Really struggling on transcribing

Hey folks,

I am having a really hard time with transcribing and hoping somebody here might have some advice that could get me ‘unstuck’.

Since starting on Grade 3 of the guitar course I’ve been doing a 1 hour session on transcribing every week. The first 4 or so sessions, it was the recommended songs from Module 15, then I started on the Module 16 stuff (transcribing melodies).

I have a lot of confidence in Justin’s teaching. I believe him when he says that learning to transcribe is highly worthwhile. I want to learn this skill, and I feel like I am putting in the time and effort, but getting no results.

Last night I spent a full hour trying to work out 6 notes from House of the Rising Sun and I still got it wrong. The whole experience left me feeling frustrated and bummed out, and it’s been like that every week for 7 or so weeks. I am still enjoying all the other aspects of guitar practice but transcribing is a pit of despair.

I understand the theory of feeling my way around the chord notes and the notes in the key, but the problem is, I can’t easily tell when I’ve got the right note. Justin’s video lessons seem to rest on the assumption that when you do hit the right note, you’ll notice and go “ah, yes, that’s it” and then you can move on. But I seem to lack this mystical power to instantly recognise a correct note.

Sometimes I hear some kind of resonance and I think I’ve got it, but it turns out to be resonating with some other note in the chord, not the melody note. Or it’s resonating with what some other instrument in the band is doing. I don’t know how to tell the difference between that kind of thing, and a true unison with the melody.

So when I get to the end of a phrase, and I have some kind of solution that sounds OK to me, the next problem is I have no way to check my answers to see whether I’m right or not. The lessons don’t address this at all, again because it’s assumed that when you get the right note, you’ll just know. Sometimes I go hunting for sheet music online, but those are often arranged differently to the recording I’m trying to transcribe from.

If the fact is, it’s just something that will take a really long time to get better at, and I have to continue to suck for a few more months before I start to see improvement, I’m prepared to stick with it. Like learning the F chord. But I’m starting to think I might not have sharp enough ears that I should even be attempting this transcribing stuff. Is that a thing? I tried the interval ear training and it was a dumpster fire. Maybe I need something even more basic than that to start with?

Transcribing is one of the hardest things to learn and it’s really hard to explain to someone. I’ve been trying to master it for over 40 years. Some songs I’ll hear on the radio on the drive home and I can pick up my guitar and play a reasonable rendition when I get home. Other songs totally elude me and no mater how hard I try I have to get tabs for it to learn how to play it.

When you say you got HOTRS wrong did you have the right key but wrong notes. Or did you have the wrong key?
Some times you can have the right melody but wrong key so if you change key it will be correct.

How long have you been playing?

On HOTRS, I already knew the key and the chords. Justin gave the first four notes. The first week I tried to work on the next four notes (“in New Orleans”), I was correct on “Orleans” but fumbled around a bit with “in New”. Interestingly I had the relative movement right between those two (down 2 semitones) but couldn’t figure out where to place them. I ended up settling on D - C - A - A, but the answer was apparently E - D - A - A.

Yesterday I got to work on the next six notes (“they call the Rising Sun”). I thought I had a solution, and I got a couple of the note names right (A on “call” and E on “Sun”), but an octave too low. I didn’t notice that the singer had shifted way up on that phrase and I just kept working in the same range as the first phrase. I asked my wife for a second opinion, she said my selection sounded too low overall, and she was right.

As for how long I’ve been playing, been taking guitar seriously since March 2022 with a few ditched attempts in the years before, plus a brief stint on piano (grade 3) when I was a teenager.

Hey Brendan,

Transcribing is super, super hard. My personal view is that Justin is so good at it he doesn’t realise how hard it is. Some of the transcribing lessons in grade 3 are out of difficulty order, IMHO. Actually I think some of the transcribing lessons are so hard they don’t even belong in grade 3 at all, they require a much more developed ear than is reasonable at that stage.

Grade 15, power chords, is an OK starting point.

The Grade 16 ones that you’re doing, IMHO, are the absolute hardest. I had no idea what I was doing, started with Let It Be, and ended up transcribing absolutely the wrong thing, I think I was transcribing the piano. I gave up on grade 16. What you’re meant to do their is transcribe the vocal melody to guitar which for me is super hard so I gave up on this. I think it requires a well developed ear to match a sung note to a guitar note. Maybe some time this year I’ll go back and try again.

The riffs are MUCH, much easier.

Grade 17, easy riffs, is a lot easier than 16, and even easier than 15. It’s one note at a time riffs. It’s the easiest.

Grade 18, open chords, a bit harder than power chords. Hard to tell the difference in the mix of the recorded songs at times, but still WAY easier than grade 16.

Grade 20 riffs would be second easiest. I haven’t done grade 19 or 21 transcribing yet.

One tip I would give that took me a while to figure out is working out pitch vs tone. I would have a hard time figuring out a palm muted or a bass riff when I was picking the strings open. Add some palm muting and then it sounded closer to the original. I think this is also why the grade 16 melodies are so hard, it’s a different tone (voice) even if the same pitch (notes).

On figuring out if you’re right. I just use ultimate guitar. I have a pro subscription which gives their official tabs for most songs (which are often right, not always).

It does get easier. Since starting to transcribe I’ve figured out some other songs I’ve been listening to, just power chords or riffs though. That grade 16 melody transcription though… ugh, still feels like a nightmare when I think about it.

3 Likes

@direvus Maybe try this. JK seems to be on to something here.
Some people have no trouble with melodies and some find riffs easier. Maybe skip thus lesson for now and come back to it latter.

Try not to be to hard on yourself transcribing is hard and you haven’t been play very long.

1 Like

Thanks JK, this is very encouraging to read. I will not stress too much about progress on transcribing in the current module and look forward to getting my teeth into it on module 17.

I think you’ve hit the nail on the head, about Justin being a natural at this. He’s been so good at empathising with what it’s like to struggle on the physical guitar skills. So with transcribing, this enormous gulf between what he seems to be expecting, and what I can actually do, has caught me off guard.

I think he said something about “I still remember working this song out from the record when I was 13” in one of the videos, so … yeah :laughing:

2 Likes

Thanks Rick, I’m sure that you are right, and Justin certainly said that it was hard in the first lesson. I guess I was prepared for a different kind of ‘hard’ than what I got.

Hello, fellow transcriber :slight_smile:

Your post reminded me of my attempt at transcribing a Chet Baker trumpet solo: (COVER) Chet Baker-Russ Freeman: Summer Sketch

Sure, it’s difficult at the beginning, that one took me about a total of 15-16 hours. Not in one go, though. The fact that the beginning and the ending serve as a bookend helped a lot.

I’d say if you’re starting to get frustrated, just leave it for a couple of days and come back to it later. Maybe that period of “ear cleansing” will be beneficial, and you can continue with fresh ears.

A few things/notions I found helpful (though their usefulness depends on the particular piece):

  • The bassline can help you, they often sort of “prefigure” chord progressions or bits of melody.
  • If a note seems to sound good together with a chord but it doesn’t feel 100% right, try to identify which chord it may be (root - 3rd - 5th) and play around with those options.
  • At times, I found the notes almost right away, then I realized I was an octave lower (still sounded good to me). That was an easy fix.
  • Try not to forget about the major scale and the minor pentatonic scale patterns/intervals. They can be useful hints. Most of these melodies are in a certain key.
  • Also, at times I thought I figured out things all right, but there was still some doubt in the back of my mind. It turned out that the “real” note was 1 semitone lower/higher than what I found.
  • On the guitar, try not to expect very big jumps between strings or positions or extreme finger stretches. Try to think of “economical” solutions.

Over last year, I gradually got the hang of transcribing, although I started to dabble into it before Justin published his related lessons, so my learning path and song choices are somewhat different than his suggestions. As far as vocal lines go, I managed to crack Eleanor Rigby. Other than that, I tend to focus on horn/guitar lines.

So don’t get frustrated, eventually you’ll get better at it. For the time being, I’d suggest you to try some simpler (not much more than 4-5 notes), more repetitive riffs, e.g. Sunshine of Your Love, Black Night, “it” (it’s the last song on The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, it was one of the first riffs I managed to transcribe on my own), or something else that you like.

1 Like

As others have already said, transcribing is difficult. I suck at it, BUT I’m so much better at now at 70 yrs with some tools than I was at 15 yrs with record player and a 33 LP or 45. The frustration I had with transcribing when I was a teen was a factor in me quitting by the time I was 20. I saw others who were able to do it and I couldn’t. I do think that there is a talent factor in this, but it also seems to be be a skill that can be developed.
I now have more time, patience and skills acquired from JG. I listen to songs in more detail: the structure of the song, the rhythms, the chords, etc. I don’t sing very well so I spend some of my time learning instrumentals. I’ve done better transcribing some of these than ones with vocals.
I’m still not very good at it and I still get frustrated, but the time spent working at it has had a positive impact on my ability to learn and play songs, regardless of how I learn them.

2 Likes

The best advice I got was from a keyboard teacher who suggested singing small fragments of the melodies (vocals or riffs), and then finding the notes on the instrument - one note at a time.

You don’t need to sing well, but you do need to be able to match pitches between your voice and the instrument.

If you can’t do that, there are singing apps that give you feedback on how accurate your intonation is. Or you can sing into a chromatic tuner app.

I find singing along while practicing major and pentatonic scales helps as well.

Some notes are obvious, others less so. Often, the next day, listening with fresh ears, these notes will be more obvious.

For me, it’s quite mentally taxing - 15 or 20 minutes in a session is about all I can do.

4 Likes

That’s exactly how I have been trying to do it.

Funnily enough, using my own voice is what caused me to go an octave too low on that phrase. Because the pitch he was actually singing is not in my range, I didn’t even try/consider going there.

Yeah I can’t do that. I need the tuner in front of me or else I’m completely lost. Can’t even tell whether I’m on or off the pitch.

1 Like

Tbushell gave some great advice. If you can’t hum the note then it’s going to be difficult. Humming semitones is difficult. That’s probably why most folk songs from all over the world often the use the pentatonic scale.

Watch this clip. He steers them into the major pentatonic. He hums the root note. Then up to the 2 then the 3. So its a major scale. Now he jumps down to the the 6, NOT the 7. As he jumps up the scale note the audience jumps from the 3rd to the 5th. Totally skipping the 4th. (Perhaps singing 1 down a semitone to the 7 doesn’t come naturally.) Somehow the audience innately wants to hum a pentatonic melody…

Try figuring out some simple melodies directly on your guitar. No need to write the notes down.
That makes things easier. Use melodies that you know very well. Nursery rhymes, children’s songs, whatever.
Try these,y ou probably know them well.
When the saints go marching in
Frere Jacques (start on the 5th string)
Do Re Mi (from "The sound of music. It is a full octave of the major scale.
Happy Birthday (it’s not that easy)

Like most normal people you probably keep your guitar next to you when your watching TV. So when you hear a simple melodic advertising jingle, try and replicate it on your guitar.

Hi Matt, yes I have done the nursery rhyme exercise in the past, and that I actually can do. I’m kind of slow at it, but I do make progress. I think it took me about 30 minutes to get Twinkle the first time. Happy Birthday I’ve had a couple of attempts, worked out most of it, but have not cracked the final line yet.

I should probably spend my hour next week just doing that kind of thing instead of the module.

That might be the fundamental skill you need to develop first.

I think Matt’s suggestion wrt pentatonic scales is a good one. Have you learned the movable pattern yet?

You could find a scale that starts in the comfortable part of your singing range. For the average man, I’d think that would be Am (6th string, 5th fret) or Cm (8th fret).

Then you could play part of the scale - one or two notes at a time - into your chromatic tuner.

Try to hear those notes in your head (Justin’s “musical imagination”).

Next, sing the same one or two notes into the tuner, and see how they match up.

I would do it the same way Justin suggests learnings scales on the guitar - slowly, perfectly, one string at a time.

Stay solidly in your comfortable chest voice - don’t strain for high or low notes.

I would expect 5 or 10 minutes of this a day would show noticeable improvement within a week.

I’ve found similar exercises have really helped me…though I found it easier to do with the major scale at first…probably because I got that “Doe, a deer” song permanently etched into my brain as a child. :slight_smile:

I think you’ve nailed the problem. You’re moving ahead before your ready. In turn your getting frustrated. Transcribing takes a long time and the longer you stay learning the easier things the easier the harder things will get.

I’ll admit I gave up on transcribing quite quickly.

I can tell when a note is wrong or a guitar is out of tune, I can generally identify a note on the fretboard within about 2-4 guesses, but ask me to identify a run of notes, and you might as well ask me what next weeks lottery numbers are going to be :confused:

In short, don’t get too hung up on whether you can transcribe something.
I do still occasionally attempt to transcribe something, but only if I have a computer with Transcribe! installed on it, to guide me in the right direction.

I think singing to transcribe is not important at this stage. If it works for you, great. Justin doesn’t say it’s a pre-req in grade 3 transcribing though.

For some people, singing on pitch reliably is harder than much transcribing. I think it also doesn’t relate to transcribing chords, just single note runs.

No doubt the ability to do that helps a lot though.

1 Like

I have been trying this on occasion, it’s not part of my regular practice but I do bust out the microphone and tuner and give this a try from time to time.

What I’ve found is that my voice is usually off by a lot, sometimes a semitone or more on the first stab. Without the tuner, I can’t tell whether I’m on or off, and certainly not whether I’m sharp or flat. With the tuner, I can get to the note, then I usually repeat it a few times to try to encode that linkage, and then move on to another note. So far it hasn’t seemed to ‘stick’ though. If I move on to another note and then come back to the first note, I’m still off.

Comfortable chest range for me is like E2 - G3. I can dig down as far as a C1 but that’s really growls and grunts rather than useful notes. So that pretty much limits me to one octave of an E, F, F# or G scale.

Noticeable improvement is my favourite kind of improvement! I’ll give it a go for a week and see how it turns out.

Not sure if this is cheating or not :joy: but I have currently been learning to transcribe a song using Guitar Pro 8 as shown by Justin in this lesson. I added the song as an audio file and been methodically figuring it out, as he demonstrates. Was waaayyyyy easier! :sweat_smile: You can input the note/chord you think it is, then loop that section with the track and listen to see if it sounds right. Feels a bit like cheating :shushing_face::sweat_smile: however I have learned a lot by using it so maybe that will also help me when not having the software on hand? I’ll admit I’ve not solely relied on this as it was at times easier to just use my guitar to figure out some sections but I recommend giving it a whirl if interested. They have a free trial but don’t forget Justin’s code if you buy! :money_with_wings: :wink: :

1 Like

A semitone isn’t much. I’m often off by more than that at first.

And I wouldn’t worry too much about being sharp or flat at this point. It’s more about improving your ear rather than learning to sing (though it will help with that too).

Are you trying to hear the note in your head before you sing it? That helped me a lot.

Also, can you play a note, and then match it with your voice…albeit sharp or flat?