A few thoughts on transcribing.
As many are aware, I have recenlty (July) posted a website making transcriptions I have done available to other players. I was always frustrated at the lack of decent reading material to practice with when I was learning to read and thought that posting some interesting parts would be helpful to people who wanted something credible to practice with. After posting the old transcriptions I had lying around (God knows where many of them have gone), I started to prepare some new ones and, so far this year, I have completed over 140 new transcriptions – some quite short but some, like Close To The Edge (Yes), La Villa Strangiato (Rush) and Tenemos Roads (National Health) quite long performances and long transcriptions. The process has taught me a few things about transcribing that I thought it may be interesting to share.
Firstly, I have learned that transcribing is not as exact a science as I would have previously thought. If you take a line like, say, ‘Peaches’ by The Stranglers or that part from 'The Chain'by Fleetwood Mac, it is fairly clear what the notes are and what is right and wrong in terms of note placement. When you are looking at complex tunes like ‘If You Can’t Stand The Heat’ by Bruford, however, it is not nearly as clear what the specific notes are and where to find them on the neck. Even when you slow the piece down to 25% of it’s original speed, it is often still difficult to be absolutely clear on some of the detail. When players play long and complex lines at furious tempos, it is not uncommon for the occasional note to be missed or the execution to be a little clumsy, rendering the exact note momentarily inaudible. The transcriber has three choices; take a guess using musical logic (is the sequence of notes a scale or chromatic run and, if so, what SHOULD the note be), leave it blank or add a ghost note. Of course, this begs the question, if I can’t find a note at 25% of the speed of the original performance, how important was that note in the first place?
Secondly, everyone makes mistakes. It’s ok. Nobody ever died from a wrong note. Slowing down performances allows you to hear the clinkers and, similarly, to hear the ‘fixes’ where a note is re-recorded or the player dropped in for a passage they clearly missed the first time. You quickly learn that many of the most iconic bass performances were not executed flawlessly the first time around (e.g. Geddy Lee’s monster bass fills in ‘YYZ’ were recorded separately to the main bass part. How many takes was it, Gary? 2 or 2,000? We all have the potential to put down impeccable performances when we have the studio time and technology available. Recording perfect parts is easier that performing them live.
In addition to this, another defining factor in the accessibility of note recognition is the tone of the bass and the mix of the recording. Neil Murray’s bass part on ‘Tenemos Roads’ was a good example where the tone in context occasionally made it difficult to determine whether a note was an F# or a G. A well timed cymbal, a bass note on the paino or keyboard or an overly intense vibrato and the core note can quickly get lost! Sometimes it is obvious but not always.
Thirdly, transcribing notes does not necessarily reflect the definitive elements of a performance. Bass sounds like those of Chris Squire, Geddy Lee, Percy Jones and a host of others cannot be written down and the authenticity of any performance of the transcription by anyone other than these individuals will always be suspect and will depend heavily on the player’s familiarity with the original performance and the specific tones, attack and effects used. Some of these details can be approximated in a transcription but many cannot.
Next, there is the issue of key signatures (this bit is reproduced from another thread). I was discussing this recently with greater minds than mine (remember; as a reader, I am self-taught so there are inevitably gaps). I asked the question 'what key signature would you use for a Blues in F: would it be F or would it be Bb major (given that F is an F7 and, therefore, the V chord of Bb major)? It was explained to me that there is a subtle difference between different genres and the ways in which music is engraved (written down). Without over-generalising, what I was told was that, historically, music was written in certain keys e.g. Nobby Fishcake's Symphony in A minor, Giblin Blapp's Concerto in E and so on. With popular songs like Jazz standards or show tunes, it is common for the key changes to be all over the place with the harmony slipping in and out of keys throughout. Also, the use of dominant 7th chords in blues type tunes creates chaos when you try and put a key signature on the chart as the key centre and the passing chords are conflicting with the key centres all of the time. As a consequence of this, there is a tendency in Jazz to write the whole thing out without a key signature and to include the accidentals in the way I have done in many of my trancription. A lot of the lines in bass playing linked to Jazz and other secular musics are chromatic and lead into chord tones which means key signatures can interfere as you can have the same note three times in bar, one sharp, one flat and one natural; sometimes more than one of each. Key signatures can confuse the issue even more. In short, there is no universal solution to these pitfalls and people deal with it differently.
I try to use key signatures when it makes sense to do so but, sometimes, it makes more sense to keep things open. I am constantly reviewing this, though, as I am aware that this is 'a thing' and that my knowledge of notation is potentially flawed.
Finally, there is SO much detail in a performance that it is difficult to write down. Jack Bruce’s bass solo on ‘El Cid’ from the Cozy Powell album ‘Over The Top’ has bends within bends that cannot be reproduced on the score. Same with a lot of Percy Jones’s techniques, sliding harmonics, weird right hand techniques etc. Slapping and popping is another difficult thing to write down (I have pretty much bottled out of doing so). I think it is possible to do it (I have seen transcriptions that have been done of slapped parts) but is takes infinitely more time as you have to develop a means of indicating slaps, pops, hammer-ons, double thumbing, l/h vs. r/h fingering for tapping – it’s a minefield and, frankly, I am not inclined to spend the time traversing it. There is also no means of recording whether a player use a pick or fingers, for instance (there are ways of describing different ways of hitting a violin string with a bow, for example, but, to my knowledge, these details have not transferred readily to modern bass playing).
Finally, all transcribing is a personal expression; ‘this is how I hear it’. Unless you have a direct line to the bass player responsible for the original performance, there is every possibility that you will get the thing wrong. My Jasper Holby transcription of ‘Abraham’s New Gift’ prompted a response from Jasper himself that said ‘Many thanks for that but you for the time signature wrong’. Remember, a transcription is NOT the performance, it is a representation of the performance and that can be interpreted in many ways by a transcriber. Is it a bar of 7:4 or a bar of 4:4 followed by a bar of 3:4? Is it a 4:4 triplet feel or 12:8? It is not a question of being wrong as much as it is of interpretation. The ‘correct’ way of transcribing a piece of music is in rendering it readable as opposed to accurate. When an engraver (a person who writes out music parts for performance) is producing a chart, it’s success is measured not by the transcriber but by the player who uses the transcription to execute a performance. I like to think of transcriptions as part of a dialogue. 'This is what I think. Do you agree'? I have had correspondance with others on details on specific transcriptions and it is interesting to see how different people hear the different parts. It's less about who is right and who is wrong and more about consensus.
I hope these thoughts help my bass playing chums to gain a little insight into the philosophy of transcribing. I am thrilled that so many people (over 4000) have been able to use my transcriptions to further their playing. I have enjoyed doing this work and seeing the website grow and develop.
Bilbo's Bass Bites – Bass Transcriptions