In the last lesson I mentioned “target notes” and “the skeleton of the line”. We have all made the mistake of attempting to work out the first few bars of a recording, getting stuck right there and giving up. What is the result? We know nothing – no progress has been made. Possibly worse, we have regressed because we fear we might fail when starting on another piece; this blocks all sorts of channels.
My advice is if you can’t work out a note after two to five attempts, move on to another note. You will probably find that other notes come easier. Moreover, you may work out the original missing note in another phrase and experience the “that’s it!” effect. Once you have worked out several notes – it does not necessarily matter in which order – you will be able to insert the missing notes with more ease.
Before getting into further detail, which will be discussed in the next lesson, I am going to tell you how I transcribe.
First, I listen to the entire track, usually without bass in hand. I listen for simplicity versus complexity. This gives me a general idea about what I am facing. It also provides me with an estimate of how much time I might require. (Usually it takes twice as long as you think!)
What do I listen for?
1. The form. This includes the intro, verse, chorus, interlude, repeats, outro. On the first pass, I usually take note of (remember) layering of parts such as two bars drums, two bars bass and guitar, the first verse is four lines long and uses the same bass riff, the chorus is also four lines long but the drums play a different rhythm … and so on.
2. Key changes. Does it sound like it is all based around the same group of notes or is there a definite change? If so, where does it occur?
3. “Inside” notes (within the key) or “outside” notes (such as chromatics).
4. Rhythmic structure. How does it develop? Does the bass become more or less intense in certain sections?
Once I have listened to the track between one and three times, I will pick up the bass and start to work out the notes. If I don’t get a riff or line within two or three attempts, I will go for target notes. They are usually the chord roots and other notes relevant to the core groove. Once that is done, I will have the skeletal structure of the song. One great advantage of knowing the skeletal structure is that you can play along with a track (or even with a live band) playing what is essentially your own version, i.e you make up the bits in between.
The next step (this could be a few days later) is to find the missing elements. For this I remind myself to use the knowledge gained from my first listen. If it sounds simple, it is simple. If it sounds complex, it is probably not hard to play; most bass lines are easier to play than meets the ear.
A final piece of advice to us all is to make sure we vocalize what we are attempting to work out.