top of page

How to transcribe a jazz solo!

How to transcribe a jazz solo

Okay, so the first thing I am going to say is on how to transcribe a jazz solo is

Don’t transcribe a jazz solo

Especially if you have never done one before!

The first thing I suggest to you is to simply try and play on your instrument (don’t write anything down yet) a song you know really well.

Even a simple nursery rhyme will be great or happy birthday.

Is that easy? Give it a go.

Then -

Try it in a different key.

Why, because now you are starting to really develop ear/finger coordination!

Playing what you hear.

Try the easiest tune you know in ALL keys!


Next, try a simple or tricky jazz standard melody.

Something simple could be ‘When the saints’ for a more tricky tune I would suggest a Charlie Parker bebop tune but don’t try Donna Lee just yet. Maybe something like Little suede shoes or Now’s the time.

As with the simple nursery rhyme, don’t write anything down yet.

Again, if you want to, you could try and play them in different keys!

Here is the most important factor!


- Try to have them completely internalised. That means you just know it really well. You have listened to the piece so many times, it is very easy!

Many people when they first try to transcribe a solo go for a very tricky virtuosic solo and write it down as they go. I think by doing that, you are missing out on ALL of the most important learning opportunities that come from transcribing.

If you are creating a jazz transcription book to sell or something for students, then by all means, do that, use a slow downer type software and write the solo down as you go.

But if you truly want to develop the all important ear finger coordination and everything else that goes with transcribing solos, do it all by ear and don’t write down anything!

The main reason many people don't do this is because it is hard (most want easy) and because it is very time consuming and can be really frustrating!

I can still play solos I learnt as a child from memory. Not bebop solos but tunes and easy solos played by the great British trumpet player Kenny Baker from a recording called '22 trumpet greats'.

Here is the really importance of transcribing -

As well as learning the notes, you are also learning

style, articulation, scoops, bends, phrasing, vibrato, attack….

This is just as important as leaning the notes in my opinion. By choosing a player that you want to emulate or even sound like (don’t worry, you never will) it is an absolute must that you transcribe in the following manner (I believe, it’s up to you if you don’t want to though).

  1. You MUST be able to fluently sing or hum the passage that you want to transcribe to get the most learning opportunities. So if you want to transcribe a 3 chorus Blue Mitchell solo, guess what, you better be able to sing a long with it perfectly. Of course you can learn it in small chunks as you go, maybe a couple of bars at a time but for me, the whole process works better when you REALLY know it and have internalised it.

  2. Choose the section of solo you want to transcribe. If you are doing a whole 32 bar chorus, I suggest starting with just 4 bars. Then sing a long with the soloist!

  3. Next, try to work it out on your instrument, paying particular attention to everything mentioned before style, articulation, scoops, bends, phrasing, vibrato, attack…. You may need to use some type of slow downer type software if the solo is particularly busy or fast. Again, don’t write anything down!

  4. Work at this section of the solo until you can play it perfectly from memory. Don’t move on until it is perfect! Only the.most tenacious students will prevail!

  5. Next, move onto the next 4 bars! If you plan to internalise 4 bars everyday, pretty much, within a week you can have a whole chorus done! Just by doing this (just, ha ha), you can develop much quicker as a jazz improvisor!

  6. Then, if you desire, once you can play it perfectly, then write it down. Find out the changes, I have personally always struggled working out changes to a tune so I get them from a lead sheet or real book! Write down the chords, then try and write down the solo. Here, you may struggle with the rhythmic aspect of the solo!

  7. Once written down, you can really analyse the vocabulary used within the solo.

  8. What can you take from that chorus and use to develop your vocabulary even further. The soloist may have used some type of phrase over a maj7 chord or a II V I, can you take that phrase and apply it in a different tune in a different key. It might not even be a whole phrase, it could simply be a small piece of vocabulary that you want to try and get into your own playing. Only by applying that vocabulary in a practiced meaningful way can we ever hope to hear and play it in our own improvised solos.

All of this first in with what the great trumpet player and educator Clark Terry said -

Imitate - Assimilate - Innovate

Imitate - Copy - hum or sing

Assimilate - Play it, practice it, get it into our own playing, practice in different keys

Innovate - Can we take that vocabulary and somehow change it to make it our own?

That is pretty much it. You will learn lots just from doing it!

Be patient with yourself, especially if you are new to transcribing.

If you pick a player like Chet Baker, once you have transcribed a couple of solos, you will find it easier and easier. That goes for any player by the way!

Here is a few ideas I suggest you try in order of ease!

Twinkle twinkle little star

Happy birthday

When the saints

Charlie Parker's 'Now's the time'

Louis Armstrong - 'Cornet chop suey' - Melody and solo

Chet Baker - 'But not for me'

Roy Hargrove - 'Everybody wants to be a cat'

Bix Beiderbecke - 'Singin' the blues'

These are of course only suggestions, just do what you want, my only fear is that you start with something far too tricky and it just puts you off forever!

I hope you find this post helpful guys.

Watch my free training for learning jazz vocabulary here - Free training

Work a little closer with me - Jazz lessons Patreon


417 views1 comment

Recent Posts

See All

1 Comment

Sep 25, 2023

Great advice Darren. i‘ve always struggled with transcription and I know it holds the key to my improvement. As you say it’s not easy and it’s frustrating. I’m going to try this with renewed vigour having read your post.

bottom of page