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Zakk Jones Explains Why You Should Stop Transcribing Solos!

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JGT contributor and guitarist Zakk Jones starts a conversation about transcribing melodic interpretations.

I’ll start with an anecdote…

The great Canadian jazz guitarist Ed Bickert legitimately knew thousands of tunes, so calling something he didn’t know was quite rare. Apparently, so the tale goes, a saxophonist happened to want to play a song he didn’t know. So he writes the changes out so they can play the tune, and after the saxophonist takes his solo he looks to Ed who declines to take a chorus. Afterwards the sax player asked Ed “how come you didn’t blow?”. Ed’s reply was simply “well, how can I take a solo if I don’t know the melody”? 

There’s almost nothing more important in a song than its melody. You can of course find tons of examples where a riff, groove, chord progression, or even a counterline is the most memorable part, but by and large, we connect with songs through melody. In the tradition of jazz, melodic paraphrasing and interpretation is our most obvious gateway to improvisation. In fact, it very much IS improvisation. Most students when tasked with a transcription assignment typically run to their favorite solo. This involves literally and figuratively “skipping” past the melody in order to get to the juicy bits. We have to remember that playing a melody is not simply a chore we have to do in order to get to the “fun”–playing chorus after chorus of divinely inspired lines that will captivate our bandmates and audiences…or so we hope. Then after 12 minutes of soloing, we get back to the head in a triumphantly uninspired final 60-90 seconds. Why even bother playing the melody again if it’s not going to be a reflection or summation of the mood, spirit, and energy that you’ve created? In my mind, the question should be “why do we even solo”? I’ll leave that up to you to ponder.

If you want to get to the heart of a person’s sound and truly start to internalize elements of their playing, your first task is to dissect how they play and interpret melody. Miles Davis, Stan Getz, Louis Armstrong, and Ella Fitzgerald are typical Mt. Rushmore figures along this journey, but I guarantee that all of your favorite musicians have a unique brand of paraphrasing. The following is a brief smattering of recordings that I find to be particularly valuable, and serve as a good starting point in understanding melodic interpretation. 

Keep in mind these elements that are often found in paraphrasing. In this process, we are comparing the melody in its original written form, versus what we actually hear someone do in real life. 

  • Changing the length of notes
  • Starting or ending a phrase in a different part of a measure (anticipations, delays)
  • Adding fills, turns, scoops, growls, chromaticism
  • Changing octaves/range in any way
  • Articulation, how notes start and end, emphasis or lack of  (ghosting a note)
  • Playing with the time, laying back, rushing, keeping it straight down the middle
  • Altering the melody entirely 
  • Leaving out parts of the melody

Some important listening…

It Could Happen to You

Mahalia Jackson-Go Tell It On The Mountain

Miles Davis: Someday My Prince Will Come

Stan Getz & Joao Gilberto – So Danco Samba

Gee Baby, Ain’t I Good to You (Remastered)

Robben Ford – Revelation

Diana Krall – L-O-V-E (Audio)

Nina Simone – I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free (Official Audio)

Louisiana 1927 (Remastered)

John Coltrane “Body And Soul”

Ahmad Jamal – No Greater Love

Bring It On Home to Me

Feel Like Makin’ Love

Earth, Wind and Fire   Can t Hide Love

Ariana Grande – needy (Audio)


(By the way, use my code JAZZGUITARTODAY on https://www.donnerdeal.com/ to get yourself 15% off a new piece of gear, like this guitar you see me playing here!)


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