Outside of practicing your butt off, aspiring jazz musicians are told two things will also help their improvising; listening to great jazz players and transcribing their solos.  I do not disagree with this.  After all, jazz is a language and to understand it we must not only study the grammar of how to spell and write, but in order to speak it we need to listen to hear how it sounds.  However, here is the point where I differ slightly from convention.

Transcribing solos is important.  It’s great for working your aural precision.  I’ve done five books of transcribed solos and in doing so my ability to hear phrases and put them to paper got continually better.  However, taking a phrase or tune and learning it in all twelve keys by ear helps just as much and I feel is perhaps even a more beneficial and efficient way of working ear training.  When we work on our ears by putting things in all keys we are dealing with our own pitch tendencies not spending time trying to figure out someone else’s.  Plus, we are not slowed down by the mechanics of the sound system and writing down our results.

Where I find the real benefit with working on transcribed solos is playing them.

Often, I found that after working so hard on transcribing a particular solo that when I was done I wanted to move on to the next thing, not actually spend time playing the solo.  To be perfectly honest I think that the transcriptions that I have benefited the most from have been those transcribed by others.  They were fresh and new to me so I played them over and over and played them along with the recording to match the style and nuance, basically completely immersing myself in the feel and language of the solo.  I wasn’t getting caught up in the minutia of whether this or that note was a B natural or out-of-tune C.  I was just stepping into the shoes of that player, walking a mile with them and seeing how it felt.

So, my bottom line for learning improvisation through transcribing is if you transcribe the solo, be sure to spend lots of time playing that solo to internalize the pacing, gesture, feel and every other nuance that goes into music; the stuff that is not put down on paper.

Jazz Improvisation-related links


Jazz/Classical Practicing

Improvisation Practice idea

Recycling in Improvisation

Juggling Versatility


The Phone Book Method