Guitar Transcripton. How to make a living as a guitar music transcriber arranger.
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By Dale Turner
In addition to being a performing/recording musician, Dale Turner
is also West Coast Editor of Guitar One magazine, an instructor at Hollywood's
Musician's Institute, and has authored numerous guitar publications for Hal
Leonard, Cherry Lane, and Warner Brothers. His CD, INTERPRETATIONS
- Solo Arrangements for Guitar and Voice, has been released on
the INTIMATE AUDIO label.
Since I began playing guitar, I've always enjoyed figuring out
tunes and solos of various artists. This is something any musician does, especially
if they're interested in popular music (rock, blues, jazz, country, etc.), as
a means of increasing their repertoire and their musical vocabulary. As a musician
continues to develop, he/she may find that they can play their instrument with
greater dexterity, better tone, stylistic appropriateness (taste), and spontaneity.
Through time, a musician's aural skills also develop. A good ear combined with
a solid musical education can not only enhance your ability to perform effectively
in a variety of musical situations, but also open up a few possibilities for
employment in other non-performance-oriented musical fieldslike professional
transcribing and arranging!
If that sounds interesting to you, read on! This article will
enlighten you to the tricks, tools, and traumas of the transcribing trade, as
well as provide a realistic battle planif you're interested in seeking
work as a transcriber/arrangerfor preparing materials to approach a major
What's Expected of a Music Transcriber?
Every publishing company that prints note-for-note guitar anthologies
of popular music includes all lead and background vocal
parts, guitars (in standard notation and tablature), and sometimes
other instruments (mandolin, banjo, piano, bass, or saxophonearranged
for guitar) in their publications. The vocals are an extremely significant element
in a transcription in that they often dictate the tune's arrangement. For instance,
if the first verse of a tune is 16 bars long and the second verse is only 12,
chances are you're going to need to write out both verses in their entirety
without being able to use any arranging devices like repeat
signs or D.S. al Coda. The song's lyrics also need
to be written out below the transcribed vocal melody, written in direct accordance
to the way they are syllabically hy-phen-at-ed in a dictionary.
This means you will need to look up some words! (Also, all capitalized letters
need to be underlined in red pencil!) The lyrics to each song
are usually included in the sleeve of the compact disc and are occasionally
labeled with section headings like 1st Verse, Pre-chorus, Chorus,
Interlude, Guitar Solo, Bridge, etc., which you may find valuable
in determining the song's form (the order of a song's sections,
once arranged, referred to as a song's road map). Early on in
a transcriber's career, this stage can be one of the most frustratingtrying
to organize a tune on paper in a "user-friendly" manner (i.e., easy
to learn) while keeping the page count to a minimum to save the publishing company
in printing/transcribing costs (transcriber/arrangers are paid by the
printed page) can eat up a lot of hours! Like anything else, with practice,
this process becomes far less tedious. Once you have a good sense of how you
want to arrange the song, the next stage is usually to figure out all the guitar
parts, using text-based shorcuts to recall figureslike
Rhy. Fig. 1, Riff A, etc.whenever possible.
Transcribing Tools, Tips, and Tricks
Some aspects of transcribing guitar parts are more difficult than
others, and vary depending on the artist. The tuning of
the instrument (dropped-D, tuned down 1/2-step, open-G tuning, etc.) and/or
presence of capos must be assessed at the outset. (In either case,
listen for open strings that pop up, either on purpose or by accidentlike
after sliding out of a noteto establish tuning. Harmonics may also tip
you off.) Do yourself a huge favor and subscribe to every guitar magazine under
the sun so you can read interviews of current artists to see if they reveal
any of their trade secrets. When a new album comes out it's quite common that
the interviewer will mention a specific tune and want to discuss any peculiarities
(strange tunings, mechanical/noise-making devices used, harmonizing effects,
etc.) that may exist in that particular recorded performance. The ability to
hear deep into the mix of a tune is another skill that needs to
be cultivated, since it will help you determine how many different guitar parts
exist on the recording to begin with. Here are a few tricks to try:
- If your stereo has an 1/8-inch phone jack and you are using
headphones (always use headphones!), try pulling the jack out slightly.
On some stereo systems this will actually remove the vocals, enabling you
to hear guitar parts more clearly.
- Invest in a stereo system that has a karaoke feature. This
system (I use AIWA) has a vocal fader that removes vocals almost completely,
while boosting other frequencies giving, among other things, distorted rhythm
guitar parts a little more clarity and definition. I've personally encountered
a few instances where the initial notes played on a guitar with extremely
heavy digital echo (during a solo) were difficult to hear. The delay was on
another track and disappeared from the mix just as the vocal did when I used
this same feature.
- Those of you who own a four-track cassette recorder that records at
double speed can record an excerpt of a blazing solo and have it play
back at half speed. This drops the pitch an octave but allows you
to hear more subtleties in phrasing that can help immensely when it comes
to trying to discern the exact location of a particular lick. (Make sure you
check your rhythms at regular speed though, so you don't overly notate vibrato
rhythms as pitch bends, among other things.)
- The Eventide Harmonizer has a sampling/real-time compression
feature that enables you to record (sample) then play back music at a slower
tempo (by time-stretching the audio file) while maintaining
the instrument's original pitch. (NOTE: This article was written
well before the widespread availability of digital recording technology. Nowadays,
it's easy to sample a section of a fast solo and time stretch the waveform
on a personal computer, slowing the lick down while retaining its original
Extreme methods like the above are often necessary to help speed up the transcribing
process, given the publishing company's strict deadlines for each assignment.
(Also, realize that the more familiarity you have with a particular style, the
more you can use "guitar logic" to your advantagechord forms,
arpeggiation patterns,doublestop moves, etc. to at least put you on the path
towards figuring out stuff that's difficult to hear.)
Tailor-Making Your TABs to a Specific Publishing
Every publishing company has their own copyrighted notational
style. This means that Hal Leonard, Warner Brothers, CPP/Belwin, Cherry
Lane, Amsco, and others all have slightly different ways of notating
pitch bends, vibrato bar usage, hammer-ons and pull-offs, fingertapping, harmonics,
etc. Keeping this in mind, if you're serious about trying to get a career as
a transcriber off the ground, I offer the following recommendations:
- Choose one company to submit a sample of your work to.
- Go out and buy one of their album folios (transcription book
of an entire album) of a band that plays tunes with a lot of metrical shifts,
involved background vocals, multi-tracked guitar parts and intense guitar
solos. The newer the book the better because every year or so it seems that
a company comes up with a more specific way of notating certain things. (An
example would be the addition of microtonal bends indicated in standard notation
with alterations to standard flat or sharp signs in recent Hal Leonard publications.)
- Pick a current song containing many of the stylistic elements
previously mentionedone that, to your knowledge, has yet to be
transcribed in a magazine or book. Use that company's transcription
book to model every aspect of your work after. That means everything from
placement of tempo markings, chord symbols, and figure recalls, to section
headings, slurs in tablature, etc. REALITY CHECK: When an editor
receives a manuscript, he/she expects that it will be accurate, legible, intelligently
arranged, and in accordance to their company's notational style so it can
to be sent straight to the engraver. (NOTE: The "engraver"
is the person who manually inputs notes and TAB from your handwritten manuscript
into a notational program like Finale, Sibelius, etc.) It's important to put
your best foot forward!
- Next, find the name of the company's Music Editor and
the company address (usually listed on the first page of their TAB books).
Send that person your transcription, as well as a personal
biography (highlighting your music education and versatility as a player)
and business card in a large #7 envelope (so big that it can't fit easily
in the person's mailbox so they have to deal with it). Then toss him/her a
call the following week.
If your work is impressive, at the very least, it's possible your
name will be forwarded to another working transcriber in your area who may be
looking for an apprentice to incorporate into his/her transcribing team.
(California, Wisconsin, Florida, and New York are considered "hotbeds"
for this.) This is a "win-win" situation for both parties because
a small transcribing team allows the established transcriber to accept even
more work. (You will be credited in the book as well, but expect them to take
a small cut of your pay because it is they who are getting the work, editing
yours, and guaranteeing that it's all up to par.) Better yet, the publishing
company you submitted your work to may invite you to audition
by having you TAB out a song for one of their current folios in the process
of being transcribed. This means better pay, but possibly less steady work.
(The company will also likely send you a Style Manual at this
pointa book containing almost all of that company's specfic notation preferences,
featuring numerous "real life" musical examples.)
In short, the work is out there. It's up to you to go out and
get it. (Disciplined and detail-oriented need only apply!) Good luck :)
© 2004 Dale Turner ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
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