Transcribing Easy Riffs

It's time to stop learning riffs from tabs and tutorials! Developing your ears and becoming an autonomous guitar player is easier than you think!

View the full lesson at Transcribing Easy Riffs | JustinGuitar

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I can often get close figuring out a riff tab, but finding the first note escapes me. Please provide insight on how to find the first note without using your hints.

Hi Johni,

Unless you have perfect pitch, I’d say it’s trial and error. Try to play along with the original, so you can hear if your guess is higher or lower than the note played on the recording.


If you can loop that first note just play the chromatic scale, does not matter where you start just play all 12 notes or as many as needed. You should be able to find the matching pitch, then play that note over the neck to find the right octave. It might take some time, it does for me as I suck at transcribing and getting too old to bother ! But I am sure the more you do it the better you will become.



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Had a go at transcribing the Redemption Song riff tonight in some spare time. Got it right first try! Did take a while though. Feels good to get a transcription win. :smiley:


A great song to try is Midnight Moses by the Sensational Alex Harvey Band, or more recently by The Dead Daisies. Quite a few riffs in there and not easy to piece together but if you take each riff in isolation, not too hard to transcribe, you will have many riffs at your fingertips and have lots of fun on the way.

Not sure if it’s been mentioned elsewhere, but I find it useful to try humming the first note. Then (while still humming) start hitting the open strings until you find the one that is closest below the note you’re humming. After that, you can play the frets on that string to match the note. Just make sure your guitar is in tune!

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Finally got around to this lesson after having transcribed a few riffs already. I already know #1 and #3 so I’ll try to do the other ones this weekend.

Any advice on software to use here? I have the songs in spotify, ideally I would somehow have the ability to go from there to variable playback speed & playback from a specified spot

Also for song three, it’s sounds 20 cents sharper than the hinted starting note - does anyone else here this?

I’ve been recording the song into audacity from Spotify. Just using the computers speakers and microphone. Not super high fidelity but enough for transcription. Then once it’s in audacity you can loop the playback, slow it down etc.

I asked a question on another thread about this a while ago, look here: What software do you use for transcription?.

I settled on Transcribe! and downloading tracks from youtube.

Yes, me too. As soon as the higher pitched riff comes in, low F actually sounds better to me than E as starting note

Got them all without hints :laughing: Though I knew Satisfaction and Another One… already.

Pretty Woman was indeed a bit tricky, I got a note 1 semitone wrong for the first time, but noticed my mistake. However, Black Night was surprisingly easy, probably the quickest I managed to decipher a riff. :relieved:

Got them all now. This definitely gets easier with practice, I got Black Knight and Pretty Woman with no hints in one session :grinning:.

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I’ve just started, with Satisfaction.

Somewhat to my surprise, I had no problem finding the intervals, but it took a few tries to find the right starting note.

Once I had the right notes, it still didn’t groove for me, so I added some additional challenge to figure out the timing.

That was tricky - 3 syncopations in 2 bars of music! But I was eventually able to write in the count as well.

This is something I’ve always had trouble with. It’s like the part of my brain that hears rhythm really doesn’t want to talk to the part that counts.

Any suggestions on how to get better at this?

Good job on Satisfaction. I got the intervals and rhythm, but had the starting note wrong - it was after that I learned to use Transcribe! and obsess a bit on that first note that I ended up getting the others. Doing more transcribing makes it easier.

When you say get better at this - do you mean at transcribing in general, at rhythm, or at writing rhythm in notation?

Specifically, to be able to write out the count under a tab.

For example, Satisfaction (spoiler alert!), I came up with:

| 1 + 2 + 3 + 4 + | 1 + 2 + 3 + 4 + |

with the bolded characters representing where the notes land.

But I struggled with the second bar…took me ages to realize that the 1st note was on the “and of 2”. It was like I couldn’t feel the 1 and 2 at all.

I think writing the rhythm / notation is pretty tricky. Especially for off-beat riffs.

I’ve found using guitar pro helps a lot, because you can play back what you’ve tabbed to check the rhythm. A bit fiddly and a bit of a learning curve though.

Yeah, it certainly is for me - it feels like trying to do long division with Roman numerals. And conventional music notation does a particularly bad job of showing syncopations and rhythmic patterns.

The approach that has worked best for me is to have things laid out on 1/8 note grid, divided up into bars. Then I can map the notes to downstrums, upstrums, and air strums, and do perfect slow practice. Some kind of slow down software is super helpful for this process .

I used an early version of Guitar Pro many years ago, and also found it helpful…it was good feedback for if you had got things right or not.

But I can’t help thinking there must be a better way. Or…there’s some basic skill with rhythm that most musicians are either born with or pick up instinctively…that some of us just don’t have.