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Learning to Trust Your Ears: The Art of Transcribing

In an era when tabs for almost any song are a few mouse clicks away, Steve give us some pointers on figuring out songs the tried-and-true way - with our ears.

We guitarists have it really good these days. Back when I first picked up the instrument in the early ‘80s, information was much less plentiful and more difficult to get a hold of than it is today. Sure, we had guitar teachers, books and magazines, and even some video lessons (remember Star Licks?), but there was no internet, no digital audio, and outside of a few publications, there was very little tab available. It was mostly things like Mel Bay basic guitar books, piano/song books and other similar materials.

I can still vividly recall pouring over a photocopy of Steve Vai’s 1983 transcription of “Spanish Fly” like it was yesterday. It took weeks of begging my friend to photocopy it from a copy his teacher had given him, and to even up the deal, I had to trade my transcription of “Back In Black” (that I had to earn the hard way: through lessons with my instructor). Value! Today, it takes two seconds to Google a topic and get results… and that’s with a slow connection. In fact, I just Googled “guitar tabs” and came up with 12,200,000 hits!

In this era of instant gratification, there’s something for everyone, and finding information on how to play the latest song or solo, or even how duplicate a particular guitarist’s tone is just a few clicks away. Good times indeed. But there is something to be said about the value of the learning experience, and the insight you acquire from digging in and figuring things out the old-fashioned way… with your own ears.

Lose the Crutches
Before you download the tab of a track you want to learn, consider spending some time and learning it yourself. As many of us have found, those 12,200,000 tabs aren’t all 100% accurate, and the chances of finding a great transcription of an obscure song or solo may have you searching for a needle in a haystack. Why not spend that time getting to know the piece? By studying it, you’ll come away with less of a sense that you’re “connecting the dots” and more of a musical understanding. The good news is that we have lots of fantastic tools these days to help us out. There’s no need to wear out that old cassette player and tape with nonstop play-pause-rewind-repeat. Just load an MP3 into your favorite player and start listening.

One tool that I use constantly is Transcribe!, a PC and Mac program that allows you to load in an audio file (WAV, MP3, etc.) and manipulate it to aid in the process of learning the song by ear. It does this by letting you slow down the song while the pitch remains the same. You can isolate hidden tracks by manipulating the phase of the recording, to hear just the left or right channels, and even change the pitch of the track to match the tuning of your guitar. It also lets you set start and end points for looping a particular section of the track, and it handily displays a keyboard at the bottom of the screen, along with dots to designate the notes the music is focused on. The accuracy varies depending on the density of the music, but it is helpful in finding the tonal center and even the scales being used. Transcribe! is just one of many tools that does this, but it’s the one I’ve found easiest to use, and it suits my needs. If you don’t already have a favorite tool, go ahead and Google it. You’ll find plenty.

Now hear this.
Regardless of the tools, the process still requires you to use your ears to figure out what’s going on in the song. Assuming you can isolate the guitar part enough to get a clearer picture, how do you learn to trust your own ears? Let’s dig in a bit and take a look at some ways to accomplish this.

Start small.
Don’t bite off more than you can chew by taking the whole song in one chunk. It’s a good idea to break it up into small and manageable pieces. Let’s use a real-world example of “Black Dog” by Zeppelin. The signature riff can be looked at as three separate pieces that all connect to create a single, longer riff. If you break it down, the first part is 7 notes, followed by a second section of 8 notes, and finishing with another 7 notes and an A5 chord. I won’t go into more specifics, but looking at it in that light it makes a potentially difficult riff much easier to figure out. The same goes for chord-based riffs and solos, so take the time to break each musical phrase into realistically manageable parts.

Use tone for clues.
Unlike a piano, the guitar can play the same pitch at more than one location on the neck. When you’re listening to a recording, use the timbre of the notes to help identify where they are being played. You can hear the difference between an E on the 6th string / 12th fret and the same note being played on the 5th string / 7th fret by the tone… the first sounds darker. It’s also fairly easy to hear an open string versus a fretted note, but the differences can be smaller as you get higher up the neck and into the middle strings. The more you get used to listening this way, the easier it will get. And though I’m stressing the point of using your ears, you can always cheat a little, if you get stuck, and check out a YouTube video of the guitarist to see where he’s playing on the neck at that point. It’s kind of like having the answers at the end of the chapter and being able to work backward.

Look for patterns.
Of course, most guitarists tend to play in some sort of pattern, so many times finding the next note is a matter of what makes sense for your fingers to follow. Guitarists don’t normally try to find the hardest route to play notes… it’s already hard enough to play the instrument, so there’s no need to make it more work than necessary. When in doubt, stop yourself and think through what would be the most efficient way to play the part. Chances are high that’s the way it was played, although it’s not always a guarantee. And if it feels good under your fingers it’s no sin that you’re not copping the exact fingering as the original…remember, they’re your hands.

Slow it down!
Use those tools to your advantage. Nothing helps clarify fast guitar lines or even strumming patterns than slowing down the track to wrap your brain around the music. It’s here, in that more relaxed pace, that you can hear passing tones and distinguish modes, or major from minor intervals. Again, breaking the parts down into small phrases at this tempo and looping them will let you burn the part into your brain. Another bonus when you slow down the track is the opportunity to study vibrato. While I was learning parts for a re-record, I found it invaluable to be able to hear how wide one particular guitarist’s vibrato went. At a slow enough speed, I could hear exactly what pitch the note was being bent to and the way it turned around to go back down to pitch and back up the opposite direction. It also completely exposed the speed of each vibrato and how many actual bends were cycled through. That’s something that would have been much more difficult to pick out at full speed.

That’s what this is all about, after all—so don’t rush your way through. Take time to study and appreciate the nuances, because the real music is more than just the notes being played. The devil is in the details, as they say. How does the player pick the notes? Is he striking them hard or barely grazing them? What is the tone of the pick? Is it a thin tone or authoritative and immediate? What type of vibrato is being used to add color and style to the line? These details are key if you want to understand and duplicate the sound as well as to play it properly. Using the same pick type or even string gauge as the original guitarist might actually help you play it more like them. Once again, if you feel you’re getting lost, you can always pull up an interview online or perhaps a guitar magazine to help fill in the blanks. Picking out all of these details over time will make your ears as sharp as a Ginsu knife.

Count the notes.
Another benefit of slowing things down is the ability to hear rhythmic nuances much more clearly, especially in syncopated lines or groups of notes. If you turn on the click track at slower tempos, you can discern where the notes are landing within the bar, which is really helpful in understanding the phrasing of that guitarist. The bonus of learning these things at a slower tempo is that it forces you to “see” the phrase and get it under your fingers before turning up the speed on it. If you follow the example of learning small phrases at slower tempos, you’ll have a rock solid foundation that can be brought up to full tempo in no time.

Don’t learn your mistakes.
Back in college, my guitar instructor stressed the importance of never learning your mistakes. Whenever I came up on a trouble spot in a piece of music, we would isolate the section and work on it until I could play it correctly. Then he would back me up a bar and work out the transition into the difficult passage. After that, he would do the same for the bar after the passage, which totally eliminated the mistake and allowed me to concentrate on the music rather than the difficulty of that spot. This same approach can be applied to ear training. You shouldn’t allow yourself to move ahead until you’ve mastered the section at hand. The end result will be rewarding, and you won’t have to go back and learn it later.

So There You Have It
Yep, it’s easy and efficient to find a tab online or in a magazine when you want to learn something new, but if you spend some time training your ears, you might just end up being the guy making the tabs rather than downloading them. And with your newly awakened ears you’ll be able to dig in and appreciate what they’re telling you. Trust them, they hear everything.
Steve is best known for his work on Guitar Hero III, the multi-platinum selling video game that is turning gamers into guitarists by the thousands. A guitarist/composer/producer, he holds a B.A. in Music Performance and Composition and spends his days and nights writing music for games, film and television. He’s also a rabid tone fanatic and amp enthusiast always looking for a unique sound. His original music can be found on iTunes and at

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