learn to identify simple rhythms by ear.
• Transcribe a few basic riffs.
• Understand how to count 16th-note rhythms.

Click here to download a printable PDF of this lesson's notation.

Simply put, a transcriber is a person who listens to someone talking and then writes down what’s been said so others can read it. In music, the same basic idea applies: Someone listens to a recording and then writes down the music (in either notation or tab) to more effectively share it with others.

It’s safe to assume that you’ve studied a transcription at one point or another, but maybe you’ve never attempted to transcribe a piece of music. It’s not as difficult as you might think, and it’s incredibly rewarding. This lesson will walk you through some basic steps to build your transcription chops.

Let’s start out with a bit of a disclaimer: We’re not talking about tabbing out some guitar, or even listening to a song and working out how to play it. While these fit into the family of ear training, they’re not strictly transcriptions because tabs lack the ability to be passed on to someone else, so they can play the music (assuming they’re unfamiliar with the piece). Suppose I gave you a tab for a song I just wrote. You’d know all the notes I played, but chances are if I gave it to 100 different people they’d all interpret it in different ways. Why? There’s no rhythmic guidance, so that’s where we’re going to start.

It’s also worth pointing out that transcription and reading are very closely linked, and there’s nothing better for transcribing than working on your reading. Put simply, reading is about seeing music and then being able to hear it, transcribing is about hearing music and then being able to see it. So working on one will improve the other.

We’re going to explore that idea in this lesson by looking at some rhythms. Once you’ve practiced hearing, playing, and reading these rhythms in isolation, they will be much easier to envision in the context of actual music.

I like to think of rhythms as being similar to words. In the same way you’re reading this text, you’re not seeing a series of letters, but groups of words with a meaning. In the following examples, we’ll work within a 16th-note subdivision and look at all the possible permutations found in this framework.

The basic idea is to take these individual measures and play them on repeat. But it’s absolutely essential that you read the rhythm as you’re playing it. We need to be drilling in that association between what you’re hearing and what it looks like. To make that as easy as possible, the first group of examples is played on a single note. Remember, the goal here isn’t to improve your chops, but rather connect your ear to what’s on the page.

In Ex. 1 we start with a basic eighth-note pulse. In 4/4 time, this comes out to two notes per beat, which we’ll count “1 and, 2 and, 3 and, 4 and.”

Click here for Ex. 1

We double up the rhythm in Ex. 2 with a series of 16th-notes. This time we’ll count “1 e and ah, 2 e and ah, 3 e and ah, 4 e and ah.”

The trick is to instantly hear the difference between eighth-notes and 16th-notes. Here’s an idea: Download these audio examples, throw them on your iPod, and put them on shuffle. Try to visualize the rhythm while listening to the example.

Click here for Ex. 2

The classic “Iron Maiden” gallop is shown in Ex. 3. Think of this as simply removing each “e” from the previous example.

Click here for Ex. 3

Now let’s reverse the gallop pattern (Ex. 4). Another method I’ve seen people use to remember a rhythm is by using a flow of spoken words. You could say “pa-pa-dom” to imitate the sound of this rhythm.

Click here for Ex. 4

The next one (Ex. 5) can be a bit tricky. It’s a 16th-note followed by an eighth and then another 16th. With rhythms like this, it’s important to notice the beaming. Each beamed group of notes occupies one beat. If you pay attention to where the downbeats are, this should come together pretty easily.

Click here for Ex. 5

Next, we’ll introduce the dotted rhythm (Ex. 6). When you see a dot next to a note, the dot increases the note’s value by half. For example, a dotted eighth-note equals three 16th-notes.

Click here for Ex. 6

The rhythm is reversed in Ex. 7. Remember, you can start with the counting pattern from Ex. 2 and simply remove the required syllables until you get down to what you need.

Click here for Ex. 7

That’s a lot of information, but what can we do with it? Well, if we take a famous riff like Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song,” we get a simple two-beat repeating motif that looks like Ex. 8.

Click here for Ex. 8

Do you notice the little dots over some of the note heads? Called staccato markings, they instruct you to play the note short. You’ll notice the inclusion of these markings when a transcriber wants to keep the page neat and avoid a whole lot of unsightly rests.

Or how about this little rhythm in Ex. 9 that may remind you of a Hendrix classic?

Click here for Ex. 9

Obviously that’s quite removed from “Voodoo Child,” but the same basic rhythm is solid. Listen to the original while focusing on the rhythm, and then attempt to imagine what it would look like.

Finally, here are three simple riffs in audio form. Try to write out the rhythm; if you can accomplish this, then you’ve just transcribed your first guitar riffs. Once you’ve sketched out the rhythm, download the PDF at the top of the page to check your work.

That’s it for now. From here, I suggest you go out and try transcribing something like “Apache” or “F.B.I.” by the Shadows. Start simple and build up.

For sight-reading, it doesn’t get any better than William Leavitt’s books. I highly recommend Melodic Rhythms for Guitar, which explores this idea of rhythm reading from start to finish.

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