Photo by Cindy Moorhead
The audio and video files provided in the lessons below are bonus content for the September 2017 issue of Guitar Player. For the full range of interviews, features, lessons, and more, pick up the issue on newsstands now.
Shaking the Tree: Exploring The Edge’s Sonic Innovations on the 30th Anniversary of U2’s The Joshua Tree
By Vinnie DeMasi
Author Vinnie DeMasi plays examples from “Shaking the Tree," a lesson that appears in the September 2017 issue of Guitar Player.
Write It Down! - A Beginner’s Guide to the Art of Transcription
By Jesse Gress
Transcribing guitar music is like an exercise in musical forensics. The goal is a lofty one: to capture and abstract with pencil and paper—yes, I still prefer a soft pencil and a ream of manuscript over computer notation programs—the essence of a musical performance exactly as it happened, with the only available information being an audio or audio-visual recording of the event. It’s also akin to being a news reporter who has to answer six crucial questions in order to accurately relate a story—Who, What, When, Where, How, and Why? The first two are easy. In this lesson, I’ll guide you through this rather challenging but very rewarding process.
Your first step is to choose a subject. To keep things enjoyable, this should initially be an artist you are familiar with whose playing you admire. Consider also the level of difficulty involved: You may want to opt for something by Chuck Berry or Eric Clapton before attempting the complexity of an Allan Holdsworth transcription. Also keep in mind that just because we’re focusing on transcribing for guitar, your subject doesn’t necessarily have to be a guitarist.
Now that you’ve got an artist in mind, it’s time to determine what material you want to transcribe. Begin by choosing short segments, say one to four bars from a piece of music you’re familiar with. The more you know the music in your head, the easier it will be to get down on paper.
Now the fun begins. After locking in with the tempo and establishing a meter (4/4 in this case), your first step should be to determine the rhythm of a line or phrase. This allows you to zero in on when each note is played. Once you internalize the rhythm, you can focus on each note, one at a time, by knowing exactly when it occurs. This requires a working knowledge of what rhythms sound like and how to count and notate them, but it’s not as big a deal as you might think. There is a limited amount of ways to divide a beat and only a certain number of rhythmic divisions that can occur during a single beat. Memorize these by sight and sound, and you’ll acquire the ability to piece together almost any rhythm beat by beat.
Rhythm is linear—it flows with time. On paper, it flows from left to right. Notating rhythms is simply a matter of memorizing how each common rhythmic division sounds and being able to instantly recognize it in use. Remember that regardless of simplicity or complexity, all rhythm happens one beat at a time. The majority of music you transcribe will feature either equal or unequal beat divisions, with anywhere from one to eight “events” (or equivalent rests) occurring on each beat. We’ll stay in 4/4 throughout, but the same beat divisions can be applied to any time signature.
Since rhythm is the division of time, its divisions can be illustrated on a grid, as anyone who has ever programmed a drum machine can attest. The grid in Ex. 1 divides one measure of 4/4—counted as four quarter-notes per bar—into 16 “slots,” each representing a 16th note, or one quarter of a beat, and shows how equally divided note values from whole notes to 32nd notes fit into the grid system. When notating in 4/4, it’s very likely that most rhythmic events will occur within one of these slots. Furthermore, any note can be replaced by one of the equivalent rests shown in Ex. 2. (Tip: Count rests as silent events.)
Beat division can be equal or unequal, with anywhere from one to eight audible or silent events per beat. Ex. 3 lists the equal divisions from one to eight events per beat. Get to know them, especially one through six, by writing out four- and eight-bar rhythms of your own design.
The plot thickens with the chart of unequal beat divisions diagrammed in Ex. 4. An augmentation dot placed to the right of a note or rest increases its duration by 50 percent. The top row in this example lists two events per beat, with the 50-50 ratio of equal eighth-notes offset to lopsided 75-to-25 and 66-and-1/3-to-33-and-1/3 divisions. The last two 16th-based subdivisions illustrate how rests can replace any portion of the beat for even greater diversity. For three events per beat, row 2 lists six possibilities based on 16th and 32nd notes, while row 3 features unequally divided eighth-note triplets. Rows 4 and 5 follow suit with unequal four-event divisions, and rows 6 and 7 add a fifth event to each beat. (Tip: Learn them at slow tempos.)
Transcribing drumbeats will help you zero in on rhythms (and later, notes) that coincide with particular drum hits. Use Ex. 5a’s drum notation key and the subsequent beats in Examples 5b-5e as a guide for your own transcriptions. (Tip: Try these with a four-on-the-floor bass drum pattern, and/or hi-hat 16th notes.) Learn to play simple beats with your hands (tapping your knees) and foot, and practice physically applying them while listening to whatever music you want to transcribe.
So, to recap, the first thing you want to do after choosing your artist and material is to determine the rhythmic structure of the music one beat at a time until you complete a full measure. I often find it helpful to sketch out the rhythms on paper without note heads to create a skeletal framework before adding the actual notes. Once you establish when each note occurs, it’s time to determine what the pitches are and where on the fretboard they were played before repeating the entire process for each subsequent measure.
After you locate the first note in a musical passage, it’s highly likely that the next note will either be the same, or ascend or descend the distance of one of the 12 intervals shown in Ex. 6. These intervals are based on a C root, but the same step-formulas apply to any starting note. Once you have internalized the characteristic sound of each interval, note identification becomes much easier.
Because a standard-tuned guitar has five middle Cs, the next step is to decode where the correct notes are played on the fingerboard. This is where tablature becomes an important detail. Let’s say you just transcribed Ex. 7a, first by establishing its rhythm—two eighth notes on beats one and three, and two quarter notes on beats two and four—and then by identifying its pitches, via intervals. On beat one, we’ve got D moving up a minor third to F, which then ascends a major second to G on beat two. Next, we have essentially the same three notes in reverse—the first half of beat three maintains the same G which then descends a major second to F before moving down another minor third to D on beat four. On its own, this lick could be interpreted many different ways, but here we’re calling it a tasty 5-b7-root-based blues lick in G. However, since these pitches could possibly be played in five different fretboard locations, it’s up to the transcriber to determine which one is correct. (Remember that whatever guitar music you’re transcribing happened only one way.) Ex. 7b transfers the same lick to the B and G strings. Notice how the F and G notes are now positioned one fret higher than before, to compensate for the B string’s tuning. Examples 7c-e restore the lick’s original shape, with each string transfer moving five frets higher until we run out of fretboard. As you play these examples, observe the tonal differences that occur with each position shift. The lick sounds bright and trebly on the unwound B and high E strings, slightly fatter and rounder on the G and B strings, and then progressively thicker and darker on the remaining three string groups.
Nailing the correct rhythms, notes, and positions doesn’t mean the party’s over. Now you must deduce how the notes were actually played, i.e., if any of the guitar’s idiosyncratic physical articulation techniques, such as hammer-ons, pull-offs, string bends, and/or finger slides were employed. Just as it’s possible to hear the differences in string thickness, you can also learn to identify these articulations by their sound. Hammer-ons and pull-offs have a smooth, legato attack, as opposed to a picked note, which has a sharp, distinct attack that creates a transient (a loud but short-lived volume spike). With finger slides, you can, if you listen closely, hear the half-step fret increments go by as the finger slides over them, whereas string bends sound like a true portamento—an even, seamless glide between pitches. Examples 8a-d illustrate a simple lick—a 5-6-root-based motif in C, suitable for country or R&B—with three different articulation/phrasing options. Notice how each one has a different effect on the unembellished lick. Examples 9a-d present four more phrasing options based on the lick from Ex. 8a, while Examples 10a-d do the same with Ex. 7c. Playing them and adding your own articulation variations will help you to identify these and other phrasing techniques by ear.
Now let’s apply all of the previous steps to some real-life musical examples and examine their differences and similarities. Picture in your mind’s ear or listen to a recording of the first bar of the opening riff to the Edgar Winter Group’s “Frankenstein.” Step one is to determine its rhythm. The top row of the chart in Ex. 11 isolates the 16th-note slots from Ex. 1, while the second row properly beams each set of four 16ths into one-beat groupings. (Note the imaginary bar lines that separate each beat.) Row 3 zeroes in on what rhythmic events occur on each beat. Tap your foot in tempo (approximately 95 beats per minute), tap each 16th note with the tip of your pencil, and circle the location of each event as shown. If the tempo is too fast, you can use a digital playback device to slow the music down to half speed (or slower than that) without changing its pitch. (Tip: Both Windows Media Player and YouTube offer this option.) This reveals events occurring on the following 16th slots: 1, 2, 4, 6, 8, 9, 11, and 13. When we refine the rhythm with proper notation, we end up with row 4, where we’ve added the value of any unplayed 16th-note events to the ones that are actually played, using ties as necessary when events cross those invisible demarcations between beats. This practice keeps each beat visible and makes the events easier to read. Row 5 replaces all unplayed 16th slots with rests for a more staccato (short, clipped) sound. These same short note durations may also be notated more simply using a diminution dot, which, when placed directly above or below a note, decreases its duration by 50 percent, as shown in row 6.
Ex. 12a demonstrates how to graft the correct notes—or in this case, inverted root-over-5 power chords, à la “Smoke on the Water”—to the rhythm from row 6 of Ex. 11. Playing on only the non-parenthesized counts, beat one utilizes three G5 power chord events, counted “one-e-(and)-a” just like the third unequal beat division from row 2 of Ex. 4. Beat two features G5 moving down a whole step to F5, and is counted “(two)-e-(and)-a,” à la the sixth example in row 1 of Ex. 4. On beat three, we’ve got two more staccato G5 events, counted “three-(e)-and-(a)” before we move up a minor third to a single Bb5 played on the downbeat of beat four. (“Four-(e)-(and)-(a)”.) To complete the picture, we add a tempo indicator and chord symbols, plus fret-hand fingering and vibrato, and voila!
Now check out Ex. 12b, which utilizes the exact same rhythm paired with a different set of hybrid-picked chords (played with the pick and middle finger) to create a facsimile of a Billy Gibbons riff from ZZ Top’s “Cheap Sunglasses.” Many mistakenly assume that the Reverend played straight 5-over-root G5, F5, Bb5, and C5 power chords, but careful listening reveals an open D-string common tone on top of the G and F bass notes, and an open G over the Bb and C notes. The devil’s truly in the details! Ex. 12c, redolent of a riff from Frank Zappa’s “Wind Up Working in a Gas Station,” also uses the same rhythm, albeit with each D5 and B5 power chord receiving full value, à la row 4 of Ex. 11. Finally, in Ex. 12d, staccato phrasing on the open E5 chords during beats one and two is contrasted by a pair of full-valued eighth-notes and a single quarter-note on beats three and four, to accurately notate the menacing E minor-based riff from Todd Rundgren’s “Mercenary.” So there you have it—four different riffs built on the same rhythmic events! Recognition of these types of commonalities between rhythm, melody, and harmony is another invaluable transcribing tool.
Part of the “Why?” portion of the transcribing equation involves harmonic analysis (meaning indicating chord symbols and key centers) to clarify why the music works, but the more obvious question might be, “Why bother transcribing at all, especially if someone else has already done it or you can already play the music?” Above all, I think you genuinely have to enjoy the process of translating to the printed page a musical performance that began in a player’s mind, was transferred to their fingers, and ended up in the air, and getting as close as possible to notating exactly how it happened. The biggest reward is the satisfaction of seeing your work on paper and knowing you nailed it. It’s a tedious process, but a tremendously beneficial exercise in both ear training and music theory, and the more you do it, the easier it gets. And hell, you might even make a career out of it, like I did!