I suppose that one could debate the pros and cons of transcribing and transcriptions forever, but in the end, as a learning tool, they have certainly proved to be most helpful to countless musicians: for the great ones, and of course, ones about whom we know nothing. If you were to ask me, "Have you internalized everything that you wrote out during your college years, and your earliest years in New York?" The answer would be, "No!" So, what was I doing, or accomplishing by putting in those long, hard hours - especially the physical task of writing, or trying to write everything down?
     I suppose that having the transcriptions written down somewhere does provide one with a source, when it needs to be referenced. But, I can't sit here and tell you that it is absolutely necessary that you do this kind of tedious work. If you have been memorizing the solos, you are probably getting as much, or more, out of them, than had you written them out as well. Usually, as I try to stress in my analyses of the solos and the players at KHAN'S KORNER 1, in the end, it is probably more important to understand the theoretical principles behind the playing. To be able to improvise, you have to HEAR something - and that has to come from somewhere within - you can't be THINKING about theories, chords, modes, and scales - you just have to be in the moment, and playing - making music with your bandmates. This is why sometimes singing along with the solo can be of great value than anything else!
    Often times, I recommend to students that they just try to notate the specific passages that interest them - and then, to make certain that they understand WHY they were so moved by that passage!!! That can be more useful than transcribing a full solo.

    - Steve Khan

Getting the most out of The Transcribing Experience

[1]    I believe that it is most important to have an idea about which phrases, within the solo you are about to transcribe, fascinate you the most. It can be a great experience, especially when getting started, to just isolate and transcribe the phrases that you want to learn and understand - and not burden yourself with the sometimes immense responsibility of transcribing the entire solo.

[2]    No matter how you choose to approach any transcription, the first step should always be to write out the FORM of the song, and the CHORD CHANGES that fall within that form. These two steps are essential if you are ever to actually learn something lasting from your work. When beginning to transcribe, sometimes it is best to choose a simple solo, a solo over a "blues" for example. Usually, that's only going to be a 12-bar form.

[3]    Once you have these two steps in order, you are ready to begin. Sometimes, it's nice to write your first draft of the the transcription with one staff for the transcription, and the adjoining staff for the chord changes. By doing this, you will be better able to quickly associate the notes with the chord change and its corresponding chord scale or mode. Usually, when writing out a transcription, you should conform to the basic rules of writing music. In that regard, with ascending passages, you would want to use #'s(sharps) and with descending passages, you would use b's(flats). If you have been studying my transcriptions, sometimes I choose to write out certain notes so that they better indicate what the chord scale is, rather than conforming strictly to the rules. This is especially true for altered dominant 7th chords, as they head towards a tonic(major or minor) resolution.

[4]    As most "Western music" falls within 4-bar phrases, I always like the music to appear, on paper, as it sounds. I want other musicians to be able to see the form as it unfolds. In other words, I always try to lay-out my transcriptions and lead sheets so that they have 4 bars per system. However, there will be times when the amount of notes a player might play in a particular bar just might force you to abandon this approach for the sake of being able to see the notes clearly. In that case, you just have to move the bars around until everything fits comfortably. Often times, the most difficult transcriptions are of ballads. Obviously, because of the slow nature of the tempos, a player can squeeze in a lot more notes - and, they often do. The transcription of a ballad solo is often the most difficult to actually notate close to correctly.

[5]    The "correct" notation of what you are trying to write out is not always clearly defined. 5 musicians could write-out the same transcription, and interpret certain passages completely differently. Often times, my guiding principle is to try to notate the phrase as I believe the player was trying to play it, this more-so than trying to write-out exactly what the phrase might really be. In other words, you can be flexible about how you choose to notate the solo, or the passage from a solo, that you're trying to transcribe!!!

[6]    Once you have completed your first draft of your transcription, I would, without question, put it to rest for at least one day, forget about it! And then, when you return to it, follow along with the recording, and listen again. It is highly possible that you are going to hear something differently than the way that you had originally notated it. I can't tell you how many times this has happened to me. That is the reason for NEVER doing a transcription in ink!!! As the great Igor Stravinsky was reported to have said, when he asked a student: "What is the most important part of the pencil?" And the answer that he would give was this: "The eraser!!!" Always be ready to erase, adjust, and correct!!! It's a process.

Some very simple and very directed advice for the future

[1]    Always sketch out your transcription on a piece of scratch music paper, as this will not be your final draft. As virtually all "Western" music is in 4 bar phrases, you want to try to keep 4 bars per line, no matter what, unless it's some super slow ballad, and the double-time lines take-up too much space.

[2]    Determine the form of the tune, what they are soloing over. Is it a 32-bar A-A-B-A form, is it a 32 bar A-A' or an A-A2 form? Is it a blues, or is it some other form? Once that has been determined, make those indications on what will be your rough draft or work sheet.

[3]    The next step is to determine the changes that they are using. Even if the tune is a standard, good players always try to add a personal touch with an alternate change or two. Then write in those changes above each bar, at least for one chorus. If you're having trouble determining the changes or the chord color[major, minor, dominant, m7b5, altered dominant, etc.], hunt for the bass notes, and write those in. There is always a clue there. Don't be confused by ascending or descending bass lines, for example: |  Dm  /  A/C#  /  |  G/B  /  Bbmaj7  A7  |  Sometimes a note, other than the root, could appear on the downbeat of a bar.

[4]     In general, try to set a goal for yourself for each sitting with the tune or solo. Even if you say to, in the next 1/2-hr. I'm going to get 4-bars done, that's a great thing. Don't view the project as one "whole" thing! It can only serve to make you depressed, frustrated, and eventually, abandon the effort. That, obviously, is not good!!! Try to do it in small, do-able sections. Then you will always have the feeling that you have accomplished something!!!

[5]    Remember, improvised solos are just that, they were improvised and they are, for the most part, never played perfectly. When notating a passage, this can prove to be frustrating too. So, what I try to do is to always write what I believe the player was TRYING to play. To go into the minutiae of trying to sub-divided insane beats to determine what exactly something that was played is can be a complete waste of time, and defeats the purpose. Most players don't think in terms of weird odd-meter sub-divisions over the standard meters of 4/4, 3/4, 5/4, 7/4 etc.!!!

[6]    Though it's best to use your ears, that's the way to learn, to authenticate the accuracy of certain passages it's not a bad idea to have a good computer program available. Years ago, Michael Brecker told me about "Transcribe" which has proved to be a fantastic tool. It's a British company, headed by Andy Robinson, and their product is excellent, well worth the minimal expense. They give you a free trial version for a prescribed amount of time.

[7]    Like all things in life, immersing oneself in one thing, in this case the work of one particular artist, can hold some positives - for example, the obvious, over time you would certainly know and understand that artist's work. However, getting too deep into one particular artistic point-of-view, without having an escape route, can leave you hopelessly tied to the artistic footprints of another artist, and thereby delaying your own development as an artist yourself. In the end, being an artist with a sense of individuality, that's where you want to be. You don't want to be, at best, a great imitation of an artist whom you admired.

[8]    Often times, guitarists can come to think that their own instrument is the be-all, and end-all, only to later learn that, in the linear world, the guitar is but a tinker-toy when compared to the saxophone and the trumpet. Where harmony is concerned, the same can be said when the guitar is measured against the piano. So, in the beginning, transcribing guitar-oriented music can be a useful tool in trying to understand and master one's own instrument.
    But, over time, there comes a moment when one must pursue loftier goals. And so, at a certain point, guitarists of my generation focused much more on the great tenor saxophone players, and the great pianists. The names of those players should be obvious, because they are all the "usual heroes" for everyone. Yes, there can be some small variations in those choices.
    I know that I am repeating myself but, most of my transcribing work was done during my college years at U.C.L.A. in Los Angeles, California from 1965-1969. Some of that work continued into my early years here in New York. And then, at a certain point, I stopped this kind of work, and moved on to other forms of study and self-help. What you now see shared at KHAN'S KORNER 1, or in some of my published books, is the product of those labors. Within the analyses of those solo transcriptions lies a key to the tools, and the benefits one can achieve from such work. But, the reader must scour the many paragraphs to locate that information, because it varies from analysis to analysis.
    I often think to myself that the tenor saxophone is the greatest instrument on this earth, of course, on another day, I might say the same thing about the acoustic piano. And then, there can be a day when I will say the exact same thing about the drums. Yes, I've said all those things - and still do! But where linear expression is concerned, because the tenor sax is so close to the human voice, it offers something that sonically could be from the depths of the human soul - and that makes it so touching and appealing to so many musicians. The legato nature of the way saxophonists articulate phrases within a breath is something that, for the longest time, guitarists like me have been emulating, because it gives more of a 'swing' to the phrasing. Picking every note can just sound so mechanical - when done beautifully by, for example, a great guitarist like Pat Martino, it can be very appealing - but, that's him, that's his style - and, above all, his gift on the instrument. I, like so many players, don't have that particular gift. My phrasing is inconsistent and varies - even from phrase to phrase. So, I have turned what should have been a liability into what is actually my greatest gift. But don't ask me how I did that! Perhaps, it's only because I am just stubborn, and I refused to give-up?
    Even at this latter stage of life, I can hear something played by a tenor saxophonist, and still become fascinated by it. I suppose it only goes to show that, in the end, we are all doomed to be students of this great music forever!!!

[Photos: Steve Khan @ Mediasound Studios 1984 by David Tan]